August 28, 2012

It's fight week, or at least it was supposed to be. And if the entire mixed martial arts world had not come crashing down to an earthly wasteland last Thursday somewhere along the expanse of rugged terrain between Zuffa headquarters in Las Vegas and Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque, this would be the space devoted to "A Viewers' Guide to UFC 151."

But there will be no UFC 151. The whole shebang -- the fights and the pay-per-view proceeds that go with them -- has vanished into the black hole of Dana White's bitterly brooding psyche. So at this point the best guidance we can offer habitual MMA viewers is to find something else to watch on Saturday night.

In lieu of its scheduled 8 p.m. ET telecast of UFC 151 prelims, FX instead will offer Zombieland, which is not a documentary about Jon Jones' remaining fanbase but rather a 2009 vehicle for the comedic talents of Woody Harrelson.

Prefer to stick with sports? Well, there's college football on ESPN. (I didn't check the TV listings for that, but once September begins it's always a safe guess for the 24/7 BCS network.)

Or, if nothing but a fight will do, you can tune to HBO at 10 ET for a middleweight bout between a couple of European boxers you might never have heard of, even though one is a world champion. Gennady Golovkin, the 23-0 WBA belt holder with 20 knockouts and a 2004 Olympic silver medal, and Grzegorz Proksa, he of the 28-1 record and 21 KOs, might even provide enough rock-'em-sock-'em entertainment to make you forget all about what isn't taking place that night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Vegas.

Nah, no one is going to forget. Or forgive, either, it appears. In the days since a torn knee ligament scuttled Dan Henderson's challenge for Jones' UFC light heavyweight championship, since "Bones" then declined to accept a replacement title bout against middleweight Chael Sonnen and since White then had a temper tantrum while calling off 151 in its entirety, the MMA community has for the most part turned against Jones with a relentless ferocity usually seen only inside the octagon.

In fact, there's been so much electricity in the air that it's feeling like a fight week. So let's go ahead and treat it like one.

0: Fans in whose good graces he remains, if you believe what you read in Internet comment pages. Actually, as time has passed since Thursday's high-voltage outrage, a slow trickle of support has come the champ's way -- not necessarily agreeing with his decision to decline the Sonnen fight, but at least understanding his perspective.

0: Rematches he should expect to be granted by Dana White if he should happen to lose his belt.

0: Percent chance that, even in the wake of not being a company guy above all else, and despite all of the Dana denouncements spat his way, he will be cut from the UFC roster.

0: Events he'd canceled prior to last week in the 11 years since he and the Fertitta brothers took over the UFC.

0: Percent of the blame he placed on himself, despite the fact that he and his people were the ones who put together a fight card that, other than the light heavyweight title defense, had nothing else even remotely marketable as a main event.

0: Dollars earned from what was supposed to be a lucrative pay-per-view showcase of the company's biggest young star defending his belt against an ageless legend of the sport.

What we should expect: Expect changes. We've already seen some come about organically, as the game has evolved in the 19 years since UFC 1. In the beginning, there was no such thing as training for an opponent. In those old-school one-night tournaments, you learned the identity of your next foe mere minutes before stepping into the cage with him. Game-planning? Ha!

From those rough-and-tumble Wild West beginnings, the sport has transformed to the point where an athlete -- it's not sufficient to simply call a guy at the top "fighter" anymore -- now turns down a bout because nine days' notice might jeopardize his Nike endorsement deal. Jones' decision was scornfully derided as selfish. The scorn is misplaced, I'd suggest, but the assessment correct. This is a sport whose very structure calls on everyone to look out for No. 1. Jon Jones did it. Dan Henderson did it. Chael Sonnen did it. Dana White did it.

If White wants to protect his company from a repeat of last week's fiasco, he's going to have to build safeguards into the structure of a fight card. Account for the possibility of last-minute opponent changes in fighter contracts. Maybe arrange for contingency bouts, with fighters contracted to be available on a standby basis, if needed. The sport is changing, at least for the athletes at the top of the food chain, and the fight promotion must change its ways, too.

