Jon Jones is the best fighter in MMA history. Athletically, he is on another level. He has beaten all of the greatest light heavyweights in the world, often in spectacular fashion. Submissions and TKO’s have been the norm. Rua, Jackson, Evans, Belfort, Sonnen, Machida, Teixera, and Cormier have sadly stood and watched Jones’ hand get raised inside the cage.
This isn’t exaggeration or hyperbole; Jones is the greatest of all time to get into the cage. It is cut and dry; without debate, Jones is that much better than everyone else.
With all of the talent in the world, Jones public persona and inability to truly connect with the general public is interesting though. He has yet to become the pay-per-view draw or fan favorite that someone with his skill set and fighting ability should.
Some better known names from the MMA world, including UFC color commentator, Joe Rogan, have claimed it is due to Jones being African American. They claim race is the reason Jones is not more popular with the masses. Rogan and these people could not be more wrong.
Obviously, race is a complicated issue. This is not the article to address racism in America by any stretch, but let’s look at some facts; regarding race and Jones’ popularity level.
Fact 1: Combat sports, and in particular MMA, are among the most inclusive sports in America. Fighters from Brazil, Asia, Europe, and Canada have all been able to attract large American fan bases. For years, non-Caucasian athletes have been popular and successful as draws in MMA. Specifically, Anderson Silva, Quinton Jackson, and Rashad Evans have all been able to garner large fanbases and attain huge pay-per-view buyrates. These guys are not white though. In fact, they are extremely popular and much better draws than 99.999% of white MMA fighters. Other fighters with African American ancestry, like Daniel Cormier and Benson Henderson, have extremely loyal followers because they are talented in the cage and likeable outside of it. In the similar combat sport of boxing, the two best drawing fighters on Earth (Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao) are African American and Filipino. Race is certainly an ongoing issue across the globe, but it is NOT a contributing factor in popularity or drawing ability in the United States in 2015. It just isn’t. After looking at the facts, arguing anything but is silly.
Fact 2: Despite being African American, Jon Jones was once very popular with the UFC fanbase. When he beat Ryan Bader in February of 2011, he was beloved and a huge babyface amongst the masses. After the Bader victory, Jones was immediately offered a UFC Light Heavyweight Championship fight with Shogun Rua. The live crowd in Las Vegas went bananas when Jones accepted the short notice title fight. As we know, Jones handily beat Rua in March of 2011. It was also at this time that Jones ran and took down a mugger and seemed like an all around genuine, good guy. Only a few years ago, he was mowing down the competition, popular, and well-liked. He was not a huge draw, but was on his way because he was an incredible fighter and charismatic. Some things changed, however, and it was not his ability to garner victories in the Octagon.
Fact 3: Again, this has absolutely nothing to do with race, but in recent years, Jones has tweaked his fighting style; adding questionable oblique kicks and eye pokes to his repertoire. Both techniques are considered dirty and hurt his rep amongst fans and fighters. Although rarely used by most fighters, Jones’ nasty oblique kicks really became an issue during his fight with Quinton Jackson. These particular kicks can easily cause long term knee injuries. Furthermore, Jackson claimed that these kicks should be “illegal” in MMA because they are so dangerous. In addition to the questionable kicks, Jones has been sloppily eye poking his opponents in some of his more recent fights. Jones often leads with his left hand and tries to maintain distance by propping his open palm in his opponents’ face. This has led to multiple eye pokes and caused fighters, including Lyoto Machida, Alexander Gustafson, Quinton Jackson, and Glover Teixera, to complain of pokes during their fights with Jones. Clearly, oblique kicks and eye pokes are not the greatest way to win over fellow fighters or fans. While Jones has never been docked a point for these moves, they have not helped his reputation as a sportsman. Interestingly, these techniques could probably be easily overlooked if Jones could have kept his public persona in check.
Fact 4: Jon Jones is hard for any fan to support due to his actions and behavior outside of the cage. As a human being, he is simply difficult to like. Prior to winning the Light Heavyweight championship, Jones appeared to be a young, religious, clean cut, good guy. He tackled a mugger, became the youngest Champion in UFC history, and had huge corporations lining up to endorse him. The sky was the limit for Jones. Unfortunately, Jones has made one public relations mistake after another. Again, this has nothing to do with race, but is all about Jones’ actions and behaviors. Any public figure of any gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity would be disliked if they behaved in the same manner as Jones.
