One good thing about covering the UFC is that it instills a bone-deep knowledge that most any pro athlete could -- quite easily -- make a dead body out of me. The worst NBA player is still a sleek preying mantis. The worst NFL lineman is still a World's Strongest Man champion. A decade-plus of watching men and women fight for money makes you notice just how many athletes are of the Blast Bulkhead and Big McLargeHuge variety, how easily they could stomp a fool. Yet many sports fans love to question and mock the "toughness" of athletes, especially when the athlete in question is a black man.
LeBron James, perhaps America's best and most famous athlete, is a soft baby, because he got a cramp. Floyd Mayweather Jr., perhaps the best combat sport athlete of his generation, is a coward for picking his fights wisely. Both tropes tap into entrenched notions of black labor in America -- specifically, that their labor should come without question, even if it costs them heavily. The public's relationship with black athletes is easily poisoned, and that poison works regardless of whether anyone makes note of it. It's happening to another great black athlete right now.
Jon Jones is not supposed to post swaggerful, beady-eyed Instagram videos -- he's a UFC champion and Nike-sponsored athlete, after all -- but he did it anyway. The video, which is indisputably awesome, clocks in at a hard 15 seconds of pure, personal manifesto, with Jones high on either himself or … something. Either way, it's a sneak peek into the psyche of an athlete whose primacy can't even be questioned. Jones is one of the best fighters ever to walk the Earth, full-stop, and exactly no one can tell him otherwise. He's just letting us know what's up, and somehow, this is a problem. Everything about Jon Jones is a problem.
Understanding why starts with his fans. It's no grand observation to note that fans of the UFC are mostly white, young and male, but they share much more than that in common. For starters, they also hate Jon Jones, who happens to be a supremely and justifiably confident black man, in a sport and country that are unaccustomed to that archetype. The source of their hatred case has less to do with Jones than it does his "boss," UFC president Dana White.
White pretends to be Jones' superior and isn't fond of him. White poisoned public sentiment against the company's most valuable fighter back in 2013, when he characterized Jones' refusal to take a short-notice fight against a scrub as "selfish" and "disgusting." White even went for the gaslight special, claiming that Jones' trainer and confidante Greg Jackson is both mentally ill and a "f---ing sport killer." In record time, White (regardless of intent) winked and nudged at every anti-black trope there is. Jones' refusal to surrender his labor on White's terms registered as a violation of Jones' role in society, indicating a profound moral failure.
At the time, it was viewed as a poorly handled situation born of egos and money -- SPORPS 101 -- and to some extent, that's what it was. That doesn't mean the UFC pissed on cultural third rails for no reason, however. This is a learned behavior.
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In 2002, the UFC's survival was very much an open question. Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the company for all of $2 million in 2001, but they lost money on every show they ran until UFC 40, which was headlined by light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. He ransacked the star power of faded legend Ken Shamrock and instantly became the UFC's franchise. This almost immediately became a problem, as Ortiz built a self-serving mythology out of a fake gentleman's agreement with number-one contender Chuck Liddell. Basically, the UFC's franchise ducked the biggest fight the UFC could make, and there was nothing they could do about it. Ortiz was an exceptionally business-savvy fighter, and his value to the company outweighed his penchant for cherry picking opponents. The UFC took note.
Jon Jones easily could become the new Tito Ortiz, but the UFC won't allow that to happen, even if preventing it costs them in the short term. There is no disputing that the UFC is in desperate need of stars. No one on the current roster has proven that they can post consistent, 500,000 pay-per-view buy rates, never mind the one million buy rates that past champions used to attract. Given that about half of the UFC's revenue remains dependent on pay-per-view, the need for a star (or several) is obvious, but the UFC's labor system works against that need.
Jon Jones is not a UFC employee. He's an independent contractor by law, like all UFC fighters. Most fans (perhaps willfully) are unaware of how that impacts the process of creating a fight. Jones, like Ortiz, knows the bit of power he holds and is unafraid of wielding it. That's why he's again come to define the tension between how the UFC operates and its own sustainability, never mind its morality as a business.
The number-one contender to Jones' title is Alexander Gustafsson, who remains the only fighter to engage with the champion on something resembling even terms. They fought in September 2013 and went five hard rounds. Jones clearly won, but that was overshadowed by the fact that Gustafsson's challenge to Jones' primacy was still unprecedented. The UFC machine considered that the basis for an immediate rematch, because the idea of anyone giving Jones a "real fight" is the sort of easy hook that the UFC's overworked promotional side can seize on.
UFC shows have become a near-weekly event, a result of the UFC's lopsided deal with Fox Sports. Stocking Fox Sports 1 and 2 with live content is a financially lucrative proposition to the tune of $100 million-plus per year, but the resulting market saturation has made UFC events seem routine. The natural hook of a compelling rematch is hard for the UFC to resist, when it's otherwise preoccupied with loading up marginal cards on irrelevant fights that few fans will bother watching. The Fox deal has yet to result in a boost to pay-per-view buys, and if anything, what little data is public points to a decline. In that sense, rematching Jones and Gustafsson makes perfect sense.
No one bothered to tell that to Daniel Cormier, though. A former U.S. Olympic wrestling team captain, blessed with preternatural talent for MMA and a generally disconcerting demeanor, Cormier is likely the toughest fight out there for Jones, and Jones wants to fight him. There is a simmering dislike between the two, dating back to ancient behind-the-scenes slights, that's now boiled over into outright disdain -- forming precisely the sort of ready-made title fight that UFC has struggled to put together.
But that would mean giving in to their star, and Jones doesn't have the leverage to force that to happen. He's going to fight Gustafsson next. The system is designed to work this way. The system is broken. As is the society that allows the system to exist.
"I didn't want to go this early, and I would have preferred to go later in October or November," Jones said when the Gustafsson rematch was announced. This man fights alpha athletes for a living, and yet the idea that he should prepare for that on his own timetable is anathema to both the UFC and its fans. The same scenario plays out in private with many of the UFC's fighters, but the public nature of Jones' fight negotiations has left fertile soil for violence-crazed fans of all stripes to seize on the narrative, mimicking White's dimly paternalistic view of a grown man's prerogatives. Master knows what's best.
This is all queasy and complicated, but it really boils down to something simple. Black labor (and labor in general) is so taken for granted that it's seen as a violation of the social contract for a laborer to question the terms imposed on him. The least that a sports fan could do is recognize that this paternalism turns the masses against one another. It would be a start at least.