UFC on odd ground with Jones sponsorship

It will shock absolutely no one to learn that Jon Jones is the future.

Readers who have encountered even a smattering of MMA-related news during the last couple of years understand this to be true. Unless you’ve made it a point not to know it, you already know that Jones is the near unanimous pick to shepherd the UFC and the sport it is slowly but surely making famous into its next phase of unfettered growth and popularity.

No bones about it.

That said, it may have taken some people by surprise this week when Jones claimed that he and his management have received a rather unprecedented stamp of approval from his employer heading into UFC 145.

At least according to the fighter himself, when Jones puts the light heavyweight title on the line against Rashad Evans on Saturday in Atlanta, his primary sponsor will be none other than the UFC.

“We came up with a strategy to keep it clean and be sponsored by the UFC itself,” Jones explained to MMA Weekly after his previous main sponsor, Form Athletics, recently shuttered its doors. “I’m glad the UFC wanted to work with me ... I think I’m a good company guy. The UFC asks me to do anything and I always do it and I never tell them 'no' for anything.”

Depending on how you look at it, this is either very strange or very fitting news.

On one hand, if there is one athlete in this sport that investors, corporate sponsors and the UFC itself should look to hitch their wagons to, it’s the 24-year-old champion.

Even if guys like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre remain MMA’s best-known draws, Jones’ impossibly long strides are certainly nipping at their heels. He may already be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world (though it’ll probably take a couple of more wins for the pundits and prognosticators to make it official) and his eventual coronation as the sport’s most recognizable face seems just as assured.

Since the UFC has already very much put itself in the Jon Jones business as of late, showcasing him on beer commercials and network television spots and the late night talk show scene, perhaps it is not that big of a leap for the organization to slip him a few more bucks to wear UFC brand apparel to the Octagon on Saturday. After all, it already markets a line of Jones-centric gear on its website.

The word “sponsorship” might not be exactly the right term, as it's hard to "sponsor" someone who already works for you, but some people will likely not view this as a particularly earth-shattering or even noteworthy development.

Others, however, might note a developing problem of public perception here for the UFC. Especially if Evans is not also sponsored by the fight company.

The UFC already regularly straddles the divide between being a simple fight promotion and the de facto guardian of the entire MMA industry. It routinely plays the dual roles of widely known national sports league and secretive privately held company. Its president consistently wears more hats than perhaps any other comparable sports executive, fashioning himself as a postmodern mashup of Don King, Roger Goodell and Mark Cuban and doing it all better than the three of them combined.

Some of that is by design and some of it is just the natural result of being MMA’s most dominant force. Great power, great responsibility and all that.

Yet even for an organization as adaptable as this one, in an industry as amorphous as ours, sponsoring Jones -- or any fighter -- only further blurs the line of what the UFC actually is and how it views its own place in the MMA landscape.

In terms of the actual, bell-to-bell competition, it’s always been vitally important that the UFC stay above the fray. In the past, it’s done a pretty good job of that. The company has always explicitly maintained that it has no real stake in who wins and who loses its fights, saying it just wants to put on good shows for its fans. This is just as it should be. Once the UFC starts “sponsoring” certain fighters, however -- and again, that’s Jones’ word, not necessarily the one the UFC would use for this particular business realtionship -- it becomes more difficult to maintain that position.

If Jones is the only fighter to walk to the cage this weekend decked out in the UFC logo, it will be pretty easy for fans to think (rightly or wrongly) that the company is playing favorites.

You think that’s awkward? Imagine how Evans will feel if he doesn't get the same treatment.