INGLEWOOD (AP) — Dana White knew the UFC would take some pretty big hits, both financial and otherwise, when he moved its traditional end-of-the-year show from Las Vegas to Southern California on six days’ notice to keep Jon Jones on the card despite his latest positive drug test.
Some hits are more damaging than others, however. According to White, UFC 232 is going to sell out the famous Forum tonight, even though tickets only went on sale Wednesday.
That’s a statement on Los Angeles’ passion for mixed martial arts, but it’s mostly a testament to the quality of a show that compelled fans to travel countless miles to Vegas — and then about 250 miles more to LA.
UFC 232 is headlined by Jones’ return to the sport in a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson for the light heavyweight title. The penultimate bout is featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s superfight with bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes in perhaps the best matchup in women’s MMA history. The big-name undercard includes former UFC champions BJ Penn, Carlos Condit and Andrei Arlovski, along with former title contenders Chad Mendes and Cat Zingano.
With such an irresistible slate of fights, the UFC is closing out the year with style — even if it’s under weird circumstances for the fans and fighters.
“It’s not an easy decision to make,” White said. “You’ve got to pull the trigger and you’ve got to make moves. You’re not going to make everybody happy. You can’t make every fan, every fighter happy. We did everything we could to make it better.”
Not every fighter will agree after getting a shrunken paycheck due to California’s state income tax. White flatly said the UFC won’t compensate the fighters for any lost income due to the move.
But the pay-per-view audience still gets a stacked show headlined by the first fight in nearly 1 1/2 years for Jones (22-1), the self-sabotaging superstar who tested positive for very low levels of an anabolic steroid earlier this year.
The result isn’t considered a failed doping test by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but the Nevada Athletic Commission wanted a hearing on the matter in January. Its California counterpart had no such qualms, prompting the UFC’s extraordinary move.
Jones has made innumerable mistakes outside the octagon, but that bad-boy persona combined with his brute brilliance in competition has made him irresistible to many fight fans. According to Jones, some root for his success, while others yearn for his failure with similar passion — but both camps buy his fights.
Jones claims he thought about quitting the sport while he spent the past year pounding a heavy bag in his garage in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He reclaimed his light heavyweight title in July 2017 with a win over Daniel Cormier, only to lose it again due to another failed doping test.
“I was hated, and turning it all off is the easy way to deal with it,” said the 31-year-old Jones, who is fighting for only the third time in nearly four years of his athletic prime.
“Financially, I didn’t have to fight anymore. I could afford to delete my social media accounts and just ride off into the sunset. But I didn’t want to do that. I still want to compete and be the best.”
He returns to fight Gustafsson (18-4), who provided Jones with the toughest fight of his life in 2013. Jones won the decision, but was battered and humbled by the Swedish contender.
Gustafsson has stewed over the loss for years, and he was infuriated by Jones’ latest doping troubles. He labeled Jones a cheater Thursday and vowed to make the former champion “eat everything he says on Saturday night.”
“You put illegal stuff in your body, but it won’t help you this time,” Gustafsson said. “I’m ready to end this. I’ve learned how to dig deeper.”
The other championship bout at UFC 232 is every bit as compelling as the main event thanks to the bravery of Nunes (16-4), who is moving up 10 pounds to challenge the most feared women’s fighter in MMA history.
Justino (20-1) hasn’t lost a fight since 2005, battering every contender with her peerless power and athleticism. She has long been reluctant to fight Nunes because she is a fellow Brazilian, but changed her mind after Nunes repeatedly called her out.
“After everything she has said, I know that if I beat her now, nobody back (in Brazil) will look at me like I did the wrong thing,” Justino said. “She is asking for it, so she can get it now.”
Nunes scrapped her way to the top of the bantamweight division and subsequently battered Ronda Rousey into retirement. Although she is an obvious underdog, Nunes believes she can claim Cyborg’s mantle as the greatest female fighter.
“This is for the (title of the) baddest woman on the planet,” White said. “I love this fight. I’ve wanted this fight for a long time. Anytime you can put a fight together between two champions, I love that.”