The news was announced Oct. 16, 2012. MMA fans weren’t shocked by the news, but there was definitely something in the air after the news was spread that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen would be coaching the 17th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which would culminate in a bout between the two April 27, 2013. Many were asking, “Does Chael Sonnen deserve a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title?” The short answer to that question is yes. A lot had to happen for this fight to take place. There was the UFC 151 debacle, the backlash that ensued from Dana White and the fans, and the Twitter war between Jones and Sonnen. There is more to this than just the story of how this fight came about, there’s a need to explain why it’s happening now, and why Sonnen is getting another title shot in his first fight back at light heavyweight after he had just lost a fight for the UFC middleweight title this past July to pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva.
A week before UFC 151, an event that was supposed to be headlined by Jones defending his light heavyweight title against Dan Henderson in Las Vegas, news broke that “Hendo” had a tear in his MCL and would not be able to fight. Dana White tried to find a replacement for Henderson, and one man was more than eager to take his place, and that man was the outspoken Sonnen. Sonnen seemed to have inside knowledge of his Team Quest teammate Henderson’s injury ahead of time, as he began to campaign for this fight almost a week before the card’s cancellation. All parties involved denied any prior knowledge of the injury, but it did raise suspicions afterward. Sonnen was willing to take the fight on eight days’ notice, but then something happened, something that White thought “would never happen in a million years,” and that was to have a champion turn down a fight. Jones said no. Jones wasn’t willing to fight Sonnen despite being in better shape than him, far more skilled than him, and to top it off, Sonnen was moving up a weight class, to a division he hadn’t fought in since 2005. Left without a main event, a dejected Dana White was forced to cancel a card for the first time in UFC history. In a conference call, White berated Jones for not being a fighting champion, he accused Jones’ coach Greg Jackson of being a “sport killer,” and blamed Dan Henderson for not telling him about his injury sooner, which possibly could have saved the event.
The comments have not stopped pouring in since the cancellation as Jones’ peers and millions of fans took to Twitter to air their grievances with the champ, wishing he had stepped up instead of “being a businessman” and deciding not to fight someone new on such short notice. The undercard fighters of UFC 151 complained that they wouldn’t be able to pay rent on time, or that they were just upset they weren’t able to fight when they were ready. But the UFC did compensate the fighters. Fans were upset for the obvious reasons that they wouldn’t get to see Jones fight, and that amidst all of this, he seemed like the bad guy, or a coward. Jones took to Twitter, trying to get back in the good graces of the fans, stating that he was “carrying the cross” for the UFC, was willing to take the blame for the cancellation, and later apologized to all the fighters and fans affected.
The one man who saw this scenario as a positive for himself was Sonnen. The self-proclaimed “People’s Champion” wanted to fight Jones, and even though Jones denied him that opportunity at UFC 151, Sonnen wasn’t going to let that stop him from trash-talking the champ, hoping that one day their paths would cross. Sonnen went on to challenge Jones many times, but Jones felt that Sonnen did not deserve the opportunity to fight him. Sonnen tried getting into Jones’ head another way, by making light of Jones’ DUI charges, but this did not seem to phase Jones either. Sonnen’s insults may not have impacted Jones enough to change his mind regarding the potential bout, but they entertained the masses, and created even more interest in this fight. There were a few snags however…
1) Jones clearly did not want to fight Sonnen.
2) Jones was booked to fight Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 in Toronto.
3) Sonnen was booked in a rematch with Forrest Griffin for UFC 155 in December.
4) Many thought Sonnen should not be vaulted immediately into a title shot at 205 pounds.
But somehow it all came together…
Jones defeated Belfort by submission at UFC 152, although he did injure his elbow in the first round when Belfort locked in an armbar. The extent of the injury at the time was unknown, but on Oct. 11, Jones tweeted that he was beginning to change his mind about the Sonnen fight because of how badly the fans wanted to see it. Two days later at UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, Ariel Helwani interviewed White about the possibility of the Sonnen-Griffin fight getting cancelled and for a Jones-Sonnen fight to take its place. White awkwardly responded with “anything’s possible.” Fast forward four days later and Jones vs. Sonnen is announced for the UFC light heavyweight title, along with the two combatants coaching “TUF.”
It was definitely fishy that just as Sonnen had called out Jones only a couple weeks before Henderson’s injury, Jones seemingly changed his stance on fighting Sonnen just days before the announcement of their fight. For those questioning this move by the UFC, you have to look at it this story from multiple angles. The first should be obvious, and is the reason that White is so confident he will be able to get Silva to fight Jones one day, and that is money. Jones and Sonnen are two of the biggest stars in the UFC, so to pair them together to do a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and a fight on pay-per-view will do huge business for the UFC. It may even rival the rumoured 1 million PPV buys that the Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen headliner at UFC 148 did this past July. Not only does the UFC make big money, both Jones and Sonnen will see a big paycheque after their bout, which probably helped Jones finally succumb to fighting Sonnen.
Aside from Henderson, Jones has beaten all the top contenders in the light heavyweight division who are ready for a fight of this caliber. Prospects Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira and Phil Davis are not yet ready to face Jones, while top contenders Lyoto Machida, Maurico “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans have all been defeated, or even decimated by the champion.
Enter Sonnen. Sonnen is a credible name who took Silva to the limit at UFC 117, and has wins over top fighters Michael Bisping, Brian Stann and Nate Marquardt. Whether Sonnen deserves a title shot at 205 pounds is heavily debatable, and that is what has many up in arms about this announcement. But with Jones being out of action until April and Henderson’s status unknown, Sonnen was the best fit to coach a season of “TUF,” and to headline a PPV event. Sonnen is the underdog in this fight, but he will make you believe otherwise by talking himself up from now until fight time.
Another reason that now is a good time for this fight is because the UFC is trying to save “The Ultimate Fighter.” The ratings for the 16th season featuring Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson are at an all-time low for the series. Bringing two stars like Jones and Sonnen to be coaches on the show will hopefully bring a lot of fans back to the series that haven’t seen a big name pairing on the show since Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin on season 11. With more eyes watching the reality show, it will help promote the bout between Jones and Sonnen, and would lend more eyes to the contestants on the show, as the UFC tries to build stars for the future.
As much as the UFC needs to build toward its future, it also needs to have their present stars shine now. White is a brilliant promoter, and has gone on record to say that he has learned a lot from another great promoter, Vince McMahon. Over the past 20 years, there have been wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and Goldberg, who have not exactly been the most skilled performers but they were always paid well, and put in the main event slot because they have something the fans connect with. They have that “it” factor that people can’t get enough of. White sees this in Sonnen. Whether you love him or hate him, Sonnen is great when you hand him a microphone and he can promote himself better than anyone else in the UFC today. His MMA record is an above average 27-12-1, but he has never been the most skilled athlete, relying mostly on his wrestling, with submission defense being his Achilles’ heel. At 35 years old, Sonnen doesn’t have many years left in the sport at a highly competitive level and White is using Sonnen’s marketability to help his business grow.
Although this fight has seemed destined to happen since August, it has come sooner than most expected, and is now official for April 27, 2013. My suggestion is to stop asking why Sonnen deserves this title shot because as far as “rankings” go, he doesn’t. But as far as business goes, he’s the most bankable and entertaining light heavyweight the UFC has aside from the champion.