The UFC shocked the world with their recent announcement that Chael Sonnen's December fight against Forrest Griffin was off. In its place? A season of The Ultimate Fighter, with Sonnen coaching against, and then fighting, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
After we picked our jaws off the floor, Bleacher Report's Caged In team got together to discuss the news that had shaken the UFC to its very core.
Jonathan Snowden: The UFC is still capable of throwing curveballs, even to purported insiders like us. What makes Jones versus Sonnen so compelling, besides all the obvious reasons, is just how off the wall the idea is. For all the talk of making MMA a mainstream sport, the UFC has always walked a fine line between boxing and pro wrestling, stealing elements of both when necessary and expedient.
This is the closest they've ever come to simply leaping head-first right into the pro wrestling paradigm. Sonnen hasn't fought at light heavyweight in seven years. There is no conceivable justification for this fight from a sports perspective. This is pure stunt casting; no bones about it. The pressure to deliver ratings must be enormous.
Scott Harris: I get why they did this. I get it. I'm fully confident that ratings will go up next season and that I will enjoy every second of it. But there is a danger here. The UFC seems to have made a bit of a Faustian bargain. They're going to drum up interest in the short-term, but potentially at the expense of the long-term.
Does this fix any of the fundamental and thoroughly dissected issues with The Ultimate Fighter? What do they do next season? Maybe they can get Shaquille O'Neal to coach against Hong Man Choi. Imagine the coaches' challenge!
As for the Jones-Sonnen season, what about casual fans or total newcomers who fall in behind Sonnen's siren song, only to watch Jones kick his butt in April? Do you think they'll tune in again? Is empty hype the best business model for a growing sport? Making this fight to save an event on short notice is one thing. This is another.
I like Sonnen, and more power to him for literally talking his way into this situation. I understand that he brings great sizzle. But eventually, someone is going to have to produce a steak.
Matt Roth: It's very obvious that the folks at FX aren't happy with the ratings of The Ultimate Fighter. Last week's episode hit an all-time low and didn't even break the top 100 shows. That's absolutely insane.
I have two big issues with this decision. The first is that there is no universe where Chael Sonnen deserves a light heavyweight title shot. I'm sure we'll hear something about how he would have gotten one at UFC 151 in the comment section and from Dana White. That's true, but that was on super short notice. It's not even close to the same as allowing Sonnen to skip in front of the more deserving (note: all) light heavyweights.
My other issue is that I've spent years, literally years, trying to convince my friends that MMA is in fact a sport and not the WWE. This spits in the face of all things sporting, and instead, the UFC has decided to go full spectacle.
Jonathan Snowden: The truth is pretty simple, though. The UFC has tons in common with WWE, and trying to hide from that isn't helping anyone. From Ken Shamrock, to Tito Ortiz, to Brock Lesnar, pro wrestlers (and fighters inspired by the pro wrestling they loved as kids) have created record business for the UFC.
And the promotion's other box office success stories were almost all feuds that would have felt plenty at home in even the most over-the-top pro wrestling promotion. Rashad Evans versus Rampage Jackson and Chael Sonnen versus Anderson Silva were missing interviews done by "Mean" Gene Okerland. His absence was the only thing missing from what was otherwise vintage WWE.
The best part? Fighters didn't need a promoter to help them make magic. They, for the most part, figured it out for themselves.
Matthew Roth: Here's what I want to know. Do the major media outlets that cover this sport such as the LA Times or USA Today or Fox actually care? Think about that for a moment. The NFL and MLB and NBA are all accountable for everything they do. If this situation arose in football, you literally would never hear the end of it on ESPN. Every commentator would postulate and talk about the sanctity of the game.
For better or for worse, MMA media are really just fanboys who get paid for something they'd likely be doing anyways on a forum. There's no accountability for the UFC because at the end of the day, the spectacle is more important than the sport.
Scott Harris: I think the UFC's accountability is to the public. Ticket buyers and TV viewers, not the media, will ultimately hold them accountable. For being such a young sport, and having the choppy history that it has, favorable public opinion is not something MMA is in a position to take for granted.
The NFL and those other leagues, for all sorts of reasons, have a longer leash. If good fights between worthy fighters are not at the heart of the UFC's product, then what is? Feuds and things are great. But businesses sell something. If the mop company tells you to buy their mop because it's the craziest mop ever and it's the mop to end all other mops, so you buy it and then you take it out of the box and the stick is too short and the mop strings don't absorb liquid, not only are you not going to buy from that company again, you're going to feel some animosity toward them because you were sold a bill of goods.
If casual fight fans feel like they're being sold something other than a good, competitive fight, that's going to affect the sport's integrity. And that's not just some flowery abstract concept, especially when you're talking about combat sports.
Jonathan Snowden: So, where do you guys stand? I like it, but then again, I liked headbutts on the ground and Japanese bantamweights taking on enormous sumo wrestlers. I'm an unabashed fan of spectacle. How about you, Scott? Matt?
Scott Harris: I'm excited that Uncle Chael is going to be in my life every weekend for a while. But honestly, I think the UFC is playing with fire here.
Matthew Roth: That's why I'm so torn. I love staying up until 10 a.m. watching ridiculous Japanese MMA, but I still want to see MMA treated as a sport. I get that it's a PPV business, but at some point, the UFC needs to start acting like a big-boy sport if they want to be treated as a big-boy sport.
Sonnen and Jones will be the coaches for the 17th season of The Ultimate Fighter next year, date, time and network to be determined. The two will then meet in the cage, a fight tentatively scheduled for April 27, 2013.
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