Did the UFC Manipulate Jones vs Evans to Divide Team Jackson?

Jon Jones and Rashad Evans in happier days.

It's official. New UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will face his former teammate Rashad Evans in his first title defense. 

The two had resisted the match-up initially since they both train under coach Greg Jackson -- a camp that frowns on intra-camp bouts. This is a sore spot with UFC President Dana White. 

White has long raged against fighters who refuse to fight teammates. Most notable have been his attempts to break up the American Kickboxing Academy and force top welterweights Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck to face off. 

How did Dana White break up MMA's tightest camp? Read the full article to find out.

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White has been outspoken in his criticism of Evans for not wanting to face teammates:

"And now it's in this (Jon Jones) situation where this guy is my friend and that guy is my friend. Dude you have way too many friends. You need to keep the friends thing down and stop training with people. Now he's talking maybe I'll go to heavyweight, maybe I'll go to middleweight. Well if he goes to middleweight, Nate Marquardt is one of the top middleweights in the world, one of his friends. Shane Carwin is one of the best heavyweights in the world, that's one of his friends. He's got too many friends."

White has also been cynical about Greg Jackson's motivations in all this, telling Ariel Helwani:

"Don't ever forget that this is a business...the more good guys Greg Jackson has in his camp, the more money they make...and if you create this atmosphere 'hey we're all family, we're all friends', then nobody's going anywhere"

Ben Fowlkes comments:

Making Evans his first challenger - not to mention getting the two to seal it with a handshake just moments after Jones became the champ - was a minor coup for UFC president Dana White. Regardless of whether the fight is competitive in the end, he's already gotten what he wanted. White has been battering away at this particular barrier for years, and now he's finally broken through it, pitting two of Greg Jackson's fighters against each other mere months after they'd both sworn it would never happen.

White gloated to Dave Meltzer after the fight was announced:

"He's 100 percent on board to fight Jon Jones," White said. "I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but Rashad, he's done with Greg Jackson. He's no longer a Greg Jackson fighter."

"Listen, being friends doesn't fly," White said. "Everyone's friends in this sport. They all hang out when we do press stuff and whatever else. These guys are always together. They eat lunch together. It's not personal. The easiest way to explain it is Jon Jones and Rashad Evans are friends, they're both good guys and they want to hang out together. But for fighters, there is a small window of opportunity and in that time you have to make a bunch of money and get as famous as you can. I've got friends, they've got friends, but at the end of the day, none of my friends are going to pay my bills. This is a sport. This is a business. You're job is to go out there and win and you have to get out there and do it."

This is a much bigger issue than fans realize. Fighters like Jones, Evans, Fitch and Koscheck join camps like Jackson MMA and AKA so that they can experience elite level training without paying the full cost of the camp. If multiple top fighters pool their resources to hire coaches, trainers, rent equipment and train together they can get much better training than if each individually bore the whole cost of the camp. 

Brock Lesnar can afford to pay all his coaches, trainers and sparring partners to build a camp around him. Most MMA fighters can not. 

The camaraderie and openness that fighters at camps like Jacksons or AKA experience makes a huge difference as well. If the fighters are confident that they won't someday be facing off against their training partners, then they can train without holding back, dramatically increasing their learning and the value of the camp.

For someone like Greg Jackson who has built his reputation and his business on running a very close camp with a tight esprit d' corps, this blow could be devastating. The Jones-Evans rift could turn Jackson MMA into just another camp where fighters circle each other warily and come and go with only minimal exchanges in knowledge. 

Jones initially towed the Jackson company line. Here he is just last October talking to MMA Junkie about Rashad Evans:

"To me, being able to call Rashad when we're 40 years old and say, 'Let's go fishing,' that's more important than a paycheck that we would get today. I train with the guy. We've had conversations about personal things."
...
"Rashad's a unique character to me," Jones said. "There's not many guys that I can relate to like Rashad, and preparing to do physical damage to him just doesn't add up to me.

"Fighting Rashad is the last thing I'd ever want to do."

Jones even elaborated further in an interview with MMA Scraps Radio (transcription via Cage Potato), saying he'd even fake an injury to avoid fighting Evans:

Ummm...I just think there's lots of ways around it. You know, you could fake injuries. You could do anything. I mean, there's just so many ways around it, you know? But before I joined the team that was the first conversation we had. It was just about friendship. Greg Jackson's team is known for their brotherhood...our brotherhood. We treat each other with so much respect and love and genuine care. We have all of these great fighters in our camp who try their best to fight exactly like Brandon Vera for me when I'm getting ready for that fight. I've got guys giving me coaching advice after practice -guys who are UFC vets. There's just no egos. These guys have opened my eyes on how to train like a pro athlete. It would be so wrong of me to use all that I've gained from them against them. It just won't happen.

But Jones changed his tune in a live interview on Versus (transcription via MMA Fighting):

"I respect [UFC president] Dana [White] a lot, and if that's what he absolutely wanted to happen, then I guess that's what would have to happen," he said. "Me and Rashad would not want to get fired over the situation."
...
"It would be majorly awkward for us," he said. "Rashad and I have a lot in common. We're both young, African-American men with families. We both like to sing and have fun. We're both elite MMA fighters. We have a lot in common and we both clicked really well. There's so many other great fighters in the world that we can compete against. And we're not animals, we're friends, we're people, we're human beings, so I'd hate to have to fight my own teammate. I would never want to.".