Another change we should expect from White: a change of heart. Dana is known to hold a grudge, as everyone from Tito Ortiz and Tim Sylvia to my predecessor Josh Gross and current colleague Loretta Hunt knows. But he's a businessman at heart, and he no doubt recognizes that Jon Jones is a cash cow he can and must continue to milk. Even if he can't stand the sight of his light heavyweight champ, he surely revels in the vista of the sea of green a Jones fight brings in. So if, as oddsmakers are expecting to happen at a 13-1 clip, Jones successfully defends his championship next month in Toronto, expect White to be smiling as he wraps the belt around the champ's waist.

Why we should care: Whether losing a weekend in Vegas or merely a Saturday evening in front of the TV, a lot of fight fans feel cheated by the cancellation of UFC 151. Could it happen again? Sure it can, if Dana White and Co. neglect to fix what's broke. That's why I say the fans' scorn is misplaced. If the UFC maintains its current fight card structure, athletes will continue to be asked to either save or bury fight cards, placing the promotion's interests above their own. Wouldn't it be more sensible for the UFC to create safeguards to protect its own interests?

"UFC 151 will be remembered as the event Jon Jones and Greg Jackson murdered."

-- Dana White, as quoted in a UFC press release issued late Thursday afternoon. Yes, this was from an official company document, not some offhand remark blurted out at a fumingly unfiltered moment during the UFC president's media conference call earlier in the day. Jeez, we know Dana's management style is hard-headed, but to relentlessly assail one of your star performers seems like, as my grandmother used to say, cutting off your nose to spite your face.

"30 min to cement your legacy. Champ or Coward? I make a lot more than you do ... Show up in 8 days I'll give you my purse."

-- Chael Sonnen on Twitter, trying to goad Jones into a fight ... while knowing full well at that point that the bout was not going to happen and that, even if it did, his purse check wasn't going anywhere but into his own bank account.

"And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him."

-- Sun Tzu, from The Art of War, as quoted on Twitter by Jon Jones, his first public response to the controversy. A great piece of wisdom, to be sure, but I thought Jones was unwise to toss around ancient Chinese philosophy at a time when a humble, personal statement of his own might have better suited the occasion. Instead of issuing what seemed to me a smug statement, "Bones" should have said something like what his trainer/guru did:

"I didn't think [taking the fight] was the best thing to do on three days' notice -- we know that fight week doesn't count [as training time]. If Chael is the No. 1 contender, if he's earned that status, we'd be happy to fight him, and not Machida, in Toronto. It wasn't the opponent. It was the notice."

-- Greg Jackson, giving his side of the story to's Loretta Hunt (before learning that Lyoto Machida had turned down the Sept. 22 title fight and Jones' UFC 152 defense will be against middleweight Vitor Belfort).

"It's unbelievable to me that he wouldn't take that 'the show must go on' attitude. If there was any way I could have gone, and any way that I thought I could give myself a chance to compete, I would have done that."

-- Dan Henderson, quoted in the UFC press release.

It seems to me that "Hendo" was in no position to criticize. I'm not questioning his decision to pull out of the fight, but if he indeed was injured three weeks ago (as his Muay Thai coach, Daniel Wiorin, told Fighters Only magazine) but didn't inform the UFC until the middle of last week, he did the fight promotion a disservice. Had Henderson told White in a timely manner that he was working through a health issue, Dana might have been able to line up a contingency plan that would have saved 151.

"I just finish the call with my boss @lorenzofertitta and @danawhite. I want to thank both for put me in where a lot of guys are acting like divas. I think this is a big challenge for any fighter that is alive on the game. I thank God to provide me with this blessing to fight the youngest champion."

-- Vitor Belfort, commenting on Twitter about the miracle of getting a light heavyweight title bout after having not competed in the weight class in five years.

