It took some time for me to warm up to Jon Jones. As he rocketed to the UFC light heavyweight championship, there was no doubting his abilities. With success came fame, and with fame came more public appearances, and with those came a chorus of critics who felt that Jones often came across as an overly polished "phony."
I count myself among those critics of the early days of Jones' title reign. His talent was clear. This was a rare athlete. One who had the natural gifts and the determination, work ethic and in-competition creativity to do things no one else had.
And when you talked to people who had spent time interacting with Jones you were given the impression that, unlike the humble, smiling "aww shucks" kid on TV, he was...we'll just say "cocky." And that's not a bad thing, nor is it to say that Jones wasn't a perfectly nice young man. Simply that he was quite impressed by himself. He was 23 years old and as close as it gets to untouchable in the MMA world, the only blemish on his record a disqualification that was the results of a bizarre antiquated rule and the fact that deaf fighter Matt Hamill and the referee couldn't communicate.
As Jones started defending his title, he appeared to become a bit more comfortable in his own skin and his real personality came out. He can be a bit arrogant and abrasive at times, and he also doesn't always seem to have the right thing to say (see much of the UFC 159 build-up as proof). In short, he stopped becoming a product and became a person.
Plenty of fans -- and media members -- are still not fans of Jones or his attitude. But he has won me over by simply acting as though he knows how good he really is.
Jones now sits mere days away from entering the cage to face Chael Sonnen, a bout in which a win seems little more than a formality. The win will tie Jones with Tito Ortiz for the most defenses of the UFC light heavyweight title, a fact Jon is well aware of as it was his only answer to what this bout does for his "legacy" when asked on the pre-fight media call.
And therein lies the issue with the bout. Jones, still a young man by anyone's standards, is having his time wasted. Saturday's fight serving as little more than the bout next to which the footnote for "tied UFC light heavyweight title defense record" will be placed.
The build for this fight has not been "epic" and there is nothing that has happened which portends some sort of tipping point wherein Jones becomes the mega-star we've all been waiting for. Instead, it's seen by almost everyone as little more than picking the meat off the bones of Anderson Silva's leftovers. The fascination with Sonnen's 'almost win' over Silva in the first meeting -- if not already deadened by his failed drug test -- was squashed when Silva toyed with, and then finished, Chael in the second round of their rematch.
And where Chael's wrestling did play directly into the very small list of Silva's flaws, it doesn't quite do the same with Jones. It is simply -- and I say this knowing I'll receive more hate tweets/mail saying this is Jones' toughest fight yet -- not a competitive fight on paper, nor do I expect it to be in practice.
And, while I've already talked at some length about the failures of the promotion for the fight, it has been uneven, to say the least. The Ultimate Fighter coaching rivalry was nonexistent, Sonnen can't seem to decide if he's trash talking Jones or complimenting him as the best fighter ever to live and Jones isn't comfortable trying to dance to this rhythmless tune.
Still, there have been some that have wanted to defend the fight. Dave Meltzer wrote a piece at MMA Fighting about the fight being "good for the sport" back in October of last year:
Fans have a right to support whatever they want. If they aren't intrigued by the fight, they don't have to buy it. But bad for the sport?
This is an old argument, but people need to come to grips with what is bad for the sport. What is bad is when nobody cares, when the sport is not covered, and when people outside the MMA core fan base are barely aware it exists. That's bad. Bad ratings. Bad pay-per-view numbers. Television loses interest in promoting it past the fringe sport level. All bad.
The media loves [sic] Chael Sonnen. He's one of the sport's biggest stars, and with the right scenario, he's a proven major money player. More people cared about his last fight than any UFC fight in nearly two years.
Did Ali's championship reign ruin the popularity of boxing? Did Joe Louis' championship reign ruin the sport of boxing and kill the heavyweight title? Was either title reign, with the benefit of hindsight, bad for the sport? Look back at their opponents. Hell, Louis' title reign was known at the time as being the "Bum of the month club."
While I can certainly respect some of the points that Dave made in the piece, especially the idea that attention and interest have considerable value, many of the points made are flawed. And I reference Meltzer's piece here because they're arguments that have been repeated, in some form, by others in recent months.
For starters. Joe Louis' title reign was not known as the "Bum of the Month Club." That only lasted from the time he fought John Henry Lewis on January 25, 1939 through his fight with Buddy Baer in May 23, 1941, or shorter if you are one of the people who only count the "one a month" period of January through May of '41.
