In the annals of UFC history, there have been a handful of feuds that have caught the public's attention. Match-ups that made fans sit back and think 'I know times are tough, but $50 is worth it for this.' Bouts that transcend mere sport, that feel like actual 'by God" fights.
The ingredients that make this stew possible are exceedingly rare. It's a combination of star presence and legitimate dislike that can't be manufactured. Fans know when it is and the result is not the same. But when promoters fit all the pieces together for a legitimate grudge match, the box office results are mind numbing.
Think Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock nearly doubling any pay-per-view buyrate in Zuffa history, the simmering feud that helped Ortiz sell a million pay-per-views for the first time against Chuck Liddell, the festering emotions that made Brock Lesnar versus Frank Mir II the most purchased UFC show of all time.
The UFC has a real grudge match on its hands between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans. The tension is real. The back story amazing - Evans taking Jones under his wing, only to see the younger man usurp his title shot, his fight team, and basically insert himself in Rashad's life. There's a chippiness there when the two interact that fans can see clearly. You can cut the tension with the proverbial knife. When these two meet, it's going to be a money match, the first of Jones's career. So why does the UFC (and both fighters) seem intent on not letting it happen?
Yesterday, UFC President Dana White announced that Jones, despite being met in the cage by Evans after his win over Quinton Jackson at UFC 135, would face former champion Lyoto Machida in his next fight. Yes, Evans has an injured hand. But it's a minor problem. He'll be back training in less than a month.
Despite Evans's availability at the very next PPV event, White chose not to wait. The UFC has lighting in a bottle and is letting it loose. Perhaps they will capture it again. Perhaps not. We've seen an epic feud between Matt Hughes and Matt Serra delayed more than a year after a big buildup. The results were good, but not what they might have been if the promotion had struck when the iron was hot.
I know the UFC needed a big main event for their show in Toronto. It's one of their best markets, and the rabid fans there deserve something special. The opportunity for a big grudge match is bigger than that. It happens once in a blue moon and can define a career. It turns stars into megastars - and successful pay-per-views into ATM's.
I think adding Jones-Machida to the UFC 140 card turns an event that might have done 200-300,000 buys on pay-per-view into one that does 500,000. But the tradeoff is potentially losing a show that does over a million buys, like Evans did for his grudge with Quinton Jackson. A fight with Evans, if promoted correctly, makes everyone boat loads of cash, makes Jones a bigger star than ever, and helps define his career like no other fight could.
Instead, by the time the fight does take place, it will be a pale shadow of the feud that has captivated UFC fans this year. Evans, despite knowing how to sell a fight like no one else in the modern UFC, is trying to say all the right things. Through a spokesman, he told the press that he doesn't even care if Jones is his next fight. He'll fight whoever the UFC wants him to fight, whenever they want him to fight.
That's a strong message to UFC brass that Evans is a team player. It's a good message to pass along - privately. Saying it publicly is letting fans in behind the curtain, it's Dorothy getting a look at the Wizard and realizing it's all a sham. Fans need to believe that the fighters need this as much as we do. If Evans doesn't care about fighting Jones, why should fans care? If Evans doesn't think the title is worth fighting for, why should we think carrying a UFC belt has value?
The time to make Jones and Evans is now. Every delay, every interview, every need to let fans in on the behind the scenes machinations, is hurting the fight at the box office. Dana White takes great pride in making the fights fans want to see. This is that fight.