What has Chael Sonnen talked himself into this time?
News came down Tuesday that Sonnen and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will coach against each other on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter. It all leads up to a fight between the two (Sonnen's first in seven years as a UFC light heavyweight, now that his bout with Forrest Griffin has been canceled) on April 27.
This one piece of news gives rise to two dialogues: the show and the fight. Following Monday's news that TUF ratings have hit an all-time low, announcing that the sport's second-best fighter and first-best talker will be reality TV opponents for a few months is certainly a shot in the arm for TUF. But from a fight perspective, this is a major mismatch. This juxtaposition may bring short-term gains but long-term challenges for the UFC.
First, the fight. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Chael Sonnen. He is great TV. He is great copy. He is great for the sport. I hope he never leaves it. And he's a very good fighter to boot. But come on. With the physical disparities alone, the deck is stacked against him.
Haven't we had enough of these fights lately where the hype is great fun but the actual fight doesn't deliver? See Sonnen-Anderson Silva II as an example, or Brock Lesnar-Alistair Overeem. Doesn't the public start to tune you out if they get the impression that the hype isn't built on anything substantial? At some point, you get through the whipped cream and the cherries and the chocolate sprinkles. What if there's dog crap under there? What happens then?
If Jones dismantles Sonnen—as he will surely be very heavily favored to do—how will the UFC defend itself against claims that it let Sonnen talk his way to the front of the line for the sake of ratings and buys? Because Sonnen is a great wrestler who could maybe possibly put Jones on his back? Is that the fig leaf this fight will hide behind?
Let's just be clear here: Chael Sonnen didn't earn this. He has never even fought before at light heavyweight in the UFC. His last fight was a second-round TKO loss to Anderson Silva. I know Silva's the best fighter ever, but how does that qualify Sonnen to fight another great fighter? If the Charlotte Bobcats get swept out of the playoffs by a top team, do they advance to the next round because "they've played the best before?"
The situation also ices what was shaping up to be an interesting light heavyweight title picture. Fan favorites Mauricio Rua and Alexander Gustafsson are fighting December 8. Until today, that fight was a de facto top contender's fight. There are (or were) other fighters in the mix as well. I guess they all just spin their wheels now. In the near term, this announcement diminishes the importance of the events in which top light heavyweights compete.
But let's get back to the show for a second. Next season will surely be a major ratings increase. No mistaking that. But this wallpapers over a lot of the fundamental issues TUF has faced since moving to FX and before. Namely, that awful Friday night time slot and the show's moldering and predictable format. But hey, don't look over there. We got Bones and Chael P. over here!
Everyone gets that MMA is a "product" that needs to be sold. On its face, this is a solid business decision. I get that. On the other hand, I never earned my MBA, but instinct says dangerous things can happen when the sizzle gets too far out in front of the steak.
Am I gonna watch? Damn right I'm gonna watch. I just hope the short-term intrigue doesn't come at the expense of long-term integrity.
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