Here are the men he faced during that "dubious" run and their ranking by The Ring Magazine that year:
01/25/39 John Henry Lewis - Light Heavyweight Champion
04/17/39 Jack Roper - unranked
06/28/39 Tony Galento - #1 ranked
09/20/39 Bob Pastor - #2 ranked
02/09/40 Arturo Godoy - #2 ranked
03/29/40 Johnny Paychek - Unranked
06/20/40 Godoy - #2 ranked
01/31/41 Red Burman - #3 ranked
02/17/41 Gus Dorazio - unranked
03/21/41 Abe Simon - #5 ranked
04/08/41 Tony Musto - unranked
05/23/41 Buddy Baer - #7 ranked
Only four out of the twelve were unranked. Roper came into the fight on a 6-0-1 run and was a local boy as they wanted a Louis fight out on the west coast -- the bout was held in Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, CA -- though this was an undeniably bad fight that led to an investigation into why it was sanctioned to begin with.
Paychek -- aside from possessing an awesome name -- was serving as a tune-up fight for the Godoy rematch after Godoy had done well enough in the first fight to earn one of the three official scorecards.
Gus Dorazio and Tony Musto were not world beaters by any stretch, however, Louis fought Dorazio 18 days after beating Burman and Musto a similar amount of time after beating Simon. Hardly the same as Jones' seven months between fights for Jones only to return to action against a non-light heavyweight coming off two losses to the middleweight champ.
Similarly, Ali defended world heavyweight titles twenty times in total in his career with only five of them coming against opponents not ranked by Ring Magazine. He fought then unranked Henry Cooper in a rematch after Cooper had knocked Ali down in their first meeting (Ali's last fight before winning the world title from Sonny Liston) before being stopped on cuts the very next round.
Among the other unranked fighters were Cleveland Williams (Ali's first fight in the United States after four fights out of the country), Jean-Pierre Coopman (a fight which Ali himself said "It ain't nothing to brag about. He ain't a great fighter."), Richard Dunn (a trip to Germany less than a month after beating #3 ranked Jimmy Young) and Brian London (former top ten fighter who had previously come up short against Floyd Patterson).
London may be the most similar to Sonnen in his role. He was a talker, quick with a quip and confident despite the odds clearly not being in his favor, stating things such as "Chuvalo proved that a man can stay with Clay, and Henry Cooper proved that Clay dislikes being hit on the jaw. That is what I shall be going for. I want to crowd him and throw punches all the time. It is my intention to have a thump. Clay may cut me, outbox me, even beat me. But I'll be there at the end thumping." And who was described by Sports Illustrated in 1969, "With an odd, gluttonous appetite for soft, fizzy drinks and a knack for finding trouble, he became the bad boy of the British ring. Regularly he ran afoul of the British Boxing Board of Control and once, letting his wretched temper get the upper hand, he started laying about the head of an opponent's trainer. On another occasion, he rendered unconscious a fan who had planned to commiserate with him by butting the man in the face."
Similarly, that is all Sonnen brings to the table, talk and a questionable past that includes being a drug cheat and a felon. And the talk is just bluster. Worse, it's transparent bluster. And that mixes with a shady past in creating a cartoon for the champion to fight.
And the predictable outcome of the fight didn't have quite the impact given that a month after beating London in the U.K. Ali was scheduled to face #5 ranked Karl Mildenberger in Germany.
Ultimately, the scheduling of the fights back then could overcome these occasional lapses in competitive fights. Ali or Louis fighting an unranked challenger of questionable credentials didn't carry the same weight as Jones doing the same with Sonnen because those old time boxers were back in the ring in short order whereas Jones fighting four times in 2011 was seen as a freakish achievement and arguably the best calendar year in MMA history.
Jones will likely fight again in September, a fight to earn the record for the longest light heavyweight title reign in UFC history. And, as he stated on yesterday's media call, he will then entertain the idea of superfights against the likes of Anderson Silva or a move to the heavyweight division. Either possibility is enough to make one want to look past Saturday and The Great Waste of Time.
However, the current official UFC light heavyweight top ten has five men that Jones has not yet beaten. And the potential of bouts with young stars like Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira, grizzled veteran Dan Henderson or rematch with the enigmatic Lyoto Machida make it hard for some of us simply to say "oh well, at least people might tune in for Sonnen's inevitable bludgeoning."
And the "good for the sport" argument is flimsy anyway as short term money grabs have historically been far more damaging to fight sports than anything. Boxing has largely had to change how they operate because of the failures in that model (though they certainly offend from time to time), and Don King's "anything for a buck" brand of promotion has left him a fossil lacking value to the larger boxing world in 2013.
As Tim Marchman pointed out in a recent column on the fight at Deadspin, "even the promoters aren't pretending that Sonnen is a credible contender. The aim of the public relations campaign is the campaign's continuance; the selling point of the fight is that there is a selling point." And I fail to see how that thinking is ultimately good in the long term for the UFC.
photos: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC, Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com, Al Powers/Zuffa LLC/Contributor