Chael Sonnen is finally getting what he wants.
As the result of his campaign of trash-talking toward UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, Sonnen will face Jones for his belt after the two first compete as coaches on the seventeenth season of The Ultimate Fighter. Their fight will take place in April 2013, which is plenty of time for Sonnen and the UFC’s hype machine to turn it into the greatest, most important fight in UFC history. And it’s going to have to do just that.
The reason this fight won’t just sell itself is obvious: It’s a total mismatch. Sonnen, a middleweight title contender who twice lost to champion Anderson Silva, is moving up in weight to fight an even bigger champion and pound-for-pound stalwart. Sonnen has almost zero chance of winning, and Bovada’s +450 betting line on him reflects that. One could even argue that he has less of a chance against Jones than he did against Silva. After all, Sonnen’s lay-and-pray strategy that he (temporarily) employed with success against Silva will likely not work against Jones, whose MMA game began with a strong wrestling base.
Why, then, does Sonnen get to jump the line—ahead of presumptive No. 1 contender Dan Henderson—and get a title shot when he’s coming off a loss? Perhaps more importantly, why does he get to immediately face the light heavyweight champion when he’s never even fought in the UFC’s light heavyweight division?
The answer can be found on the bottom line, as they say.
Sonnen is getting a title shot because, unfortunately, Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen is the most marketable light heavyweight championship fight the UFC can make right now. The sport’s most dedicated fans can complain all they want about the booking, but the UFC would much rather put together the fight it can sell on a widespread basis than the one that satisfies its hardcore followers.
UFC President Dana White and Sonnen will be all over ESPN, Fox Sports and any other media outlet the UFC can get them on in the weeks and months leading up to the clash to tell everyone why they should buy the pay-per-view. Sonnen will launch into his schtick like a professional, posturing like he is the true No. 1 contender and saying whatever he needs to say about Jones to generate that heat.
Come fight night, folks that don’t know any better will tune in with the sort of anticipation one might experience before WrestleMania. That is, they’ll want to see if the hero champion will finally shut the mouth of the pompous challenger who spent several months impugning his character on national television. It’s a page right out of the ol’ Vince McMahon’s playbook and it’s a perfect money-making plan for the UFC. Throw in the fact that the pairing might—might—provide a needed ratings boost for The Ultimate Fighter (“What will Chael Sonnen do next week?!?!?!”) and it’s win-win from the business side of things.
Finally, the scheduling of the fight is ideal for maximum media exposure. In April, there’s no NFL, there’s no college football, there’s no college basketball. The 162-game Major League Baseball season is just getting started, as are the NBA Playoffs, which are seemingly just as long. We won’t get into what’s going on with the NHL.
The point is, with few other sports to make headlines in April, the UFC can grab as much attention from media outlets as it can handle, generating new fans and more money in the process.
Looking at it this way, it’s tough to see why the UFC wouldn’t book this match-up. Dan Henderson might “deserve” the title shot from a rankings standpoint, but don’t think for a second that Dana White has forgotten about Henderson’s aging knees causing him to have to cancel UFC 151. What’s more, these hardcore fans complaining about Jones vs. Sonnen are the same ones that thought so little of Hendo’s chances against Jones in their originally scheduled fight that they had already begun talking about who Jones would face after his inevitable victory.
The UFC is not yet in a position where it can always make the fight that only makes sense from a rankings standpoint. As MMA continues to edge its way into the mainstream, the sport’s flagship promotion must also make decisions that help the sport gain more fans, even if those decisions come at the expense of the sport’s most dedicated followers. These new fans might one day grow to appreciate the nuanced differences between fighters, but for the time being, the UFC needs Sonnen’s big mouth to help reel them in.
Some people might look at this prioritization as setting a bad precedent for future title shots, but let’s take a look at how this will likely play out, who will be affected, and how.
For starters, Sonnen is just as good (or bad) as any other prospective title challenger from a competitive standpoint. Jones has already soundly defeated Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua and Rashad Evans—three of the best light heavyweights in the sport and all former title-holders. Aside from Henderson, who, once again, very few people give a legitimate chance of success against Jones, we start entering Anderson Silva vs. Thales Leites territory. The UFC isn’t going to try to sell Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson when it can much more easily promote Jones vs. Sonnen. As long as the UFC’s light heavyweight division doesn’t contain a true challenger to Jones’ title, it’s going to book the easiest fight to sell to casual fans.
These same casual fans might also be persuaded to tune in to TUF 17. Provided FX schedules the show in a more viewer-friendly timeslot than Friday night, a made-for-prime-time showdown between Jones (one of the faces of the UFC, in more ways than one) and Sonnen (one of the sport’s primary heels) might provide the sort of resurgence the series needs. It certainly won’t hurt.
At the same time, each fighter has a tremendous amount to gain from their participation on TUF 17, and just as much to lose as if they were scheduled to fight other opponents.
Jones has a golden opportunity to regain the vaunted status he enjoyed with MMA fans before his DUI arrest and falling out with Dana White in the wake of the UFC 151 fiasco by guiding a team of up-and-coming fighters to success in the Octagon. Meanwhile, Sonnen can pull a Tito Ortiz a la TUF 3 and show America that his trash-talking ways are just good business. Sonnen is obviously not actually a bad guy (as anyone who heard him on Joe Rogan’s podcast would attest), and putting his true self on wider display will only gain him more fans.
After the TUF season ends, Jones has just as much to lose against Sonnen as he would against Henderson—giving up his belt to an opponent who no one thought had much of a chance to win. Similarly, he has just as little to gain by winning, given the fact that no fighter in the division would be considered a favorite against him.
Sonnen was originally scheduled to fight Forrest Griffin at UFC 155 in what would best be described as a feature fight between two well-known veterans. He’s really hit the lotto with his promotion to title-challenger, so he’s really got nothing to lose. Regardless of his underdog status, a lot more people are going to know Sonnen’s name by April, and that’s only going to be good for the Oregonian. If he somehow wins, his fame (and earning potential) will expand exponentially, and he’d be re-defined as the man who said he’d take out Jones and then did it.
Hardcore fans might deride the decision, but they’re going to watch the fight anyway, just like they’d watch Jones take on any of the other less marketable fighters he’d easily dispatch. This decision to allow Sonnen to jump the light heavyweight line does not signify a trend in the UFC’s matchmaking decisions. Let’s not forget that the lightweight, welterweight and heavyweight title fights scheduled for 2012 are all between champions and challengers who have emerged from the pack in their respective divisions. Some might also point to Frankie Edgar’s immediate (and ultimately ill-fated) promotion to featherweight title challenger upon his decision to drop to 145 pounds as the sign of a disturbing trend, but Edgar, unlike Sonnen, is a former champion who was filling in for an injured Erik Koch on relatively short notice. Not the same situation as we see with Jones vs. Sonnen … and even the most hardcore rankings loyalist can’t say they wouldn’t love to see that fight.
From a sporting standpoint, this Jones vs. Sonnen match-up makes almost no sense, but neither do any others for Jones until Glover Teixeira puts together one or two more wins or Dana White is somehow able to persuade Anderson Silva to face him in a superfight. The UFC has, however, learned its lesson from the unpopular fights it was forced to put together for Silva after he cleaned out all the true middleweight title contenders, so the powers that be have decided to go with the fight that best positions the UFC to expand its fanbase.
Chael Sonnen is finally getting what he wants, and in the process, maybe the UFC can get more of what it wants as well.
Photo: Chael Sonnen (James Law/Heavy MMA)