Tomorrow night, the UFC’s next great Ultimate Fighter experiment begins. For the first time since its debut on FX in March 2012, the UFC’s long-running reality show will not be relegated to the television graveyard that is Friday night. Both the UFC and FX are counting on the show’s new spot as part of the network’s powerful Tuesday-night lineup—where it will serve as a lead-in to the extremely popular Justified—to result in higher ratings and additional exposure for the sport.

Another potentially ratings-boosting factor for this season of The Ultimate Fighter is the coaching match-up, which pits two of the UFC’s most marketable stars against each other verbally in primetime before they face off in the Octagon after the season finale. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who will be at the helm for one of the season’s two teams, is riding as high in 2013 as any professional fighter ever has before him. He’s undefeated in his career (save for a questionable disqualification loss which no one counts) and is unquestionably the most popular American fighter in the sport today. He has been featured in a number of UFC promotional campaigns and is one of the only MMA athletes to be sponsored by Nike. Jones did hit a bit of a rough patch in 2012, first being arrested for drunk driving and then taking the brunt of the blame (fairly or not) for the cancellation of UFC 151. Even still, Jones rebounded by stopping Vitor Belfort in September in his fourth title defense and looks pretty much unbeatable.

Jones’ counterpart on TUF 17 is also a well-known fighter, but for entirely different reasons. Chael Sonnen was a decent, albeit decision-prone, middleweight who only really became famous after getting a title shot against pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. Sonnen showed the MMA community a much different side of himself in the lead-up to that fight, repeatedly berating “The Spider” in the press and insisting that he had what it took to defeat the man who had easily defended the middleweight title seven times (and, for fun, dismantled two light heavyweights in there as well). Sonnen backed up his talk for four-and-a-half rounds the night the two finally came to blows, but tapped to one of the most famous triangle chokes in MMA history before he could seal the victory.

Somehow, Sonnen became even more famous—some might say infamous—following the loss. First, Sonnen was suspended when his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio tested outside of the allowable limits after his fight with Silva. Sonnen also pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in 2011, for which he paid a fine and was sentenced to probation. Despite these potential setbacks, however, Sonnen soldiered on. After serving his suspension, Sonnen returned to the UFC (this time, with medical clearance to use testosterone replacement therapy) and took out both Brian Stann and Michael Bisping to earn himself another middleweight title shot. Sonnen’s rhetoric increased even more so prior to his rematch with Silva, and he repeated his impressive showing from the first bout in the fight’s opening round. Also like the first fight, however, Silva eventually capitalized on an error by Sonnen and scored a TKO victory in the second round.

After his second loss to Silva, Sonnen smartly decided to change weight classes and return to the light heavyweight division, where he spent the early part of his career. Sonnen was first linked to a fight with former champion Forrest Griffin before he was presented the opportunity to replace an injured Dan Henderson at UFC 151. And that’s when Sonnen decided to really turn up the heat on Jones.

Sonnen had already been openly critical of Jones for his DWI arrest, and the fact that Jones’ refusal to fight him on short notice ultimately led to UFC 151’s cancellation only gave him more fuel. Since that time, Sonnen has been on a campaign to face the man who he alleges was ducking him in 2012, and the campaign seems to have worked. Sonnen’s mouth has bought him a match with one of the best fighters in the world; a title shot even though Sonnen has never fought at 205 pounds in the UFC. While the forthcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter is sure to be full of memorable sound bites from the challenger, most people who follow the sport expect Jones to silence his most vocal critic by putting his fist in Sonnen’s mouth in April when the two meet for the title. Jones is three inches taller and has a ten-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. He is without question the superior striker and possesses the sort of MMA-ready wrestling that should make it difficult for Sonnen to take him down. It will take a miracle for Sonnen to pull off a victory.

