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Time for the UFC to show confidence in Jon Jones

On UFC president Dana White‘s ever-changing pound-for-pound rankings, light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones is now the second best fighter on the planet. Whether that statement is true or false — it’s likely the latter — it is time for the UFC to start treating him as such. With the right push, Jones can become Zuffa‘s next PPV money-maker.

With continuous question marks surrounding Brock Lesnar‘s health and dedication to the sport, and Georges St-Pierre sidelined for most of 2012, the UFC is in desperate need of a PPV savior. While this might seem like a harsh depiction of reality, some of the PPV numbers this year have been absolutely brutal. UFC 136, a card headlined by two title fights, failed to surpass the 300 000 buys mark — previously thought to be the worst-case scenario number for any UFC event. More worryingly, only two events have resulted in over 500 000 buys; a number that just last year, was being achieved with near-routine frequency. Whether it is due to the end of the MMA boom, the over-saturation of the product, or simply a stretch of bad luck that saw some of the UFC’s top attractions plagued by injuries, 2011 has been an incontestably substandard year on the PPV market.

Lesnar is thirty-four years old, and can’t possibly be relied upon to drive the company forward in the next few years. By the time GSP returns from injury, he will be thirty-two. And while that definitely doesn’t make him old by any stretch of the imagination, ACL tears can severely hamper an athlete’s career. Anderson Silva will turn thirty-seven soon, and despite his immense success inside the cage, his drawing power has been mostly inconsistent. Consequently, the UFC is in dire need of a new star.

Enter a twenty-four year old innovator of violence with supreme athletic gifts and a virtuosic skill set. When reports of UFC 128‘s buy-rate first circulated, the numbers were deemed disappointing. Jones’ title-winning performance against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua drew 445 000 people on PPV. By comparison, Rua’s fights with Lyoto Machida both eclipsed the half million mark. In hindsight, relative to the year the UFC has had on PPV, Jones’ fights drew well for an unproven commodity. In fact, Jones has featured on the second, third, and fourth biggest PPV’s of the year in terms of buy-rate. And while it would be disingenuous to credit him for UFC 126‘s success — the card was headlined by Silva and Vitor Belfort, and Jones was merely on the undercard — the numbers for his bouts with Rua and Quinton Jackson were comparatively encouraging.

Jones has the charisma, swagger, and that aura of “stardom” around him… whatever that means. Moreover, he happens to be the light heavyweight champion of the world — a division that has long been MMA’s most appealing. And, most importantly, Jones is simply an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime fighter. The brand of offense that he manages to produce on a fight-to-fight basis is incomparable, and the mixture of flash and substance in his game is particularly one-of-a-kind.

To the delight of some, and to the horrors of many, Jones is fulfilling his potential and making the most of his peerless talent. Yes, a large contingent of the MMA fan-base seems to be quite critical of Jones — at least when he’s not rag-dolling opponents and rearranging their facial features. Whatever their reasons — they vary from “fake” to “cocky” to “he has a sense of entitlement” — and whether valid or not (some are, others aren’t), not everyone has warmed up to Jones. Crucially however, most people care about him, one way or the other.

The interest in Jones is there, and the UFC should capitalize. It matters very little whether Jones’ efforts to “remain humble” are paying off, or whether Greg Jackson‘s pleas to “win some fans” end up prospering, as long as people tune in to watch him fight — regardless of whether or not their $60 are accompanied by a burning desire to see him clobbered. In fact, many have quite rightly argued that Jones would be better served to embrace his inner cockiness and put his real personality — if it is indeed that — on display.

Jon Jones just capped off arguably the most spectacular year of any mixed martial artist in history, having beaten — and finished — then unbeaten prospect Ryan Bader, and three of the greatest light heavyweights of all time in Rua, Jackson and Machida. Yet, as evidenced by this past week’s UFC 140, the UFC has been unwilling to go all out when promoting Jones. That is not inexplicable by any means, as with so many PPV’s per year, the Zuffa brass needs to carefully select its battles. And with Lesnar headlining UFC 141 later this month, the UFC’s decision not to unleash its inimitable hype machine for Jones vs. Machida is understandable.

However, with 2012 around the gates, it is time for the UFC to put its eggs in the Jon Jones basket. Trying to angle Jones’ next bout to take place right after a UFC on FOX event would be a step in the right direction, as using Fox to generate hype towards PPV’s is ultimately what the whole deal is all about. With luck, Jones can finally fight bitter rival Rashad Evans next, in what is one of the few mega-fights for the UFC in 2012. Jones’ dislike for Evans has already resulted in him “breaking character”, and should the fight become official, we may then finally see the champion in full blown arrogance mode.

Legit stars are hard to come by. Creating stars is even more difficult. The UFC was lucky enough to have one fall into their laps, and they better seize the opportunity.