LAS VEGAS — You may not remember, but April 28, 2015, was a momentous day in mixed martial arts history. Late that afternoon, the greatest fighter in the sport’s brief history was stripped of his championship.
Jon Jones had won the light heavyweight championship with a dominant, one-sided victory over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua some four years earlier at UFC 128. That was the first of a five-fight span over an 18-month period when Jones defeated five men in succession who held UFC belts.
After the last of those fights, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that we were looking at a different kind of athlete. This wasn’t your garden-variety champion.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime fighter whose ability inside the Octagon was outshone only by his numerous poor decisions outside of the cage.
A hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived and trained, on April 27, 2015, led to the company stripping him of the belt the next day.
As great as Jones was, his absence had little impact upon the sport. Less than a month later, Daniel Cormier defeated Anthony Johnson to become the champion.
The UFC continued to draw big crowds. It continued to improve its talent base. It continued to sell large amounts of pay-per-views.
And, significantly, a little more than a year after the title was yanked from Jones, the company sold for a staggering $4.25 billion.
That background is important to remember when it comes to the news that broke on Monday: Jones announced on Twitter that he’s vacating the UFC light heavyweight championship.
Moments afterward, UFC president Dana White confirmed to Yahoo Sports he is looking to pair Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz to fight for Jones’ old title.
In the first tweet he put out after releasing what some saw as the bombshell news, Jones wrote, “The last I spoke with UFC about my salary there was no negotiating. If that ever changes, I’d love to come back and compete again as a heavyweight.”
The UFC took the high road. White wasn’t angry and didn’t take shots at Jones, whom he once called the biggest screw-up in the history of the sport. Instead, he was all positive and said Jones’ departure had nothing to do with money.
“I think he has accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish and has beaten the who’s who of the sport,” White said. “He is going to spend his time doing other things he wants to do.”
Jones was clear on Twitter that he will remain in the UFC’s USADA anti-doping pool for at least six months so he can quickly take a heavyweight bout if it materializes.
Later, Jones tweeted again and said he “had a positive conversation with the UFC,” and said he’d look to fight at heavyweight.
If Jones decides to stay away and not return, that will mean that in a three-day period, the UFC lost two of the most iconic fighters ever to step inside of the Octagon, Cormier and Jones. Cormier retired after losing in a rubber match to Stipe Miocic on Saturday at Apex in Las Vegas.
On May 9, Henry Cejudo announced he was retiring after a win over Dominick Cruz, vacating his bantamweight and flyweight titles in the process.
And in June, former featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor announced on Twitter that he’d retired, though it’s more likely it was a negotiation ploy considering he’s said the same thing multiple times before and always came back.
In three months, that’s a considerable drain of talent, and of drawing power.
The UFC, though, is none the worse off for it. Last month, UFC 251 reportedly sold 1.3 million pay-per-views and White said that UFC 252 performed well above expectations, though he wouldn’t announce a sales figure.
The company’s television ratings are hot when nearly all other sports are in a decline, and its YouTube channel continues to do big numbers. Its six-part “Embedded” series before UFC 252 has been streamed a combined 5,263,593 times as of Monday.
Subscribers to UFC FightPass, the company’s online streaming service, are increasing at the highest rate ever.
I could continue, but you get the point.
If Jones is trying to make a leverage play, it’s obvious it’s not going to work, even though at this point it’s a no-brainer that the company would rather have Jones as its light heavyweight champion rather than either Reyes or Blachowicz.
A year from now, the UFC will be bigger than it is today. New stars will emerge and, as often happens, stars from the past may return for a final go-round.
It’s disappointing that Jones has chosen to walk, because he’s a singular talent and in individual sports like fighting, those are the athletes who are most enjoyable to watch.
But because of the decision that White and his former partners, Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta made not long after they bought the UFC off of the scrap heap, the brand is bigger than any fighter.
They’ll survive the loss of every great fighter and big draw on the roster, and of every one of them to come.
Jones’ loss, if that’s what it turns out to be, is disappointing for fans who loved seeing him fight.
With him or without him, though, it will be business as usual at 6650 S. Torrey Pines Drive in Las Vegas.
White, et al, will hardly know he’s gone.
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