By Raphael Garcia
The reaction to sports personalities is never going to be an exact science. Look at every realm of professional play and you will find individuals that fans will love to hate, as well as those that garner love no matter where they go or what they do. Combat sports are no different, especially within mixed martial arts, where fans have an almost uncanny interaction with the stars they enjoy watching. One individual has become quite the conundrum, and that is the UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
At 24 years of age, Jon Jones is still a very young man in a sport that is usually dominated by individuals older and more experienced than him. With a 15-1 record, Jones has been considered a phenom in the sport since his 2009 bout against Stephan Bonnar, in which he put on a show with spinning back elbows and German suplexes. A coming out show if there ever was one, from that point on everyone expected Jones to become a star, not only within mixed martial arts, but potentially as a mainstream superstar. He went from undercard status to loved champion in a little more than two years. The UFC had their star that the fans love to build up to the endless opportunities that would be to come. However, that would not last long.
Rumblings began around the reality of Jones’s persona. Some individuals began to question if he was really the humble, contrite individual that was being reported to us through the UFC’s media vessels. Jones didn’t help himself as he started completing more media engagements, and fans' perception of Jones began to change. Words such as "conceited" and "arrogant" began to seep in as adjectives when describing the fighter who was hopefully going to be one of the backs needed to carry mixed martial arts into the mainstream.
Jones stands poised to defend his title at UFC 145 against his former friend and training partner Rashad Evans, another individual who was typecast as conceited during his time on The Ultimate Fighter. Dialogue around the perception of Jones has drastically changed if you look at him now and when he won the belt a little over a year ago. Instead of being the classic fan favorite, many individuals root against him, not to see the other fighter win, but simply wanting Jones to lose. Fight fans point towards his personality seeming “fake,” or that he is trying to be something that he isn’t. In less than a year, he has fallen from the good graces of those paying for the fights, and while this has not deterred his “position” in the organization, it is very apparent that “Bones” is not as loved as he once was.
What happened? Was it the way that Jones often speaks in a “Manifest Destiny” tone when talking about his position in the UFC’s light heavyweight division? Is this why people consider him arrogant or conceited? How about how uncomfortable he seems in front of the camera at times? No matter what situation fans will point towards, Jones and his handlers should have one reaction towards the whole ordeal.
Embrace it. Flat out. Jones is a professional athlete and his job is and will always be to go into his arena of play and win. So far, Jones has done a fantastic job of doing just that. He’s good at what he does, and has done a not so great job relaying that to the fans when asked. People have scoffed at his comments of wanting to “do things better than Muhammad Ali,” when he was questioned about the comparison between himself and the sports icon. Jones is at the point where nearly everything that he will and can do will garner some type of scorn from fight consumers, so my suggestion is to fully embrace it.
I can point towards other individuals who embraced the “heel” aspect of mixed martial arts and have enjoyed success as that role has grown and almost shifted. Chael Sonnen and Josh Barnett are two fighters that are consistently ranked near the top of their divisions. They both share the similar distinction of having their careers tainted by suspensions due to performance enhancing drugs. However, both have risen to near superstardom as they have taken on these personas that played into the hate that fans would spill their way. What’s even more impressive is the way that fans have begun to embrace these individuals in an almost cult like fashion. Both individuals have been able to parlay their actions into high profile fights and that equates to high paydays, which is always the bottom line when it comes to professional sports.
While I’m not saying Jones should start cutting professional wrestling promos after winning bouts, he should really embrace the way the fans perceive him and not go out of his way to convert them into fans. If they hate you, let them hate you. Jones is in a great position because he continues to put on the exciting fights that fans will pay to see either way. Unlike the criticism that follows Ben Askren, Jones is giving mainstream fight fans what they want to see against tough competition each and every time out.
No matter what you do -- no matter what you say or how often you smile -- sports fans will always find a reason to dislike you. Jon Jones shot to the top of mixed martial arts, and now he is facing the same exact hate that has befallen others. Instead of trying to erase the stigma that comes with it, he should welcome it. And with it welcome the bigger paydays and opportunities that will open up down the line.
April 16, 2012
By Raphael Garcia