Jon Jones’ words from a conference call to promote UFC 151 seem prophetic now.
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“We all fight to make money, quite frankly,” the UFC light heavyweight titleholder told reporters earlier this week. “I refuse to be a broke athlete when I retire, so I don’t apologize for being aware of pay-per-view sales and being business savvy. It’s 2012, and there’s a lot of broke guys out there right now who were famous at one point and all that stuff."
It was self-preseveration — at least from the standpoint of UFC president Dana White — that led to Thursday’s cancellation of UFC 151, the first since White and the Fertitta brothers took over the MMA sanctioning body more than a decade ago.
Jones was advised by his trainer, Greg Jackson, not to fight last-minute replacement Chael Sonnen, who was among the fighters who stepped in to volunteer to replace the injured Dan Henderson atop the main card for the Sept. 1 event at Mandalay Bay.
“When you think about an emerging sport, at the outset the athletes have very little leverage,” said Scott Rosner, a professor and academic director of the Wharton Sports Business Academy at the University of Pennsylvania. “As the sport grows, the ability to monetize yourself increases. Your pay goes up. As you become more broadly recognized, your ability to increase general sponsors increases. That’s what happened with ‘Bones’ Jones.”
Jones still gets his payday as Henderson recovers from a partially torn medial collateral ligament. Jones will have to wait just three weeks to defend his belt against Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 in Toronto on Sept. 22.
The rehabilitation of Jones’ reputation could be in for a longer wait.
“I never would have thought that we’d (be) attacked from the inside,” Sonnen told FOXSports.com. “We should never be cannibalized by one of our own. One of our own launched a missile attack at us. If this was national defense, what Jon Jones did would be considered treason.”
White added: “That has never happened in the history of the UFC, a guy who is a champion and a guy who is supposed to be one of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound, refuses to fight.”
Charlie Brenneman, who was set to take on Kyle Noke on the UFC 151 undercard, expressed similar sentiments. Brenneman is among 20 fighters who were on the undercard who will now have to go without a payday.
“I think it has affected his reputation 1 million times for the negative,” Brenneman told FOXSports.com. “You shouldn’t be turning down fights when you’re the champ. It’s also not good to have your boss say those kinds of things about you.”
Messages left for representatives of Jones and his management team were not immediately returned.
UFC 151 was to be the unveiling for Jones and his deal with Nike, a pact that had been constructed with the full backing of the UFC and was hailed as one of the landmark crossover moments for the sport. Instead, UFC 151 will be a reminder that the sport’s popularity has made it susceptible to some of the ills that have befallen the nation’s other major combat sport: boxing.
“It demonstrates that the sport is growing and that fighters are gaining some leverage in the negotiation with the promoter, which has traditionally been a one-sided affair,” said Justin Klein, a partner at Satterlee, Stephens, Burke & Burke, who represents some MMA fighters.
“Specifically, it demonstrates that Jones is making enough money, including with mainstream sponsorship, and is secure enough in his individual brand to push back against the promoter.”
Sonnen doesn’t see fighters killing off cards by opposing last-minute changes due to injury as a trend.
“Like any mistake in life, you don’t want this to happen twice,” Sonnen said. “This didn’t need to be an issue. It shouldn’t be a headache (for the UFC). They have better things to deal with than some bratty, entitled punk from New Mexico.”
One remedy could be inserting language into contracts that would force fighters to accept a replacement from a list of agreed-upon fighters.
"I think we are going to see them adjust contracts going forward,” Rosner said. “This is something that I expect will be addressed. You can’t make too many restrictions, because this is still a competitive marketplace.”
There also is an issue of available fighters. The UFC is scheduled to put on more than 30 live events this year, many of which have been ravaged by injuries.
“I don’t think there’s any way around it for UFC or MMA in general,” Brenneman said. “These are growing pains. There’s no way around it. Guys are going to get hurt.”
Until Thursday, none of those fighters who have pulled out of events due to injury created a cascading effect that has taken out an entire card.
“I don’t think this will hurt the psyche of the fans,” Rosner said. “The question is how do the athletes themselves look at this seminal moment and react to it. … (That’s) what remains to be seen.”