The worst part of MMA is the almost complete inability of everyone involved - fighters, promoters, and especially fans - to think beyond the immediate past and immediate future. This has never been more apparent than today: Jon Jones turning down a fight with Chael Sonnen and thereby forcing the cancellation of UFC 151 is either the end of the world as we know it or a smart business decision. It's one more piece of ammunition for the legions of Jon Jones haters (myself occasionally among them) to use against the much-maligned but unquestionably brilliant wunderkind.
It's not Jones' fault that UFC 151 was an incredibly weak card, even before losing Josh Koscheck to injury. It's not Jones' fault that Dan Henderson partially tore his MCL and was forced to withdraw from a fight for the first time in his career. It's not Jones' fault that his manager and PR team essentially went MIA today, allowing the UFC and its proxy, Chael Sonnen, to create a narrative that might as well feature an effigy of Jones, a can of gasoline, and a blowtorch. Actually, the last piece does fall on Jones: Malki Kawa, Jones' manager, screwed up. This isn't particularly surprising for those who have followed the mind-boggling career of Mr. Kawa, who has puzzlingly come to represent some of MMA's biggest names, but it does illustrate my point rather succinctly: for all those who seem to think that this move was nothing more than "good business" by Jon Jones, "business" isn't just about your next fight. It's about the next five, or ten, or twenty.
Jones is 25 years old, and hasn't even entered his athletic prime. If all goes according to plan, he should be fighting in the UFC for another ten years, making Anderson Silva money the entire time. What's essential to that plan, however, is building and maintaining a solid relationship with the UFC and the consumers. Let me be absolutely clear about this at the outset: Jon Jones is absolutely nothing without the UFC. Ok, maybe not nothing - he'd still be the best light heavyweight, and possibly future heavyweight, on the planet. His future earning potential without the UFC, however, is drastically lessened: could he go to One FC and fight in Asia? Canada and the MFC? Jungle Fight? BAMMA? Bellator? Riiiiiiiight. You don't make Anderson Silva money fighting Babalu in Singapore or Attila Vegh at the Foxwoods Casino. You make better than Anderson Silva money fighting Junior Dos Santos at Cowboys Stadium on New Year's Eve in 2013.
Jones' future - his brand, if you want to be all business-y about it - hinges on the future success of the UFC, and that's where Jones screwed up. It's not his responsibility to book fight cards or worry about the Fox deal, but it is his responsibility to surround himself with people who are capable of thinking about those things and helping him make important decisions; I leave it to the august minds of the BE community to decide whether Kawa and Jones' other management fit that description.
By now, it should be clear that watered-down cards are a product of the UFC's rapid expansion, itself the result of the Fox deal. There simply isn't enough name value out there to both put on stacked cards and meet their obligations to Fox and PPV: this would still be true, though less so, if injuries hadn't been such a problem and Overeem/Diaz weren't suspended for the better part of the year. In the best-case scenario, Cruz headlines a PPV or two (and then gets blasted for not drawing), GSP would fight twice, and Diaz unsurprisingly (to everyone other than 209 fans) does worse numbers than expected. In hindsight, we should have expected this, but the afterglow of the Fox deal - "look, guys, it's a real sport!" - blinded us to the harsh realities of a small company having to adjust to operating in something resembling the actual spotlight that major sports face.
The UFC was depending on Jones to carry them through this tough period of adjustment. That's not a one-way street: by acting as the temporary face of MMA, massive financial and exposure benefits accrue to Jones, the kind of name value on which stars in combat sports depend. That's the kind of name value that will carry him through the next decade of his career, and it creates the kind of goodwill with his employer that would carry him through the totally hypothetical situation in which he runs a Bentley into a telephone pole while driving with two women who aren't his fiancee, or a situation in which he's out for more than a year with an injury, and needs a tune-up fight rather than facing a hungry young contender immediately. I could continue, but there are innumerable scenarios in which a solid relationship with White and the Fertittas could help Jones in the future.
More important, however, is the fact that the UFC isn't some unstoppable ATM that belches out stacks of hundred-dollar bills for Jon Jones' use. Canceling a PPV has very real consequences: first, it further strains the UFC's relationship with its fans, who have shelled out money for sub-par PPVs all year, and who knows what the impact will be with those who were unfortunate enough to have purchased flights and booked hotel rooms in Vegas for Labor Day weekend. Second, it costs the UFC money it can ill afford to lose: half a million in fighter pay alone for this lost card, according to some estimates, along with (I'd imagine) a substantial cancellation fee to be paid to the Mandalay Event Center, and that's without even mentioning the lost revenues. Finally, it damages the UFC's relationship with event venues: will the Mandalay really be eager to do business with the UFC again, knowing that the last canceled event cost them a pretty penny in concessions, booked rooms, and gambling revenues? I doubt it. It isn't inevitable that the UFC continues to succeed, and Jones needs the UFC as much as it needs him.
This is one event, and it's not the end of the world. With that said, the UFC's future success, and that of Jon Jones, is a great deal more tenuous than it appears at first glance. It is, in fact, in Jones' best "business" interest to take one for the team by fighting a likely 6:1 or 7:1 underdog without a full camp who also happens to be moving up a weight class. He could be the superstar who carried the UFC on his back while it was making its way through a tough adjustment period. He could be Dana White's golden boy, a company man to be supported through thick and thin. Instead, he's the guy Chael Sonnen mocked on SportsCenter because his management was dumb enough to turn down an interview.