A decade later, Greg Jackson still has no regrets about his part in one of the most infamous events in UFC history.
Ten years ago today, UFC 151 was supposed to have taken place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. The card featured a fight between Jon Jones (light heavyweight) and Dan Henderson (dark heavyweight). This was a rebound event for UFC after poor sales of their two previous pay-per view events. Eight days prior to the event, Henderson told the UFC that he had ruptured his MCL. He would not be competing. The promotion scrambled to find a short-notice replacement for Henderson, settling on former middleweight title challenger Chael Sonnen, but with such short time to prepare, Jones and his team declined to accept the fight.
Then, all hell broke loose.
UFC 151 was a thin card to begin with, propped up by the star power of the main event, and without Jones competing, the UFC was left with few options to salvage it. So, for the first time ever, the promotion outright canceled a fight card — and upon doing so, the company laid the blame squarely at the feet of Jones and his head coach, Greg Jackson.
” For the first time ever in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, a UFC champ refused to take on an opponent after an injury sustained by his initial opponent. This forced the UFC to cancel the event.” Read a harsh press release from UFC .
That same press release went on to excoriate Jones and Jackson, saying their decision “stole” from the fighters on the undercard who would no longer get paid. It also infamously dubbed UFC 151 “the event Jon Jones and Greg Jackson murdered.”
It was explosive rhetoric, particularly when directed at the man most people believed to be the promotion’s next superstar. White’s famous line was not reserved for Jackson. He had previously had issues with Jackson: “Let us tell you, this man is a sportkiller .”
White was not the only person upset by Jones’ decision. Backlash from both the fans and fellow fighters was heavy, and the “Sport Killer” moniker followed Jackson for years.
So for the 10-year anniversary of the event that never was, MMA Fighting spoke with Greg Jackson about what happened, the backlash it triggered, and if he had any regrets about how it all went down.
Jed Meshew: So, how does it feel to have killed MMA?
Greg Jackson: Well, you know I tried my best to kill the sport, but despite my best efforts, somehow it’s still alive and kicking. So I’ll wait for my next opportunity to destroy an entire sport by not taking a fight. This is a gift. I’m a talented guy.
You did your best, and that’s why I wanted to do something about UFC 151, because obviously 10 years is a long time. There are many new people who don’t remember this happening or that it was so big. It’s kind of insane to look back on it now and see how it all went.
Yeah. Maybe there aren’t many people reacting too strongly to this?
Just a little bit.
Just to clarify, because this was a while ago, were you the one who specifically told Jon he shouldn’t take the fight, or was it a consensus among the team: “Hey, it’s eight days, this is a very dumb idea. We shouldn’t do this.”
I think it was a consensus, but I’ll take the responsibility for telling Jon, for sure. I was the guy that was like, “Hmm, a new opponent, different style, brand new,” and then some random, “Oh, well this is now the No. 1 contender,” even though I don’t think he really was the No. 1 contender. You know what I mean? It didn’t feel right. It was just like, is this a sport or just fight anybody for the title?
That was actually going to be one of my other questions: Obviously Chael Sonnen was not the No. 1 contender. He had just lost to Anderson Silva. He wasn’t even in the conversation. What role did this play in the final decision, if at all? Or was it strictly, “This is eight days, it’s ridiculous for us to take a new opponent for the light heavyweight belt on this short notice?”
It was more than that on eight days but also it was the style. It was close, because Henderson is supposed to be our opponent, but Henderson has wrestling. Henderson also has giant right hands and a different style of wrestling. Dana thought that Jon would steamroll Chael, then everyone’s happy.” But I have seen it all, so I know what Chael Sonnen is like. Zero. This guy could be a real world-beater. Really.
So, preparation. This is the 205-pound championship of the world. If you’re a 5-0 guy and it’s your first fight in the UFC or whatever, you’re trying to get a fight, yeah, give me last-minute stuff, whatever. You can weigh that out. What about the title? It was difficult for me to choose between being prepared or winning. And I’m not saying that Jon wouldn’t have steamrolled him, but I like to win. It’s my thing to be ready for whatever comes up. For the title: Eight days. This is a lack of preparation against someone we have never game-planned.
To your point about not underestimating Chael Sonnen, obviously you guys did go fight him and beat him [at UFC 159], but after that he submitted Shogun [Mauricio Rua], so he’s not some pushover just showing up.
Exactly. I have all the respect in the world for that guy, I really do. He is a great guy and I love his style of fighting. It was almost like I respected him that much where I wouldn’t be like, “No, we’re not going to just jump in.” I have more respect for that guy than that.
So you end up fighting later that month, at UFC 152, against a totally different opponent, Vitor Belfort. [Jones won by submission in Round 4.] Did you feel pressured into taking on a fight because of the negative reaction to the Sonnen fight being turned down?
