The marriage between the UFC and its biggest stars has never been perfect.
Jones, White claimed, is balking at a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, and the two parties are headed for a Thursday sit-down where we assume grievances will be aired and the bargaining begun.
White was clear about where he stands on Wednesday, telling the titlist’s home-away-from-hometown Albuquerque Journal that it’s Gustafsson or bust for Jones.
"You're the champion, you're the pound-for-pound best guy in the world, and he says he wants to be known as the best ever,” White said, as part of some choice words he had for the fighter. “Well, you don't turn down opponents, you know what I mean?"
Surprised? Don’t be.
There’s nothing new about the UFC going to the mattresses against one of its homegrown drawing cards. Heck, this isn’t even a unique experience for Jones, who still sports fresh tire tracks from the last time the organization wheeled him into traffic, following the cancellation of UFC 151 in 2012.
Fact is, the UFC has a fairly well-established track record for publicly clashing with its biggest attractions. Funny how that works: The bigger and more successful a fighter gets, the more control they want over their own life and career and the more they push back against corporate authority—and we all know the UFC can be pretty authoritarian.
In a sport where management and employees are both so quick to air each other's dirty laundry, squabbles and infighting are inevitable. Most times, the differences prove reconcilable. Occasionally, the relationships run the full gamut of grief and end in divorce.
Such was the case with Randy Couture, the former multi-divisional champion the UFC promoted as a real-life superhero while he was still actively working the fields for the promotion. The two sides fell out over money several times during his long, illustrious career—and Couture once missed 15 months after trying to “resign” to chase down a fight with Fedor Emelianenko—but managed to keep the partnership together until he retired in 2011.
Now? After turning his attention to Hollywood and signing a development deal with the competition, the UFC suddenly isn’t afraid to tell you how it really feels.
"He’ll actually lie to your face," White said of Couture last weekend, during a media scrum in Berlin. "Randy looks like a great guy on paper. The reality of it is, he’s not. He’s not a good guy.”
Despite his differences with White, Couture has thus far managed to keep his spot in the UFC Hall of Fame, a feat which could not be matched by Tito Ortiz.
Ortiz’s notoriously rocky relationship with White and the company appears to have run aground for good now that he’s also signed to Bellator MMA, and—after his induction ceremony back in 2012—he’s noticeable by his absence over on the hall’s official webpage.
The list of well-known fighters the UFC has bickered with doesn’t stop there, either. Far from it.
Ken Shamrock recently squashed a contentious, longstanding beef with the company.
Pat Miletich has openly quarreled with UFC leadership.
The promotion even once famously fell out with the sport’s best known referee, and John McCarthy was absent from the Octagon for two years as a result.
After UFC 167, even mild-mannered consummate company man Georges St-Pierre found himself on the receiving end of one of White’s verbal tirades. Same for Anderson Silva after lackluster performances at UFCs 90 and 97.
To paraphrase a line made infamous by play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson: these things happen in the UFC. The reasons why are likely as old and obvious as the troubled union between labor and ownership itself.
For starters, White rips everybody.
It’s almost as if a fighter hasn’t really arrived until the cantankerous UFC president has something critical to say about them. You’d think after so many years of using confrontation as his base communication strategy, the power of White’s words might wear off—that fans might notice the one common denominator in all these prickly situations—but so far, no dice.
On the other side of the coin, you’ve got a group of fighters who all (rightly) believe they deserve special consideration. Nobody in this business starts on third base. Any fighter who has demonstrated the skill and wherewithal to scrap his way to the top has duly earned the chance to negotiate for more preferable working conditions.
There's no fancy way to say it. A guy like Jones literally fought other grown men with his (almost) bare fists for each victory he earned, each contract extension he signed, each post-fight bonus he pocketed. Now he wants to pick his own opponent? Who could possibly blame him, even if his message isn’t always perfectly crafted?
Issues between the world’s largest fight company and the world’s best fighter have been percolating for a while now. There was an awkward moment prior to April’s UFC 172 when MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani tried to ask Jones about his relationship with the UFC.
The two of them were in Baltimore, a couple of days before Jones breezed past Glover Teixeira to cement his seventh consecutive title defense.
“Can you feel the love?” Helwani said, half-joking, half-prying, as he asked the 27-year-old champion about his relationship with fans and whether he was happy with how the UFC was promoting him.
As he so often does when he’s asked an uncomfortable question, Jones gazed a moment into the middle distance. He tipped his head one way, then the other. He began a sentence and trailed off. You could see the gears grinding, thinking: Man, how am I going to talk my way out of this one?
“I don’t really want to comment on it too much,” Jones eventually said. “I’ll just say I’ll never be Chuck Liddell.”
If he meant to send the message that everything was fine, he failed spectacularly. A bit more than a month later, it seems the relationship has become even more strained. After all, the president of the UFC—a company renowned for keeping as much about its inner workings as secret as it possibly can—didn’t give that interview to the website he owns by accident.
The story itself was fairly innocuous, but the fallout has been anything but. As of this writing, Jones is the subject of 450 mostly unflattering characterizations in the comments section. One of them, near the top, is five words long and uses a slang term to compare MMA’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter to a cuddly kitty cat. It currently has 48 likes.
Again, not an accident.
Yet, if the UFC meant to send Jones a message by calling him out on the Internet this week, perhaps the lasting impression is that he’s in good company.