Jeff Wagenheim>INSIDE MMA
With Gustafsson rematch set, Jon Jones can do what he does best
If Jon Jones performed inside the cage like he does outside it, the hair-triggered, hypercritical sector of the mixed martial arts fanbase wouldn't have a problem with him. There'd be no issues for the loudmouths among us to raise with the guy because he'd have been long ago cut by the UFC and gone on to a different line of work. Presumably not in public relations.
The "Jonny Bones" who fought like he promotes himself would be indecisive and clumsy. He'd emerge from his corner at the start of a bout and, before even engaging with his opponent, would trip over his own feet, one of which would end up in his mouth as he lay on the canvas in a contorted heap. Or maybe he wouldn't even make it to the octagon. He'd step out into the arena lights just long enough for a few fans to get a glimpse, then suddenly turn around and slink darkly backstage, reconsidering the whole thing. Punxsutawney Jon.
Fortunately for Jones -- and for the UFC and the sport in general -- the prodigious manchild who has worn the light heavyweight championship belt since March 2011 is in possession of athletic gifts that transcend his social awkwardness. That is what matters. That is the magic potion that has made him what he is today, and it's the mansion foundation on which his legacy continues to be built. So even though these past few months have been sprinkled with oddball public declarations by the champ, the only statement that means anything of value is what the UFC announced Thursday evening after the fighter and his management met with the promotion's brass: Jon Jones will next defend his belt in a Sept. 27 rematch with Alexander Gustafsson.
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That bout, which will headline UFC 178 in Toronto, is what we were expecting all along, ever since last September, when the tall Swede became the first challenger to truly challenge "Bones." So why the hullabaloo? Have we been the target audience for some ingenious dog-and-pony show by Jones Inc. and the UFC marketing team, working together to drum up intrigue in what was a fait accompli? That's possible, but it's more reasonable for us to conclude that there's a disconnect -- perhaps merely crossed signals, or maybe a deepening chasm -- between the fight promotion and its greatest and most marketable champion.
Call it a rift, if you'd like. Or if you're more MBA than NWO, you might just go with conflict of business interests. However you define it, Jones and the UFC appeared to have been at odds since late in the summer of 2012. At that time, the champ was training for what was to be his fourth title defense when, nine days before the fight, Dan Henderson had to drop out with an injury. The UFC tried to insert Chael Sonnen as a replacement opponent, but Jones declined the fight, citing the short preparation time. That was a perfectly reasonable decision, with a championship and all of its attendant financial rewards on the line.
Other fighters, some champs included, insisted that they would have taken the reconstituted bout. But Jones, as an independent contractor whose livelihood depends on personal success more than the promotion's well-being, had every right to look out for No. 1. And he probably was glad he did so after feeling the brunt of Dana White's reaction. The UFC president canceled the whole card, and in a rage he threw his champ under the bus, blaming him fully. Never mind that neither White nor his matchmakers had had the foresight to give ill-fated UFC 151 a co-main event that could carry the night in a pinch if called on to do so.
Jones and White have worked with each other since, of course, and they've even given lip service to having rekindled a cordial relationship. But the company poobah has continued to maintain distance by throwing the occasional jab. He's spoken of other fighters -- José Aldo for a while, more recently Renan Barão -- as the sport's pound-for-pound No. 1 when he knows full well that that mythical belt is fitted to no one but "Bones." And when the idea of a Gustafsson rematch first came up, White purposefully let it be known that Jones was the one who wanted his next fight to be against Glover Teixeira instead. It was a childish game of Duck, Duck, Goose, with the UFC bossman tapping Jon on the head and making a run for it.
Then, two weeks ago, the UFC ramped up the fight-ducking insinuation by going ahead and announcing Jones vs. Gustafsson II. Why was that a problem? Well, the promotion set the date based merely on having Gustafsson's signature on a bout agreement. Jones had not signed on. Clearly, the behemoth company was trying to generate some fight fan pressure on the champ. Truth be told, it's not exactly a massive undertaking, when in conflict with Jones, to manipulate the court of public opinion on your side. Jon has a demonstrated lack of mastery in getting his message out. Or at least leaving it out.
Consider how Jones responded. First, he told White that he wanted to fight not Gustafsson but Daniel Cormier, which is a legitimate fight but not what the UFC had in its plans. This demand might well have been the champ's way of giving the promotion a little of its own medicine. You're announcing my next fight without my agreement? OK, then I'm going to insist on fighting a different guy. Jones should have known that White would twist that demand to try to make him look bad. But that wasn't easy, as a fight with Cormier is probably a bigger challenge for Jon than a second go with Gustafsson.
Jones should have allowed fans to figure that out for themselves. But instead he took to Instagram with a 15-second video clip shot in a bad-angle closeup. "Asking for an undefeated Olympic wrestler, Strikeforce champion, makes me somehow a coward?" he said with a smirk on his face. "How about the fact that I beat Gustaffson already? Whether you guys like how close it was or not, it's my career. Not yours." That last part was punctuated by a smarmy laugh. It was not a good look for the champ, which he surely recognized, as the video disappeared from his account soon after he'd posted it. But nothing goes away in this Internet era. So Jones's sneering little defensiveness lives on, much like some of his passive-defensive social media outbursts -- deleted upon reflection as well -- will forever be a part of the Jon Jones story.
But all of that is a short chapter. If Jones had the gift of Sonnen or even Conor McGregor, perhaps his words would enrich him. But he does not have a way with words. Jon has no clear message, at least not one he will commit to for more than a fleeting hot-under-the-collar moment. In these snippets of revelation, Jones inflicts more harm upon himself than his detractors ever could. None of it amounts to much, though, because his foibles are obscured by an awe-inspiring talent unlike anything the UFC has seen. On Sept. 27, Jones will have another opportunity to get his message out in the best way he knows how.