The UFC's recent announcement that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen will coach against one another on an upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, then compete in the Octagon on April 27, 2013, has the entire sport of mixed martial arts reeling.
What happens next will be a tale for the ages. But it's what got us here that is truly an amazing story.
Two months ago, this fight was rejected by UFC president Dana White, and then again by Jones when the UFC was in dire straits. Rather than accept a fight with Sonnen on short notice, Jones allowed UFC 151 to be cancelled outright, a real low point in a year full of them.
How did we get from an unprecedented event cancellation to a Sonnen title fight in a matter of weeks? It begins and ends with Sonnen's incredible ability to promote himself and his fights.
Fresh off a loss to UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen's wheels were almost immediately turning. One of the smartest men in the sport, the 35-year-old Sonnen knew his window of opportunity was closing quickly. If he wanted to hunt more of the sport's big game, he would need to act quickly.
Silva, for the time being, was out of his reach despite Sonnen's strong performance against the sport's most dominant champion. Two title fights ended in two losses—no matter how competitive, he knew that middleweight was a closed door.
That left Jon Jones, the light-heavyweight prodigy who had made a name for himself in just a few short years, beating a who's who of the division's elite fighters. Jones' dominance was creating a different and distinct issue. He had beaten all of the top contenders at 205 pounds already, leaving the brilliant young fighter with no compelling bouts.
The two fighters fit together like hand in glove. Sonnen desperately needed a challenge that could pay off at the box office. Jones needed a challenger who could excite the fans and get the sport talking.
The problem? From a pure sport perspective, the fight was ludicrous on its face.
Sonnen had just lost to Silva. He hasn't fought at light heavyweight at all in seven years. In his lone UFC appearance in that weight class, Renato Sobral choked him out. By any reasonable rankings system, Sonnen was nowhere near a title shot.
To some, that would be an insurmountable obstacle. For Chael Sonnen, it was a starting point.
Sonnen immediately began laying the ground work for the bout, starting a feud with Jones on Twitter and getting the entire sport buzzing about the potential showdown.
But UFC president Dana White stopped Sonnen in his tracks, telling the Dave and Mahoney radio show on Las Vegas' KXTE X107.5 FM that Sonnen hadn't earned a title shot:
He's a long way away. He's not coming off the (Anderson) Silva fight and just talking his way into a 205-pound world title shot. [Sonnen] is going to have to beat a couple of the best in the world. If he beats Forrest Griffin, we'll shoot him right into the top five and let him fight some of those guys there, and we'll see what happens.
Jones also declared that Sonnen wasn't going to get a title shot he hadn't earned:
Why would I put a world championship on the line against a very dangerous opponent but one who hasn't even remotely earned the right to consider himself to be in the position to fight for the world title? That's like winning the jackpot and I refuse to be anybody's jackpot… I clearly said that I would not allow Chael Sonnen to jump the line by using his mouth. And what was he doing? Jumping the line by using his mouth.
That was in August. Two months later, both White and Jones are singing a different song.The truth is, Sonnen's brand of controversial trash talk is one of the few bright lights in what has been a tough year for the UFC, including the continued failure of the promotion's flagship television show, The Ultimate Fighter:
Last Friday's episode drew only 624,000 viewers, which is over 150,000 below their previous bottom mark and 475,000 less than last week's episode, which was helped out by havingas a lead-in. The show, which features heavyweights and as coaches, is bombing.
Can Sonnen fix the show? Brock Lesnar tried and failed, but as big a name as he was, Lesnar was no Sonnen. If anyone can reinvent the tired reality-show format, it's Sonnen. With weeks to work his verbal magic and an excellent straight man in the proud and self-centered Jones, Sonnen will make The Ultimate Fighter destination television.
Of course, no one denies Sonnen is well-suited for television, reality or otherwise. It's the subsequent title fight that has some shaking their heads.
Some, but not me.
I gave up on the idea that the UFC was pure sport the moment James Toney entered the cage to face Randy Couture. In a pure sport, Sonnen would never step into the cage with Jones, at least not without proving he belongs in a title fight.
But this is sports entertainment. The UFC must balance sport and spectacle—and Sonnen's gift of gab and knack for promoting fights outweigh his nonexistent credentials at light heavyweight.
The truth is, Jones would be a significant favorite over every fighter in the light-heavyweight class. The difference between Sonnen and others who might potentially challenge Jones is that Sonnen has the one stellar tool that puts a victory over Jones in the realm of possibility.
Sonnen is an outstanding wrestler. If anyone can take Jones down and keep him there, it's the former NCAA All-American from the University of Oregon.
Sonnen has proved that over and over again in his career—the fact that his most significant success has come at middleweight doesn't negate that success altogether.
I don't know if Sonnen has what it takes to beat Jones. I don't know if anyone does at 205 pounds. I do know this—I'm willing to tune in to find out, both to the reality show and the pay-per-view. And the UFC is counting on the fact that I won't be alone.
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