MMA fans have forever been scrutinized for their love of “organized violence” and “human cockfighting.” The sport has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years, but it still has a long way to go in order to be universally accepted. Even then, it’s never going to be as popular as football, baseball or soccer. The stigma attached to MMA is that all fighters are barbarians and have zero intelligence outside of a cage. How can you prove this wrong when the MMA landscape is the way it is today?
Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar — we’re looking at you.
These three men, in particular, are immensely popular and draw fans to the sport. Lesnar brought an incredible amount of eyes from the pro-wrestling world when he decided to compete in the UFC’s Octagon. Even people who had never watched a single fight in their lives tune in when McGregor fights. Upon his arrival in the UFC, Jon Jones was a specimen and unlike anything the MMA world had seen in quite some time. Jones was humble and bold, and he finished fights in spectacular fashion. The careers of these three men have taken very different, yet eerily similar paths.
Lesnar took the UFC by storm. He lost his Octagon debut to Frank Mir, but then rattled off four wins in the UFC heavyweight division, including a championship victory. Lesnar also exacted revenge upon the first man to defeat him. The WWE wrestler went on to have his biggest battles outside the cage, where he dealt with health issues related to diverticulitis. Lesnar lost his next two bouts, both by first-round stoppage. It seemed to be the end of his UFC run, Lesnar was brought back into the fold five years later for UFC 200, where he defeated Mark Hunt. Then, he was popped for clomiphene, a performance-enhancing drug.
Lesnar’s career should be over, right? Well, not if the UFC has its way. Lesnar was brought in as a guest to view the title fight between Daniel Cormier and the reigning champ of the moment, Stipe Miocic. Cormier shocked the world by defeating Miocic via first-round knockout, but the most shocking moment of the night came when DC challenged Lesnar. The ensuing pro-wrestling-esque shoving match showed fans that Lesnar was back once more. It’s been rumored that Lesnar will challenge Cormier for the title at an unknown date.
Lesnar was a first-time offender, but an offender nonetheless. And does he really deserve a title shot? Nope. However, it will draw fans in, and with fans comes cash flow that is undeniably needed.
Whether he is loved or hated, McGregor has become the face of the UFC. His rise to the top was monumental. He even became the UFC’s first two-division champ. Many doubt his legitimacy as champion, though, since he has held four belts across two organizations and has never defended a title. He turned the UFC back into a pure entertainment-driven business when it came to his press conferences and outlandish behavior.
McGregor defeated Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in 2016 and hasn’t competed in the Octagon since. He even made a foray into professional boxing, and although he didn’t stand a chance against undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr., the Irishman wasn’t deterred and people still watched. Yet, his actions earlier this year caused his decline in respectability in the eyes of the sports establishment. At UFC 223, McGregor stormed the UFC bus and chucked a dolly into the bus window, causing injuries to fellow fighters Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg and sparking severe anxiety for UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
McGregor was arrested for his behavior. He was “punished.” UFC President Dana White stated that the incident itself was “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company,” but that hasn’t stopped White from turning around just six months later and promoting McGregor in a title bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov, the very man McGregor was trying to harm in the first place. McGregor also scored a brand-new eight-fight contract. Are people outraged? Nope. They are excited to watch it finally go down.
Jones is one of the most phenomenal fighters of all time. When he beat Ryan Bader at UFC 126, no one had any idea that he would be offered a fight for the UFC light heavyweight title the following month. When Jones captured the belt, he became the youngest UFC champion at the time. His run was devastating, too. He remained humble while defeating the likes of former UFC champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort. He also dispatched Chael Sonnen, Glover Teixeira and Alexander Gustafsson.
Jones showed a different side leading up to his bout with Rashad Evans. When UFC 182 rolled around in January 2015 and the cameras were thought to be off, Jones showed who he really was and that something was not right. He went on to defeat his next challenger and biggest rival, Daniel Cormier, but things just went downhill from there. The news came out that Jones failed a pre-fight drug screen when he tested positive for benzoylecgonine, but it didn’t prevent him from competing. Just a few months later, he was involved in a hit-and-run accident in New Mexico where he ran a red light and crashed his rental car into two other vehicles, including one occupied by a pregnant woman. Jones fled the scene on foot and then returned later to retrieve cash from his vehicle. Jones turned himself in and pleaded guilty in September of the same year.
Prior to his guilty plea, the UFC stripped Jones of his title on April 28, 2015. Cormier defeated Anthony “Rumble” Johnson to capture the strap. Jones returned to action in April 2016, almost a year to the date of when he was stripped of his title. Jones won the interim belt in a bout with Ovince Saint Preux. In July 2016, Jones and DC were headed for a rematch at UFC 200 when Jones was removed just three days prior to the event due to a potential doping violation.
In November 2016, Jones was stripped of his interim title, which gave him the promotional record as the first UFC fighter to be stripped of the title twice. Jones pulled himself together and took part in a rematch with Cormier in July 2017. He finished the fight via third-round knockout to reclaim his title. Just one month later, Jones was flagged once more for testing positive for turinabol. His win was overturned to a no-contest, and Jones once again lost the belt. After a long battle with the USADA, Jones was given a 15-month sentence, retroactive, meaning that Jones is eligible to compete next month.
There are many fans who believe that Jones is one of the greatest fighters of all time. To these people, it doesn’t matter what he did outside the cage. They will still tune in for his fights.
Why is it a surprise that those who love violence and going against the norm support these fighters? Fans across the spectrum will have their own opinions on the actions of McGregor, Lesnar and Jones. So why is MMA different? Why will it remain outside of the true mainstream? The NFL has had its own share of incidents involving players off the field, but the perception of the NFL hasn’t changed all that much as a result.
Former Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick, as many know, was arrested due to unlawful dog fighting and was actually indicted along with others on state and federal charges. Vick was sentenced to a three-year sentence in November 2008. He was released on July 20, 2009. What did Vick do with this experience? He lobbied for the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act. Vick went on to compete in the NFL for the next six years, serving most of his time with the Philadelphia Eagles and spending a year each with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. He paid his dues and came back before retiring in 2017. Did his actions stop fans from watching football? Nope. Did it devalue his memorabilia? Of course.
There’s also former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice and his fiancée were arrested due to a domestic-violence incident. The Baltimore Ravens released a statement calling his arrest a “serious matter.” Rice was indicted by a grand jury and given possible jail time of three to five years and a fine of $15,000. His charges were dropped after he agreed to attend court-supervised counseling. What did the NFL do? It suspended Rice for two games, prior to the charges being dropped. The Ravens parted ways with Rice, and he has never played in the NFL again. Did this stop fans from watching the Ravens play? Nope.
MMA is judged differently. The same people caught using illegal substances and those convicted of criminal charges are the same fighters that everyone is excited to see back in the cage. MMA breeds violence, and it’s not a hard stretch to imagine that fans will forgive and forget the sins of these men and will stand by them solely for their entertainment value. The actions of two football players did not impact the view of the NFL at all. It went on, nearly unaffected. MMA, on the other hand, suffered greatly due to the losses of some of its biggest draws. It affected the love and passion fans have for the sport and made it less thrilling for the casual fan to have any interest in anyone not named McGregor, Jones or Lesnar.