Unless the impossible happens, Sonnen will wake up on April 28 as a 36-year-old man who has lost three out of three title opportunities and is probably entering the past-his-prime phase of his career. Sure, he could stick around the UFC and continue to be the promotion’s resident trash-talker. Unfortunately for Sonnen, he will also have to back up his often hyperbolic statements against opponents who will be all too happy to shut him up, which could prove more problematic as he approaches 40. After losses to champions, Sonnen can still hold his head high and market himself as one of the sport’s best. After losses to lesser fighters, though, Sonnen’s shtick could grow tired.

So, what if Sonnen explored an alternative career path after his likely loss to Jones, one where he could parlay his still-significant popularity and natural talents on the microphone while also being able to battle opponents knowing that they’re not really out to hurt him? What if Chael Sonnen made the jump to professional wrestling?

Perhaps more than most other athletes, it stands to reason that Sonnen could pretty easily make the transition from the MMA cage to the pro-wrestling ring. He’s certainly not a small man, standing at 6-foot-1 and reportedly weighing around 220 pounds on most fight nights. These are not physical stats that pop off the page, but pro wrestling has a history of showcasing its performers who don’t have gigantic physiques as long as they can perform in the ring and on the microphone. Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho and Daniel Bryan have all found success in the WWE, pro wrestling’s equivalent of the UFC, despite their comparatively smaller sizes. The current WWE champion is a man named CM Punk, who is billed at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds but is almost certainly a bit smaller (pro wrestlers, like many pro athletes, have been known to positively exaggerate their billed height and weight), and serves as a brilliant example of how in-ring skill and rhetorical ability on the microphone can led to success in the WWE.

Sonnen’s ability on the mic already exceeds that of many existing WWE superstars, as he’s sustained his popularity in the UFC almost solely with his mouth. There are very few fighters who have never been a UFC champion who have even approached the level of fame Sonnen has achieved, and his self-promotional skills should be envied by every other mixed martial artist looking to increase his Q Score. Sonnen would just need to hone his in-ring chops to the extent that he would look like a credible performer and his transition to pro wrestler would be complete, and it’s not like he’d need to perfect a hurricanrana or anything. Obviously, his angle would be similar to that of Ken Shamrock or latter-day Brock Lesnar—the “legitimate” fighter who has come to conquer the WWE—and therefore the majority of his training would be learning to not throw every punch and kick with full force and how to effectively sell his opponents’ moves. Sonnen is no dummy, and he’s obviously very athletically gifted, so we probably wouldn’t be talking about years of development before Sonnen is ready for primetime.

If Sonnen was to make the move to pro wrestling, the time to do it would be immediately after his fight with Jones. Sonnen will just have gotten done having his face on national television for several weeks and being part of one of the most hyped fights in UFC history. He could retire from MMA and then show up to Monday Night Raw one night with CM Punk, with whom Sonnen is acquainted to the extent that Punk gave him a little shout-out after his second loss to Silva. Furthermore, the WWE would be much more likely to bring Sonnen into its ranks while his star is still shining, rather than a few months or years down the road when it has faded. That way, there would be a much higher likelihood that the WWE’s programs would get at least an initial ratings boost thanks to crossover viewership from MMA fans. Where Sonnen would go from there is anyone’s guess, but it would make a hell of a few weeks.

Chael Sonnen has nothing else to prove in MMA. He will have had three title shots by the end of 2013 and has carved out a legacy as one of the sport’s great promoter/performers. Assuming he loses to Jon Jones after weeks of antagonizing the champion on The Ultimate Fighter, Sonnen could potentially have a brighter future in pro wrestling than he would as a middling, thirtysomething MMA fighter. All of this is assuming that the WWE would be willing to sign him up, of course, since the money Sonnen would make on the independent pro wrestling circuit pales in comparison to what he would make even as a mid-card UFC attraction. Given his existing fame, microphone skills and athleticism, however, the WWE might just be willing to at least give him a look.

After all, this is the same promotion that had Snooki get a pinfall at WrestleMania 27.

Photo: Chael Sonnen (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.