'Spygate' distracts from real Jackson-Jones issues

Is Jon Jones helping to sell a fight that really doesn't need that much help to sell? Ed Mulholland for ESPN.com

With three-and-a-half weeks still to go before their light heavyweight title fight at UFC 135, things are officially getting weird between Jon Jones and Quinton Jackson.

It started this week with Jackson publicly accusing Jones of infiltrating his training camp with undercover operatives, telling Yahoo!’s Kevin Iole a convoluted story that sounded more like the plotline to a lost episode of “21 Jump Street” than prefight hype. Something about Rashad Evans punching him in the knee at UFC 114, Jackson’s own efforts last week to start a false rumor about a hand injury and then an elaborate game of telephone between UFC matchmakers, Jones’ manager and shadowy figures of unknown identity. Oh, the intrigue.

It was the kind of allegation that made you wonder if Jackson was just joking, had grown paranoid, was trying to get in Jones’ head or was simply mistaking the typical workings of the rabid MMA rumor mill for something more sinister. After the news broke, of course, Jones’ people denied the charges, said they didn’t care to know anything at all about Jackson’s camp, thank you very much, and in short order the champ fired back with a string of posts on his Twitter account.

“Just so you know, I'm not a person who looks for shortcuts in life,” Jones wrote to Jackson on Tuesday. “Unlike you, MMA is not something I do because of money … I have way more faith in myself as well as respect for the art of fighting to ever stoop that low, that’s just bad karma.”

Aside from a quick fact check -- the story goes that Jones began his career when he and his longtime girlfriend found out they were expecting their first child, so you could argue he actually did get into MMA because of money -- the response seemed appropriate. Restrained, even, considering the breadth and utter weirdness of Jackson’s claims.

Then again, it’s hard to gauge what (if anything) this odd little kerfuffle adds to the pair’s upcoming scrap on Sept. 24. If the point of trash talk between fighters is to drum up excitement for their bout and ultimately sell pay-per-view units to a curious fanbase, this particular war of words seems way too silly to do the trick. Especially since the real stakes between Jones and Jackson have nothing to do with who is spying on whom.

The relevant storyline here isn’t about phantom broken hands or spies or issues of karma, it’s about seeing if Jones can continue to meet our almost absurd expectations now that he’s champion. It’s about seeing if the 24-year-old phenom has the stuff to finally bring some stability to a 205-pound title that has changed hands six times since Chuck Liddell first lost it to Jackson at UFC 71 in May 2007.

The light heavyweight strap was once the UFC’s marquee prize and many have already tabbed Jones as the guy who will save it from its current transient lifestyle as he trucks on into all-time greatness. Can he succeed where guys like Mauricio Rua, Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida could not? Is he over-hyped? Can he truly be The Guy? That’s what’s at issue here, not whether Jones has been plying Jackson’s training partners for information -- as if “Rampage’s” game plans are some kind of secret at this stage.

For Jackson, UFC 135 is about continuing to defy doubters who have questioned just about everything regarding his commitment to the sport in recent years. Derailing MMA’s “next big thing” would pretty much prove that all our hand-wringing about his movie career and his dedication to fighting was for naught. Not to mention, a second UFC title reign could go a long way to solidifying his place in history.

Stories of espionage and conspiracies are fun. They certainly give us something to write and snicker about during the 15 or so days before the UFC begins its onslaught of fall programming. In the case of UFC 135 though, we have far more significant things to worry about than the existence of Jon Jones’ mole.