"Carrying the cross for my company's decision. If someone has to take the blame, I will accept full responsibility for the way UFC 151 was canceled. I want to sincerely apologize to all the other athletes/fans who's time and money was wasted. I feel terrible about the way that was handled."

-- Jon Jones in a series of tweets on Saturday. Note that the champ apologizes and takes responsibility for "the way UFC 151 was canceled," but does not second-guess his decision to decline the Sonnen bout. And perhaps his "carrying the cross" phrase is just an innocent figure of speech, but considering Jones' religious fervor and his upbringing as a preacher's son, it would seem to reveal a Messiah complex. By the way, if Jones and Belfort, both devout Christians, spend the next 25 days in prayerful supplication, does that pretty much cancel out any possibility of divine intervention in the UFC 152 main event?

It's easy for fans and media members to get in a huff about Jones declining a fight on nine days' notice, because most of us haven't declined or accepted a fight since we were in grade school. And that decision of ours revolved around some doofus from history class, not a trained fighter.

Condemnation of the champ also seems to have come easily for some undercard fighters, who may very well have taken fights on even shorter notice than Jones was confronted with. But none of them had the leverage "Bones" does -- when Dana White tells undercard to jump, they unquestioningly say "how high?" And none have had so much at stake ... unless I'm mistaken and there was a world champion moonlighting somewhere in the 151 prelims.

My point: The only people in MMA who truly can grasp what Jones went through in making last week's consequential judgment call are the UFC's six other champions and perhaps those who've held one of the belts (if their reign came recently enough to be part of today's big-money, big-stakes landscape). Now, those champions tend to be careful in choosing their battles, so most have wisely steered clear of this controversy. But a few have commented.

"You have a whole camp preparing to fight a specific athlete," Anderson Silva, the middleweight champion, pound-for-pound king and a friend of Jones', said on the Brazilian TV show Domingao do Faustao. "When the opponent changes, the preparation changes a bit. I thought he could have fought Chael, but it's his decision. He prepared to fight Dan Henderson. The whole team thought it was best not to fight."

Recently dethroned lightweight champ Frankie Edgar expressed much the same sentiment. "I'd like to say I would [take the fight]," he said on MMA Weekly Radio. "I don't know what my team would say, but ultimately I'm the one to make that decision. If I had a full camp to prepare, and this guy only had eight days, I think I would, but you don't know. I think it all depends on matchups and everything."

The man who took the 155-pound belt from Edgar, Benson Henderson, has been the fighter most faithfully in Jones' corner. "So please quit disparaging my boy @jonnybones," he wrote in one of a series of tweets sent out shortly after news broke of the 151 cancellation. "It's easy to say you'd put it all on the line, but he actually has & does."

Later, after the opponent for Jones' defense at UFC 152 was switched from Machida to Belfort, Henderson wrote, "I think Machida turning down fight that's couple months away should show you guys how much prep really matters."

Name recognition: In the immediate aftermath of last Thursday's cancellation announcement, @jonjones became the target for a lot of online fan abuse. The problem is, the Twitter feed of the light heavyweight champ is @jonnybones. Who is @jonjones, then? He's a video game art producer in Austin, Texas, who last Thursday tweeted, "haha! The UFC fighter Jon Jones backed out of a fight and now I'm getting flooded with horrible, cruel insults because people think I'm him."

As you might expect in this media feeding frenzy of a world we live in, the non-fighter Jon Jones (some would bitterly argue they're both non-fighters, but you know what I mean) has since done radio shows and been written about in media ranging from to, um,

A piece of the pie: I don't live within the delivery area of Mean Street Pizza in West Linn, Ore., so I don't know if owner Chael Sonnen was being serious with the new item he added to the menu last week: The Jon Jones Special Pizza. It's "loaded with chicken and full of cheese," says the flyer displayed on the pizzeria's Facebook page. Along with a mention of home delivery that takes a swipe at Jones' recent DUI conviction, the ad urges customers to "Hurry up! Get this deal now before our chicken runs out and we have to cancel."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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