Who would have ever imagined that so much could happen in the sport of mixed martial arts without so much as a punch or kick even being thrown. But that’s exactly what has happened in the last eight days.
And with the UFC set to resume action this Saturday, May 9 in Adelaide, Australia, following a brief two-week hiatus, the sport’s leading promotion will commence a new era, one guided by accountability, civic duty, and conduct, not to mention corporate social responsibility and fair competition.
Yes, the tidal shift, the watershed moment that has rocked MMA into cleaning up its act comes courtesy of former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who was unceremoniously dethroned by his own doing following the filing of felony charges in an Albuquerque courtroom. But the UFC, and MMA, has been inching closer and closer toward a shocking catalyst and pivotal moment for quite some time.
And just like that, with one (alleged) bad decision (or a series of them depending on the Jones ruling), and the ensuing severe disciplinary action, mixed martial arts and the UFC have been irreparably changed forever.
But how did it get to this? How did the UFC, which has grown exponentially in the last 10 years since The Ultimate Fighter took off on reality television, go from the most dangerous sideshow in America to a premiere name in sports, fueled by corporate vested interest? And how does the recent decision to strip Jon Jones of his title cement the UFC’s status as a bona fide major sports behemoth?
The easy answer is accountability. But dating back to December 2013, the UFC has taken incremental steps forward to realizing its potential of sitting near the top of the mainstream sports world, alongside the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. And with roughly 60 days until the new Reebok uniform deal and advanced drug testing measures go into effect, the UFC is in the homestretch of its race toward mainstream legitimacy.
Eighteen months ago, the UFC had just wrapped its 20th anniversary, with Georges St-Pierre squeaking out a contentious split decision over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. The promotion was riding high, despite St-Pierre’s non-committal remarks about retirement following the Hendricks bout, and headed for Brisbane, Australia for barnburner of a fight between Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Mark Hunt, who co-incidentally will headline this weekend’s card.
The fight between heavyweights, which ended in a draw, was instantly lauded as an instant classic, with Hunt and Silva trading brutal shots and blood-drawing exchanges. But just 10 days after the bout, it was announced that Silva had failed a post-fight drug test for elevated testosterone levels. Administering the test, and announcing the results, was the UFC, which had already implemented rhetoric to oversee the duties of athletic commissions in territories where governing bodies were not only in place.
It’s a long way from the Silva test failure to present day in MMA. But with the February 2014 ban on Testosterone Replacement Therapy by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and ensuing enhanced drug testing measures that forced legends like Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva from the sport altogether in May and June of last year, the UFC was clearly responding to the loud echoing criticisms of their competition guidelines.
Performance enhancing drugs would have no place in professional mixed martial arts, and the UFC would support all measures to rid the sport of steroids.
The UFC made very public and vocal examples of Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva (who never failed a drug test, but ran away from the advanced out-of-competition testing altogether), priming itself for major corporate sponsorship. And sportswear giant Reebok soon entered the fold, signing on as the promotion’s exclusive apparel brand in December 2014.
The Reebok deal was exactly the partnership the UFC had been coveting ever since Zuffa took over the promotion in 2001. With walkout shirts and customized fighter shorts set to be sold in retail outlets nationwide, the UFC had found its match, much like the NFL and Nike, and the NBA and Adidas.
But also, with this mainstream acceptance, would come increased corporate social responsibility and accountability. So when high-profile fighters like Anderson Silva and Hector Lombard failed drug tests in January and February of 2015, popping for PEDs, and major draws like Jon Jones and Nick Diaz were found to have used recreational drugs like cocaine and marijuana, the UFC was forced to take action, immediately.
On February 18, 2015, the UFC announced its new drug testing measures, aimed at regularly testing all 500-plus athletes on its roster. And while the exact details of the vague policy have yet to be determined, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and President Dana White made a statement in a major way, emphasizing random testing and more stringent penalties, ranging from 2-4 years. And really, the promotion had to go big, forced into cleaning up its act not only see the Reebok deal go through, but also to maintain confidence from broadcast partner FOX, which currently airs some thirty events annually between network television and cable’s FOX Sports 1.
And then came Jon Jones, and the events of April 26, 2015…
The Jones case is perhaps the most interesting scenario in UFC disciplinary history, not because the promotion did the right thing by stripping its champion of his belt, but because it acted outside of the legal system, which has yet to determine any official ruling on the former champ.
It still actually remains to be seen if the Bernalillo County court will even take Jones’ case to court (they have 60 days to decide), and the judge even lifted a travel ban that would allow Bones to travel to Las Vegas for his UFC 187 main event title fight against Anthony Johnson. But the UFC said no.
With its own 60-day timeline for the Reebok deal to take effect, the UFC acted swiftly and severely, handing out one of the heaviest suspensions in its brief history. Reebok quickly followed suit by dropping Jones, severing ties with the much-maligned and troubled star. And in the wake of these rulings, MMA will be irrevocably changed forever.
Beginning with this weekend’s Ultimate Fight Night 65: Hunt vs. Miocic, the UFC has finally set a precedent from the top down. No matter who you are, you are accountable for your actions. And if Jon Jones, one of the sport’s biggest draws and revenue producers, must face the most severe penalties, so must any young upstart looking to break into the big time.
From performance enhancing drugs to law-abiding behavior, the UFC, once derided as a sideshow, is re-shaping its athletes and its promotion into an archetype that fits into the moral code of martial arts and civic responsibility.
Clearly things will never quite be the same.
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