UPDATE: Jon Jones defeated Rashad Evans with relative ease, cementing Jones' legacy as one of the best fighters the sport has ever seen.
The UFC arrives in Atlanta, Georgia this weekend for UFC 145, as former light heavyweight champion “Suga” Rashad Evans takes on current champion Jon “Bones” Jones. With each man holding only one loss on their records, this is a matchup that promises to deliver excitement and intensity. But it is the fighters’ shared African-American ethnicity, the bitter rivalry that drives this fight, and Jon Jones’ emerging role as a spokesman for mixed martial arts – or to be more accurate, the UFC brand – that makes this matchup so significant.
For the uninitiated, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is the premier organization for the sport of mixed martial arts, or MMA. MMA practitioners combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and other martial arts. The sport was ostracized from the mainstream during the 1990’s for its perceived brutality, but over the course of the past decade, it has exponentially grown in popularity. Jones vs. Evans seeks to further expand the appeal of the sport as well. This is the second time a title fight in the UFC has been contested between two African Americans, a demographic that has been slower to warm to the sport than others. Perhaps the black community still prefers boxing as its combat sport of choice, due to its history within black culture.
Regardless, UFC 145 is going to make a serious attempt to change that. It’s being held in Atlanta, where 54% of the population is black. Both fighters appeal to different aspects of the black community. Evans prefers to utilize his boxing skills in his standup, and his nickname “Suga” is a tribute to famous African-American boxers “Sugar” Ray Robinson and “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Jon Jones, on the other hand, is the son of a preacher in upstate New York. A devout Christian, he holds an enormous potential appeal within the African-American religious community.
Regardless of race, Evans vs. Jones contains a visceral appeal that is rare even in mixed martial arts. Much has been made of the fact that Jon Jones and Rashad Evans are former friends and training partners, who swore never to fight each other. When Evans, the older of the two, was injured preparing for a title fight, Jon Jones was given the opportunity to take his place. He accepted the offer, Evans felt betrayed, and the rivalry was born. There is an underlying animosity whenever these two are put in the same room as each other, a sincere desire to fight, not merely compete. This backstory and legitimate hostility provide a much more compelling narrative than the contrivances used to hype events we are usually exposed to.
The UFC is capitalizing on this, pushing this fight with the might of their formidable marketing machine. They are also grooming Jon Jones to be the face of the organization as well. Jones, who is only 24, is a 6 to 1 favorite due to his dominating performances of late, so it’s understandable if the UFC focuses their marketing on him heading into the fight. However, the UFC has gone one step further by actually sponsoring Jones for the fight, which is unheard of in any major sports. There may be some negative ethical implications that will come from that. But right now, the UFC doesn’t care. They’re content to bet on Jon Jones’ rise to stardom and tag along for the ride, picking up as many fans as they can on the way up.