The UFC stamped a message loud and clear this week with the decision to forgo the spirit of competition in favor of spirited banter by awarding Chael Sonnen a shot at Jon Jones’ light heavyweight title. In summation, the company is now approaching Mixed Martial Arts as though it’s actually Mixed Martial Entertainment. Vince McMahon would be proud. Me? Not so much.
Sonnen’s unprecedented booking in a bout men far more deserving were overlooked for is a slap in the face of any fan or fighter who held out hope that the UFC favored performance above all else…other than performance in front of a microphone/camera, that is. Gone are the days where it truly matters if you are a streaking veteran, former champion, Muay Thai master, Golden Gloves prodigy, BJJ blackbelt, Olympic medalist, or NCAA All-American. Taking their place is the new breed of fighter – a man who may not always win in the end but can cut a promo like no other.
In the immortal words of Forrest Griffin, who had the following to say of Sonnen’s chance at Jones’ championship on UFC Tonight, “Why work your way to the top when you can talk your way to the top?”
Let’s be completely clear about the situation – Sonnen called Jones out repeatedly after stepping up on short notice as a replacement and being rejected, the UFC was desperate to try and spark some additional interest in the Ultimate Fighter franchise, “Bones” compromised his principles, and the whole thing will be marketed as giving people what they supposedly want. Equally obvious in the equation, Sonnen has no right jumping Dan Henderson, Alexander Gustafsson, Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua, or even Glover Teixeira if the UFC professes to care about the purity of sport like every other major league does.
The 27-12-1 Sonnen has never notched a victory in the UFC as a light heavyweight, has scored a single stoppage inside the Octagon in more than three years since re-joining the promotion, has a ten-inch reach disadvantage, is smaller in general, is one-dimensional in a department Jones is completely competent in, and also happens to be 2-2 in his last two tilts with both losses involving a finish including his most recent appearance in the cage. Realistically, Sonnen’s takedowns are not going to work against a much larger guy who has literally put on his backside a single time in his UFC career, and he lacks the power as well as overall technique to put Jones away while standing. Comparably, Jones is more athletic and polished in numerous disciplines, possessing a variety of ways to end his adversary’s evening.
And yet, based on his sometimes comical, sometimes cringe-worthy rants Sonnen has been given a crack at perhaps the most valuable prize in the game. This is a strap that’s been worn by the likes of Hall of Famers Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture as well as some of the best in the game today, not an oversized beltbuckle with a changeable nameplate and spinner up front.
There’s nothing wrong with factoring marketability into matchmaking. Every sport has an entertainment component involved and that’s okay. But, it should never be the primary focus of the product being sold. Fans want to see the best quarterback trying to lead their team to glory, not a career back-up who hasn’t ever won the big game but “has the biggest arms, the greatest charm, and does the most harm”; they aren’t interested in it being the bottom of the ninth in the World Series with the guy who is “better than Sean Combs” and “better than John Holmes” up to bat unless he’s clutch. And Sonnen is most certainly not that. Just ask Anderson Silva or, for that matter, Demian Maia if you have any doubt.
When the dust finally settles, the two will face off on TUF, Sonnen will talk smack, Jones will try to do the same but fail more often than not, the eventual bout will lead to an entertaining but obvious victory for the supremely skilled 25-year old, and life will move on. The silver-tongued Sonnen’s elevation from a former middleweight coming off a defeat to #1 contender at light heavyweight is by no means the end of the world but rather a “fun fight” loads of folks will tune in for. It is, however, the end of the any innocence still remaining in the evolution of the UFC, and that, in my opinion, marks a somewhat sad day in MMA history.
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