Because this is the UFC, we don’t get to reflect on the accomplishments of Stipe Miocic. We won’t get to talk much about the heartwarming images of Francis Ngannou’s hometown celebrating his title win at five in the morning. UFC cards unfold like Hostess cakes on a conveyor belt, and the drama unfolds even faster. What should be a moment of considered celebration following UFC 260 turns into another circulation of inarticulate rumors.
Jon Jones versus Francis Ngannou: the greatest light heavyweight of all time versus the current heavyweight champion. It’s too soon to be talking about it, but why not? Are Ngannou’s list of challengers really that interesting anyway? But we’re here, and ahead of drama schedule because Dana White pulled the old ‘if you want to fight, money shouldn’t matter unless you’re scared’ canard. Jones, in a rare moment of us in total agreement with one another, then called out Dana on fighter pay. Which is totally fair.
Let’s ignore the absurdity of Dana speaking on behalf of his fighters, and break down the numbers. Per PPV, Jones brings in an additional $14M against the average card. His base pay for UFC 247 was the same as Mark Wahlberg’s cut when the UFC took out their $300M dividend last year. Granted, we know Jones doesn’t actually make the same as the star of ‘The Happening.’ But even at $5M per fight, that’s a lot less than the $199M paid to Dana and the Fertittas in 2007. What could Jones really be asking for that breaks the bank?
Both men have had this argument before. This time, there was just more theatrics. Even through a digital prism, you could hear the despair on Jones’ Twitter account. Jones sounded defeated. For Dana, it’s a no-lose situation. Make enough noise, and maybe Jones signs the contract just to prove him wrong. If Jones doesn’t sign the contract, the noise just keeps ratcheting up. If you think these are mere metaphors, it’s because you haven’t seen the one where Jones ‘should make less because the UFC has worked more to protect him as a drug cheat.’
Don’t stop there. Check the comments section of any story covering Jones’ current dispute. Jones is a ‘baby’, the UFC owes him ‘jack shit’, he’s ‘childish’, etc. There’s nothing ambiguous about public perception here: Dana’s gonna look like the good guy no matter what.
And who is Jon Jones if not the bad guy? This is a fighter who had everything, and then lost his title three times; not to any opponent, but because, when he couldn’t follow superficial rules (banned substances), he decided to break the meaningful ones (felony hit-and-run). His sinister exchange with Cormier, and homophobic harassing of a random Swedish teenager does nothing except elevate disdain for Jones. These moments don’t just reveal a man who’s made mistakes. They reveal a man who is maybe just kind of rotten.
From that perspective, you can understand the ire from fans. There’s an obvious contradiction, after all: Jon Jones’ very presence feels like an injustice, so how could justice ever be deserving for someone like him? But let’s be real. Justice feels like a goofy concept in a sport where you can propagate neo-Nazi rhetoric with your own clothing line; in a sport where state-sanctioned violence against gay Chechens doesn’t take away your UFC affiliate card. If you’re interested in justice, denying that Jones has a point because of his history feels like its own contradiction in moral consistency.
I’m not interested in defending Jones, here. Nor do I think weighing other, broader problems within the sport against Jones’ douchey, and criminal behavior should command ‘perspective.’ Each injustice can, and should be weighed on its own without making this a debate about which injustice has the better flex.
Beyond this philosophical dilemma, there’s the fight itself. Would it make a lot of money? You bet. Would it be competitive? If so, Jones’ recent performances haven’t made a convincing case. Except for finishing Alexander Gustafsson, he’s had tepid performances in questionable wins that haven’t even done the courtesy of aging well. Reyes, Santos, and Smith are a combined 2-5 since losing to Jones.
Would I pick Ngannou to win? Yes. Do I think it’s a foregone conclusion, not worth exploring? No. While not in his prime, he’s still just 33. That’s very close to the same age Georges St-Pierre was when he decided to return from a split decision win over Johny Hendricks to move up in weight, and beat Michael Bisping for the Middleweight title. Different fighters, different styles, etc. Yea, I get it. But I don’t think that changes a thing.
Jones is a consensus top-2 fighter of all time. To dare to be great — to do something that could solidify his legacy not just as an MMA great, but to accomplish the kind of greatness other sports don’t even have the opportunity to offer — will require the kind of economic justice that seems quaint relative to achievement. The money’s there. And there’s a lot. What is justice to the sport worth? According to Dana, that justice has a price tag. It’s just not attached to the kind of ‘merchandise’ he’s used to investing in.
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