No, no. Nobody is ever going to pigeonhole me into anything, nor would I feel any pressure about anybody else’s opinion to do what I think is right. None of that will ever be a factor for me. Mostly we just had time to put together a plan, train it, say “OK, this is going to work,” and do it. Although I did not feel obliged, eight days was really too long. You have zero time to do anything. Basically you’re just showing up and fighting. If they gave us three weeks, that would have been something. You could have said “OK, let’s break him down. Look through all of this.” But that was not reasonable.
Especially while you’re in the middle of a weight cut.
Yeah, we could work on nothing. It’s important to get to know your fighter. Jon does well when he is very prepared and has watched hours upon hours of footage on you. He can then relax. Jon is Jon. He can adapt and overcome anything, but I don’t think he can. However, I would like to give us the best chance of winning. His ability to relax enough to create comes from his understanding of what his opponent will do and what he’s planning to do.
So what were the vibes like when you told the UFC you weren’t going to take this fight? Obviously their public reaction was harsh.
The public’s reaction to Dana and Joe [Silva]. So if Dana and Joe come out go, “X,Y, and Z, it’s not a big deal, we’ll have the next fight for you guys, yada, yada, yada,” then people would be sad and disappointed, but there wouldn’t have been that kind of reaction. I guess Joe didn’t have that much to do with this one. Dana did the right thing sometimes and went hard with the paint. That’s how the public responded.
Did you feel that moving forward for awhile?
We were always going back and forth. Dana came out with a statement before that where “All my fighters were boring,” and then I came out with the list of that year that we had like 80 percent of Fight of the Night bonuses. To me it was, if somebody is always screaming at you, it doesn’t have any power. It’s like, “Oh that’s how the guy does it.” He’s always upset, throwing temper tantrums.” If he was the sweetest, nicest guy, and then all of a sudden he had done that, I would have been like, “What the hell? It was a bit strange.” However, it was normal. It didn’t bother me that much, I wasn’t affected by it.
It’s a sport. It’s a sport. I did the right thing, would do it again and that’s all. So at the end of the day, if you don’t agree with me, I’m sorry you don’t agree with me, you have your opinion, I have my opinion, and that’s what I do.
So just to make absolutely certain, it sounds like you have no regrets?
No. Zero. I’m always going to do what’s best for my guy, not what’s best for the promoter. It sucks that we did that, but you’re putting us in a position where we — we were prepared to fight the person you wanted us to fight and do that stuff. It’s hard to understand why they were so angry. I still don’t know. I get that it’s a control thing. It’s a control thing. “If you say this, then you f ****** do that.” While I understand the bully element of this situation, a promoter is not considered a bully. In this instance, I believe he misunderstood a bit.
Did you ever personally feel any backlash from the fans? Immediately I’m sure there was some, but did that linger at all?
There’s always backlash from your fans. The more successful you are, the more backlash you’ll get. So yeah, for a while, everybody was yelling “sport killer” and stuff, but I just found the whole thing funny. I thought it was completely absurd. Not taking one fight is not going to kill the sport. Even if they cancelled one card, what are you talking about?
They just tried to make an example of me, tried to make a scapegoat of me. It didn’t work. I’m still around, dumber than ever, but still around. This was shocking, unexpected, but it still felt surreal.
So we’re clear, if we were friends, I would exclusively call you “Sport Killer.”
For a while there I wanted to make t-shirts, I wanted to embrace the whole thing because I thought it was so silly. So just to make fun of the ridiculousness of it had value, but we never did.
But I’ll tell you what, of the two major kerfuffles we’ve had with the UFC, one was the “My fighters were boring,” two was [the “sport killer” stuff], [and] the “fighters were boring” had a lot more long-term negative implications than “sport killer” did.
Really? That is surprising, because your fighters obviously weren’t boring.
Exactly. Evidently, I also didn’t endanger the sport. It was all absurd.
Well, you say that, but then they sold the UFC for $4 billion…
I know they didn’t make any profit from it. Let’s let history be the judge. Six of one, half dozen of the other. $4 billion, good lord.
I think that was a message to people. Dana was doing it as a message to try and make an example of me: “If you don’t play ball, I’m going to try to destroy your reputation.” So looking at it from a strategical point of view, it makes sense in a weird way, but not really. Like a not well thought through strategy I guess, maybe.
Well, maybe you’ll have more luck the next time you try to kill MMA.
It’s an everyday experience for me. It’s a daily thing for me. I wake up thinking, “God bless it, this stuff is still here?” I will. It will. I’ll find a new avenue to destroy an entire sport. I’ll find it.