Rashad Evans took offense and the rest is history -- don't miss the scathing interview Evans gave our own Duane Finley. Here's a money quote as a tease:

"When Jon Jones came to the gym over a year ago Greg Jackson came to me and said, 'listen, what do you feel about having this kid on the team?' I told him straight up that I didn't like it. I told him that the kid was talented and that the sky was the limit with him but that was the type of guy I wanted to fight not train with. Greg came back saying, 'No, no, no this will be just like you and Keith where he will be just like a brother.' I still told him that I didn't want to do that. Then Greg said if that situation ever did arise between Jones and I that he would have to turn the fight down because that's how it works. He would have to turn down the fight with me so that way I wouldn't be put in a position where I looked like a punk. That's how it works in the Greg Jackson system. After a while Greg was so high on this kid coming in and I met Jon Jones and he was a very nice and very sweet kid, so eventually I said f**k it, let' s bring him in. After he got there and I trained with him and tried him out a little bit, something didn't feel right so I moved my camp up to Denver to train at Grudge for awhile. That is where I spent the majority of my time over the past two fights.

Now Jackson is trying to deal with the fall out. He personally said after the fight that he wouldn't be involved in the Jones-Evans match in any way shape or form. But his partner Mike Winkeljohn seems to be choosing a side, per MMA Junkie:

"I'm kind of leaning toward working with Jon, and Rashad had not opted to work with me personally in his last few fights," said Jackson partner Mike Winkeljohn. "I feel like there had been a small split between us. I love the guy to death, and if there's anybody that has the tools and uses them right and can challenge Jon Jones, it would be Rashad Evans. I just don't know if I can coach against Rashad. So I haven't figured that one out yet."

The tension is also dividing Greg Jackson's camp in Albuquerque, NM with their close training affiliate Grudge in Colorado. Team Jackson fighters like Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin actually train mostly in Colorado under Grudge coach Trevor Wittman. For his part, he's sticking by Rashad. Unfortunately for Wittman, Rashad has flown the coop entirely and headed off to Florida to train for the Jones fight.

Fighters Only reports that Evans is taking Jackson's long-time wrestling coach Mike Van Arsdale and heading to Marcus Aurelio's Imperial Athletics.

Greg Jackson mainstay Keith Jardine spoke to ESPN about what this means for the camp:

"One thing to remember is Rashad is instrumental in this whole Jackson phenomenon starting," Jardine said. "Without Rashad, who knows if it ever would have happened? He was one of the first guys to come in from out of town and join the team. And he was a guy who, when the sport was growing, he was winning fights and everybody was looking at him as he was getting better. People were calling Rashad up and he was bringing people to town, and without him, who knows if any of that would have ever happened? Without Rashad Evans, maybe this Jackson's phenomena never happens."
...
"It'll never be the same, you know? This gym, when the UFC broke out in 2005, was built on me, Rashad, Nate Marquardt, Joey Villasenor and Diego Sanchez," Jardine said. "Nate's going to stay in Denver most the time now. That's sort of like the old generation, and they're welcoming the future with Jon Jones, and that's kind of where it is right now. For me, there's no hard feelings; it's just business."

"It's just business" could well be the epitaph for the old spirit of Team Jackson. It was never "just business" in the past. 

It's no wonder Greg Jackson couldn't muster up a lot of enthusiasm for the Jones-Evans fight when speaking to Ariel Helwani (transcribed by Fight Opinion who calls it "the soap opera the UFC always wanted to see"):

"I couldn't even be in the cage, you know what I mean? I'm not going to corner anybody for that fight. The coaches will have to figure it out on their own, but I love Rashad and I love Jon and I hope after they fight we can be one big happy family again because, for me, it's all about the love and I won't have anything to do with the two of them fighting."

And it got worse from there when Rashad's comments about being finished with Jackson's was relayed.

"Well, you know, I'm hoping that it's just emotion talking and that won't be the case because we love him to death and I love him to death.
"There's a lot of things that are said that I hope aren't meant.

"You know, again... I don't, how can I say it? I'm a veteran of a lot of situations and so I'm not going to be like tearing my hair out or anything like that. I'm hoping that, like my heart and my optimism, every great fighter even though I'm not in there fighting you know I do put in a lot of hours, has to be an optimist at heart so I'm an optimist that it's all going to work out.

"I mean, how would you feel if your brother was going to fight your brother, you know what I mean? If everybody was like, ‘who's going to win that fight?!?! Your one brother or your other brother?' You'd be like, I don't really want to see them fight, so that's just me, though, you know. The UFC wants what it wants and the fans want what they want and, you know, I'm happily being an unimportant person, so that's just my opinion.

David AC puts it all together at Head Kick Legend:

While that truth can certainly be applied in many other cases, I find it hard to believe Greg Jackson of all people, the premiere trainer of this generation, is in need of 'business' at this point. And to be sure, we'll be treated to a lot of different theories in the coming weeks, all of which will place the blame on key individuals. Is Rashad just being his usual overly emotional, sensitive self? Did Jones knowingly betray his friend? Does Greg Jackson need to let go of sentiment and cool it with this "friends don't fight friends" business? Was this Dana's big evil plan from the beginning? In knowing Jones wouldn't say 'no' to a title shot, to drive a wedge through a camp's mantra he had always loathed?
...

Whatever the truth, and it's certainly a mix of it all, the fact is that with Jones, and Evans, Dana finally found a situation in which the old code "teammates don't fight teammates" could be broken. With the title on the line, it's got to be about business at the end of the day. At least two guys are convinced, no matter how reluctantly, and it now raises questions about the training camp landscape, and how these circumstances can be curtailed, or prevented.

For Dana White and the UFC it's just fuel for the fire to add interest to the Jones-Evans title fight, but it's also had a nice added benefit of weakening one of the strongest camps in MMA. The more fighters are divided in an endless battle of all-against-all the more the UFC can impose its will on the fighters. 


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