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Last week, I wrote that the muted build-up to UFC 247 possessed eerie similarities to the UFC 227 fight week two years ago, which culminated in Henry Cejudo upsetting then pound-for-pound king Demetrius Johnson and usurping the flyweight title. On Saturday night, as the dust settled after the Jon Jones-Dominick Reyes 205-pound title fight, I felt like my warning call been vindicated.
Reyes outstruck Jones over the course of the five-round affair, appearing to take rounds one, two and three before Jones mounted a late comeback in the championship stanzas. Of the numerous online polls and score-aggregators that were taken after the event, a handy majority of fans and media gave it to “The Devastator” three rounds to two, and as the minutes stretched between the final bell and the announcement of the official verdict, the prevailing mood was that we’d just witnessed a historic upset.
Then Bruce Buffer got on the microphone, and announced the unanimous decision in Jones’ favour, with one judge -- the manifestly incompetent Joe Solis -- submitting an outlandish scorecard that had the champion winning a landslide 49-46. The Toyota Centre swelled with disaffected fans, who booed mercilessly as the belt was wrapped around Jones’ waist to mark his 14th official title victory. Reyes and his team just stood there dumbfounded, shaking their heads in disbelief.
Jones remains the undisputed 205-pound champion, but twice now he’s come precipitously close to dropping the strap to an unheralded challenger. Seven months ago, it was a one-legged Thiago Santos, whose striking pressure saw him prevail on one of three scorecards in a fight many felt lacked the appropriate sense of urgency from the champ. This time it was an undefeated challenger in Reyes, who, in just his first fight that went the 25-minute distance, landed early and often on Jones, forcing the incumbent to literally run across the Octagon to avoid further damage.
Was it a robbery, or did it just feel like one? That’s a complicated question to unpack when dealing with a man as polarising as Jones is. For his part, the now-winningest champion in the company’s history cheerfully attributed fans’ anger at the decision to his historic dominance, telling the assembled media at the event’s post-fight press conference:
“I have set a high standard. Out of maybe 30 fights, only three people have put me in a competitive match. Seeing me with black eyes, seeing me get punched, is not something that happens every time I show up. So people definitely get really excited, even when an opponent throws a jab. At one point, I think I fell to the ground, I wasn’t hurt, I bounced right back up. But the fans loved that. It’s hard when people expect great things out of you at all moments.”
That’s undoubtedly a factor in the perceived injustice. Fans and media thought they were watching a piece of history, a paradigm-shifting 25 minutes that was happening in real-time. Jones looked vulnerable, his adversary looked purposeful and the champ’s team seemed straight panicked when they checked in with their pupil in between rounds. That fed into a perception, reinforced by streams of polemic tweets, that the third round was more definitively in Reyes’ favor than it might have been -- belying shouts of larceny when a more accurate description was a fight that Reyes probably should have won, but reasonable minds may have differed.
More than that though? It’s about fan’s broader antipathy for Jones, a position informed by his myriad of historical misdeeds and, more immediately, his willingness to accept the judge’s verdict as resounding proof of his greatness. At the presser, he characterised the bout as him “display[ing] the difference between a champion and an extraordinary contender,” his victory over Reyes assured even if they fought one another “1,000 times” and his continued streak is the work of a higher power. Whilst he gave his props to Dominick -- something he was reluctant to do in the build-up to the fight -- he displayed zero doubts as to who was the better fighter over the 25 minutes, a perception that jarred with what the majority of fans, media and UFC President Dana White saw unfold inside the Octagon.
That kind of dissonance is familiar to those aware of Jones’ story. Back in November 2015, Jones gave an interview to Ariel Helwani to proverbially face the music for his involvement in a hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, which led to him being stripped of the championship. In his typical inoffensive style, Helwani prodded Jones on the details of the accident and its aftermath: Jones driving under the influence, fleeing the scene without verifying if the motorist he collided with (a pregnant woman) was OK and facing the maelstrom of criticism from fans. Jones’ was incredulous in response, attempting to minimize his culpability and at times casting himself as a victim -- ostensibly in denial about how close he was to spending time behind bars.
That ugly, unrepentant, borderline delusional theme would continue to rear its head again in the face of multiple failed drug tests, which led to 11th hour fight cancellations (UFC 200), victories being overturned (UFC 214) and entire events being relocated (UFC 232). Jones consistently casts himself as a victim of outlandish circumstances, laughing off the alternative narratives where he was at best reckless and at worst deliberately cheating.
Is it any wonder fans are mad that Jones was handed another get out jail free card? With the notable exception of Conor McGregor, whose list of criminal exploits (both alleged and caught on video) is far too long to recount in this column, Jones is the face of preferential treatment in a sport that’s typified by unfairness. The kind of prodigious talent whose been all kinds of close to throwing it all away, and who -- despite using the word “accountability” a whole lot recently -- doesn't seem all that appreciative of the second, third and fourth chances the sport has afforded him.
Saturday night counts as a fifth chance; a gift-decision in a state infamous for its regulatory ineptitude and alleged corruption, which netted Jones a record-setting 14th title victory. Whilst White admitted he scored the fight for Reyes, there was a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for setting up an immediate rematch. Conventional wisdom is that Jones will next fight the winner of Corey Anderson and Jan Błachowicz, with Reyes being forced to win at least one or two more fights before he’s back in the title mix.
So Jones survives another close call, and continues to make heavily-footnoted history. The ironic thing is that this further wave of antipathy will do nothing to hurt his brand. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (himself the beneficiary of controversial decisions) literally built his fortune off of fan hostility; Jones can do the same by continuing to embrace his belief in his own immortality.
The caveat? He has to keep winning fights. And next time, there’s no guarantee the Texas judges will be there to save him.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.