Many have said that Chael Sonnen brings a pro wrestling type of vibe to MMA, but this is just getting ridiculous. Within 24 hours we’ve seen in the UFC what is incredibly hard to pull off even in the fictional canon of the WWE: the elusive double turn. Jon Jones, face of the franchise, Nike poster boy, and all-around good guy, turns heel. Chael Sonnen, arrogant mouthpiece, nemesis of champions, turns babyface. Vince McMahon wishes he could get drama this good out of Brock Lesnar. (For those readers who are non-wresting geeks, in pro wrestling, babyfaces are the good guys, and heels are the bad guys.)
Jones did not have much to win out of this situation (except a fight against a beatable rival with huge draw value, and the respect of his critics and contemporaries). The fact is that fighting Chael Sonnen on short notice would do virtually nothing to advance his career (except frame him as a classy individual who can back up his mouth, improving a deteriorating image marred by a recent DUI). Okay, I’m an upset fan, so maybe I’m being a little unfair to the champ. He hasn’t been preparing for Chael Sonnen, or Chris Weidman, or Vitor Belfort, or anybody else who was willing to step in for the injured Dan Henderson. That’s a risk that could result in a surprise loss, or worse, a serious injury. There is never a time in which fighter safety shouldn’t be paramount, and as tough a pill as it is to swallow, Jon Jones and his camp are just making sure that he doesn’t make a decision that could get him hurt. “Better safe than sorry” is a good motto for people that get punched and kicked in the face for a living.
The result is a mixed bag of fan perception that has Jones taking tonnes of heat. Jones was, for a time, one of MMA’s true blue good guys, a humble, clean-cut Christian who once stopped and detained a mugger hours before fighting for the title. Combined with his sublime in-ring abilities, his public approval rating was absolutely sky high. However, over the course of 24 of the strangest hours in MMA history, he seems to have pulled a monumental heel turn. Just a few days ago, Jones was calling Chael Sonnen “a joke,” but now the joke is on fans as Jones refused the matchup, essentially killing the UFC 151 card. It’s a move more akin to Hulk Hogan turning on Randy Savage, or Stone Cold Steve Austin joining forces with Vince McMahon, than anything we’ve seen before in the UFC. Attention Scott Hall: there is a new bad guy in town.
This is where Chael Sonnen comes in. Sonnen has developed a reputation as one of the most delightfully arrogant individuals the sport has ever produced. How much of his shtick is genuine is up for debate, but if nothing else, Sonnen knows how to get under people’s skin. He was the Clubber Lang to Anderson Silva’s Rocky, a bottomless pit of conceited verbiage with the skillset to push the champ to his limit, and he had recently shifted his focus to Jones. Chael Sonnen is the people’s douche, the man you either love to hate, or hate to love.
How quickly things change.
Sonnen was more than willing to fight a bona fide phenom in Jones, on eight days notice, in a new weight class, right on the heels of getting TKO’d by the greatest fighter of all time. Those are stones big enough to roll with Mick Jagger, and that’s an attitude that jibe’s well with most MMA fans. When it turned out that Jones was the one to turn down the fight, it opened the door for rampant criticism and speculation, while painting Sonnen as a gamer who just wanted to give the fans a show. Thus the epic double turn was complete.
Maybe it all does reek of a WWE storyline, and losing an entire card is simply horrible for business, but this level of drama is going to have a resonating effect on the light heavyweight division for at least the next year. Jones will take on Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC 152 in Toronto, but who gets the next shot after that? Lyoto Machida will now have to win at least one more fight after throwing his number one contender status away, as will Dan Henderson. Perhaps we see those two square off? Where does Shogun Rua stand after also turning down a chance to fill in against Jones? And how does Chael Sonnen fit into the picture if and when he beats Forrest Griffin? All of those questions will need to be answered at some point and watching it all play out will be immensely intriguing.
The UFC may be taking a financial bath right now, but down the road this could actually work wonders for them in terms of boosting public interest, especially since the division seemed to grow less exciting with every dominant Jones victory. The added drama gives fans a reason to care, and fans that care are fans that are buying pay-per-views. Love it or hate it, you are talking about it, you are reading about it, and you are wondering what happens next. After all, any publicity is good publicity.
With so much uncertainty clouding the big picture, at least one thing is for sure: it’s going to be a lively light heavyweight division in 2013, and that’s the bottom line, because Bones Jones said so.