These are interesting times for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and for the fans who devoutly follow the sport as a whole.
Tuesday's announcement that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen will feature as the coaches for the next season of The Ultimate Fighter—which begins filming in two weeks in Las Vegas and will premiere in January—was met with a very focused backlash from fans and the media who cover the sport.
"Sonnen doesn't deserve to fight Jones. What happened to Dan Henderson or Lyoto Machida or Shogun Rua or Alexander Gustafsson? This is an embarrassment for the sport. Are we becoming professional wrestling?"
I've heard them all, and on multiple occasions.
Let's cut right to the heart of the matter: No, Sonnen has not earned a fight with Jones. His last fight was a loss to Anderson Silva in July. He hasn't competed at light heavyweight in years. Actually, the last time Sonnen fought at light heavyweight in the UFC was in 2005, when he made his UFC debut at UFC 55 against Renato Sobral. Sonnen lost that fight and was quickly ushered out of the organization.
There's simply no way to justify it from a pure sporting perspective.
But the truth is this: The UFC has never been purely about sports. And as long as its fortunes as a company are reliant on pay-per-view revenue, it never will be. The UFC's objective is to create enough interest in a fight that fans will fork over $60 of their hard-earned money to see it.
It's about creating drama, because drama is what sells fights. I love to see an evenly-matched bout between two highly-skilled fighters just as much as the next guy, but for the most part, those aren't the fights that sell. There's a reason that the biggest-drawing events in UFC history have featured a main event with some kind of built-in drama, with an issue between two fighters who the public can believe hates each other.
Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir. Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans. Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock. Silva vs. Sonnen 2. These fights are among the biggest money draws in the history of the company, and all of them featured genuine—or what appeared to be genuine, anyway—issues between the fighters involved in the main event.
Time and time again, comparisons have been made between the UFC's business model and that of World Wrestling Entertainment. Hardcore MMA fans hate such comparisons, and even Dana White will scoff at the notion that the two promotional juggernauts somehow share a linked history.
But the fact remains that the UFC is far more similar to the WWE and its histrionic, contrived storylines than folks would like to believe. I'm not saying you have to like it, or even accept it. I'd much rather see the UFC operate like a traditional sporting organization, and I think they'll have to do just that in the future if they want to maintain any kind of long-term success.
I'm just pointing out the reality of the situation.
Storylines sell to the masses, whether they involve fake pro wrestlers or skilled mixed martial artists. Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit are amazing fighters, and I'm looking forward to their UFC 154 main event more than any fight in recent memory. But those two fights won't capture fan imagination like Jones vs. Sonnen will.
Again, I don't like the fact that Sonnen was able to jump in front of other, more deserving fighters for this title shot. What I'm saying is that I understand why it's happening.
But there's one thing I don't like, and that's the insistence by White that Sonnen got the shot because Jones was injured and it was perfect timing, and the guys who are complaining about Sonnen jumping ahead of them—Machida being the most prominent—turned down the chance to fight Jones when it was originally offered, anyway. If Jones is out until April with an injury, well, there's a fight between Rua and Gustafsson happening in December that was supposed to be a title eliminator; I would think the winner would be ready to fight by the end of April.
Jones vs. Sonnen was booked because the ratings for The Ultimate Fighter have gotten increasingly worse, and the UFC needed a big hook for next season when the show moves from Fridays to a new, as-yet-unspecified weekday evening. Jones and Sonnen are the hooks. If they can't deliver big for FX, then it's highly likely that nothing the UFC does with TUF will ever save the show.
So why not just tell us the truth? There's no need to make up a convoluted reason why you're allowing a guy who lost his last fight and hasn't competed in the weight class in over seven years to get an automatic title shot. We're not stupid; we can see the ratings declining, and we can also understand how Jones and Sonnen will help boost those ratings back to acceptable levels.
At the end of the day, I fully expect the Jones vs. Sonnen experiment to work. I believe ratings will improve and the April 27, 2013 pay-per-view where they'll fight in the main event will likely sell like gangbusters. I know plenty of people that I would consider "casual" fans, and all of them are excited for the fight. It's going to do well.
It might be a hard pill to swallow, but we must always keep in mind that the UFC is a business, and it will continue to be run like one until the day that network television becomes a viable option for all of the UFC's offerings. Sonnen getting an undeserved title shot was a business decision, and a good one.
I don't agree with it. I understand it. But I still hope for a day when these things are decided by who is more deserving and not who can generate the most pay-per-view revenue.
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