Let’s review some of the more well known issues that have enveloped Jones’ career over last few years:
- Shortly after beating Shogun Rua, reporters and fans began wondering about Jones fighting top contender Rashad Evans. Jones and Evans had been long time friends and training partners under Greg Jackson. Evans had actually signed off and allowed Jones to join the Jackson camp. For months, Evans had said he would never fight Jones because they were such close friends. If necessary, Evans would move down in weight to avoid fighting Jones. Conversely, in a televised interview, Jones said he would be willing to fight his good friend, mentor, and training partner if Dana White asked him to. To many, this was a shady move on Jones’ part and caused his long time friendship with Evans to end abruptly. Thereafter, Evans began to call Jones out for being a “fake” and “fraud.” Many fans took notice and Jones’ good guy persona had come into question.
- Around 5:00 AM, on May 19, 2012, Jones totaled his Bentley, when he crashed into a phone pole in upstate New York. At the time, he was driving with two female passengers in the car with him. Neither of these women were his long-time girlfriend and mother of his daughters, Jessie Moses. Eventually, Jones eventually pled guilty to DUI and had his license suspended. Not a good look, for the young, religious champion. Hypocrite became a term many people used in conjunction with Jones. After the crash, they felt Evans may have been right about Jones being a “fraud’ and “fake”.
- Then there is the legendary UFC 151 debacle. Jones was scheduled to defend the Light Heavyweight title against Dan Henderson in the main event of this pay-per-view on September 1, 2012. UFC President Dana White announced on August 23, that Henderson was out of the fight due to a MCL injury. The timing was bad, but perennial Middleweight contender, Chael Sonnen offered to move up in weight and take the fight with Jones on eight days notice. This could have been a no brainer for Jones, but instead he turned down the show saving fight with Sonnen. Consequently, it was decided that UFC 151 would have to be cancelled for lack of a suitable main event. Fans were disappointed and the UFC lost millions in revenue. White bashed Jones, his young champion and his management, saying, “This is one of the most selfish, disgusting decisions that doesn’t just affect you. This is affecting 16 other lives, their families, kids are going back to school. The list goes on and on of all the things, the money that was spent for fighters to train and the list goes on and on. Like I said, I don’t think this is going to make Jon Jones popular with the fans, sponsors, cable distributors, television network executives or other fighters.” Suddenly, Jones was a pariah, causing a show to be cancelled and ruining other fighters’ careers. Whoops.
- At a promotional event for UFC 178, in August 2014, Jones got into an impromptu brawl with number one contender Daniel Cormier. Jones, Cormier, and UFC executive Dave Sholler all went careening off the stage as Jones threw several punches at Cormier. It was a wild scene and made headlines across the country. Shortly after the leaving the brawl, Jones mocked Cormier and called him “weak” on his Instagram account. Later that day, Jones and Cormier appeared on ESPN in a dual interview. While, not airing on live television, a satellite feed picked up video of Jones calling Cormier a “pussy” and threatening to “literally kill” him. Soon thereafter, Nike terminated their endorsement deal with Jones and he was fined $50,000 for his actions by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Uh oh.
- Then, on January 6, 2015, news broke that Jones tested positive for cocaine in an out of competition drug test before his fight with Cormier. Jones passed his following drug tests and was allowed to fight by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but this was another highly publicized story that further damaged Jones’ rep with fans.
- Jones’ biggest screw-up happened on April 27, 2015, when he left the scene of a hit and run, where he crashed into two cars and broke the arm of a pregnant woman. After jumping a fence and running away with a wad of cash, Jones went missing for 24 hours. He seemed very guilty and suspicious, piling more negativity onto his badly tarnished image. Consequently, the UFC stripped Jones of his Light Heavyweight Championship and suspended him indefinitely.
- See Mike’s work here, but Jones eventually accepted a plea bargain for the hit and run incident and avoided jail time. He didn’t even fight for his innocence. Jones was guilty, crashed his car, with drugs in it, injured a pregnant woman and disappeared for 24 hours. Not a role model!
So, let’s review: Jones betrayed his closest training partner, totaled his car, got a DUI, forced the cancellation of UFC 151, caused a brawl at a promotional event, threatened to kill an opponent, tested positive for cocaine, lost sponsors, was fined multiple times, and was suspended indefinitely by his employer. (And then just had two separate incidents within a week for driving like an idiot.) It’s very difficult for fans to root for any guy with that kind of track record.
Clearly, Jones’ race is not affecting his popularity. His actions in the cage and outside of it have swayed popular opinion. He would be disliked if he was Latino, Caucasian, or Filipino. If Georges St. Pierre had behaved the same way, he would not be a beloved hero right now.
When looking at Jones’ career and the issue of race in combat sports objectively:
Other African American fighters in MMA and boxing have been popular and gigantic pay-per-view draws with huge fanbases.
Jones was once very popular with fans. But that was before he added questionable fighting techniques to his game, and tarnished his reputation with multiple public relations disasters.
Joe Rogan and many others are dead wrong about race being the determining factor in Jones’ lack of popularity with the general public. Fans simply can not get behind him because of the litany of lousy choices he has made inside and outside the cage.