A commentary article I wrote for Studio MMA about the first cancelled UFC under the Zuffa banner.  Interesting to see how much has changed in just a short time--especially the redemption of Jon Jones since rejecting a fight that would essentially collapse an entire UFC event.

STUDIO MMA – NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA – If you’re anything like me, you are going into this Saturday’s UFC 152 with a bit of an odd feeling. Almost as if something’s… missing.

About this time last month, we learned that Dan Henderson had been sidelined from his title fight against UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones. And while injuries have been known to send previous cards into disarray, this was the first time the UFC publicly admitted that a suitable replacement could not be agreed upon.

In fact, even the attempts to find a replacement for Jones at UFC 151 are now the thing of legend: Jon Jones has an opponent, Jon Jones loses opponent, Jon Jones comes under scrutiny for rejecting a fight on eight days notice and becomes a scapegoat for the cancellation of UFC 151 (which, as it turns out, is a pretty big deal).

Not only does this weekend mark the longest hiatus between UFC events for the calendar year, but this event also now comes with a ton of baggage (of which, only a fraction will be settled by the conclusion of Saturday’s PPV). For a closer examination of the ripple effect of the UFC 151 cancellation, one need only look at the title branding for this Saturday’s promotional poster.

Upon cancelling the September 1st event last month, the UFC announced plans to refer to this Saturday’s event as UFC 151. However, those plans were quickly scrapped and the UFC decided the September 22nd card would remain labeled as UFC 152—meaning the event once referred to as UFC 151 would now be disavowed and referred to as a “lost event.”

Yep, a “lost event.” Just take a moment to think about that. Would the NFL ever jump from Super Bowl 46 to 48 if Super Bowl 47 were never played? Apples and oranges, I know. But there’s something about the sequencing and, more specifically, the UFC’s knee-jerk reaction to the branding that suggests a pivotal moment in the organization’s history.

For one, it’s the first time under the Zuffa banner that the UFC was forced to outright cancel an entire event. While debate over the past four weeks has ranged from accusing the UFC of oversaturation to vilifying Jones as a full-fledged “heel,” there are a few questions based on this alternate timeline that I think merit consideration:

1) Can Vitor Belfort really pull this off?

2) What about the other fighters from the UFC 151 card?

3) Was Chael Sonnen merely a genius ahead of his time?

I’ve got thoughts on all of these, but allow me to start with the later of the three.

Chael Sonnen: Genius or Ingenious?

Earlier this year, Sonnen made his way into a UFC press conference wearing Anderson Silva’s “championship belt,” saying he had stolen it from middleweight champion “like a gangster in the night.” The action, which was taken in jest and chalked up to Sonnen’s borderline WWE-persona, may have helped to hype the fight, but ultimately fell flat when the two-time middleweight contender failed to beat the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter on the planet.

But that’s Anderson Silva and he’s practically a jedi, right?

Now imagine, if you would, if Sonnen had pulled this same stunt with Jon Jones?

After volunteering to step in as Henderson’s replacement for the September 1st event, Sonnen was able to reframe his reputation as a trash-talking contender to a hero acting in the best interest of the fans. But, as per Greg Jackson, Jones apparently wanted nothing to do with that.

Never mind the fight making absolutely no sense for Jones or the fact that Sonnen would arguably be an easier fight than Henderson, the mere act of offering to step in provided a win-win situation for Sonnen after a year of public and personal tribulations. And if the public could be persuaded to forgive him for trying to save the day, just imagine what a free pass like a “lost event” would have given Sonnen?

Justification to show up with a “stolen” light heavyweight championship belt? Completely. Reason to make appearances on TV and sports radio calling out Jon Jones at every turn over the next six months? Yep. And (most valuable to Sonnen) the ability to rewrite the history of UFC 151 however he deemed fit? You betcha!

He still might. Time will tell. But if he does, I’m going to demand a HUGE royalty.

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Undercard?

As for the other fighters, the disruption is one that’s especially heart breaking given the amount of time and training allocated for these kinds of fights. I, however, applaud the UFC’s stance of reallocating all of the fights to other cards and publicly stating that fighters on the undercard will be compensated.

While what exactly is meant by “compensation” is still shrouded under the UFC veil of secrecy, it’s my great hope that UFC President Dana White does the right thing here and gives the fighters ample pay for their efforts.

And, finally, I believe that the UFC and Jon Jones now have something in common going into this Saturday’s PPV. Despite all of the hoopla and bad PR surrounding the UFC and Jones during the past six weeks, UFC 152 offers a unique opportunity for the pair: a chance for them to show how they respond to pressure.

Walking into this fight, Jones has stood firm, almost defiant, in the way that he has carried himself throughout this debacle. And although turning down the Sonnen fight may be unpopular to fans now, it will likely be perceived as the right decision (for him) in due time.

At today’s press conference, Jones seemed slightly irritated that he has to actually defend himself. He even claimed that he didn’t know at the time UFC 151 would be cancelled if he didn’t agree to a fight against Sonnen. But sadly, with only hours before his matchup against Belfort, whether that statement is true or not is almost irrelevant right now and certainly not the fight the light heavyweight champ needs to be concerned about.

After this weekend, Jones will have plenty of time to reassess his response, the way that he communicated that message, and the manner in which he allowed others to reframe the argument (which really is the reason Jones is taking the brunt of the criticism here).

Jones, like the UFC, can counter all of this bad publicity simply with a great fight. Something I think Belfort and Jones are capable of.

But Seriously, Can Belfort Really Pull This Off?

Stylistically, Jones has a significant advantage in this fight. His elusive fighting style and athleticism easily put him as a favorite. I see him needing to stay away from Belfort’s punching rage, but given the champion’s reach advantage and experience avoiding other opponents in the Octagon, I don’t see it as something Belfort can overcome lightly. Overall, I favor the incumbent based purely on the amount of weapons he has in his arsenal.

And while it may not be the fight we were all clamoring to see, I think at it’s one that’s worthy of your time on a Saturday night. But, maybe that’s just me. What do I know?

What about you: Will you be willing to forgive the UFC and/or Jon Jones this weekend?