Former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen has called his upcoming bout with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones the "biggest light heavyweight fight of all time." And while Sonnen, per usual, is stretching the truth a bit with that bold boast, the build-up to this fight is as complex as any I can remember.
When the lights go out in the Prudential Center at UFC 159, you may not be able to say that you've seen a classic fight. But you can be sure that you'll have watched the product of one of the darnedest promotional efforts, indeed, of all time.
How did Sonnen go from challenging Anderson Silva for the middleweight title to taking on Jon Jones for the light heavyweight strap with nary a stop in between? That's a story worth telling in its entirety, starting with an interview Sonnen gave Bleacher Report the day before Jones' fight with Rashad Evans at UFC 145.
April 20, 2012
In an exclusive sitdown with Bleacher Report, Sonnen expressed his deep admiration for Jones, or at least Jones the fighter:
I'm always trying to learn and get better. There are so many guys. Just when you think 'I want to be like this guy because he's got this sport figured out'...boom, somebody else comes along. The stuff that Jon Jones is doing, I don't even know the names of...you never get comfortable.
August 14, 2012
After a second loss to Anderson Silva, Sonnen abandoned the middleweight division, announcing a move back to light heavyweight and a match with Forrest Griffin on December 29. Despite not having competed at 205 pounds since 2005 and a pledge to earn his place in the division, Sonnen couldn't resist taking a dig at Jones on Fuel TV:
"Sure, I could go up to 205, and I could take Jon Jones' belt away the same as I could take away his candy on Halloween. Like a little punk kid, I could snatch it away all I want."
Jones was scheduled to fight Sonnen's longtime friend, Dan Henderson, at UFC 151, perhaps a partial prompt for Sonnen's tirade.
August 15, 2012
Jones took the bait and responded to Sonnen's jibe:
For the first time, Sonnen directed the full force of his witty repartee in Jones' direction. Chael went right for the throat, taking a shot at Jones' DWI:
August 21, 2012
Sonnen explained on UFC Tonight that he was in Jones' head—and that wouldn't be good for the champ:
He has to focus to beat Dan Henderson, which he won’t do. I don’t think he should be focusing on me he should be focusing on Dan Henderson’s right hand. He says that I provided him with motivation, but Jones isn’t that your coaches job?
According to veteran reporter Dave Meltzer, the hostile exchange shook Jones up:
"Jones was very upset after Chael began calling him out and mocking him on Twitter, going as far as to contact (UFC President Dana) White and ask him to tell Chael to stop."
Meanwhile, after a Jones interview with ESPN's Franklin McNeil showed a fighter a little too willing to open up about economic realities and his own fear of certain opponents like Lyoto Machida, his public relations head quit in frustration over the champ's inability to present a coherent media front.
August 22, 2012
Rumors begin to explode on Twitter that Henderson might be forced out of UFC 151 with an injury. Bleacher Report's own Jeremy Botter was one of the first on the story:
Henderson denied he was hurt, but that smokescreen soon dissipated when it was revealed he had injured his right knee. Henderson, who had never bowed out of a fight in his 15-year career, later told MMA Fighting he didn't want to cancel the title bout if there was any chance of recovery:
I was still thinking I was maybe going to be able to go out there and go on, but I hadn't tested [his knee] in a couple weeks. Because everyone, my doctors and physical therapists and everyone told me that heals fast, and you should be able to be good. I stayed off it for 2-3 weeks just doing cross training and really not doing much, and you know, I had to test it out and pretty much everyone in my camp was telling me 'don't do it.'
August 23, 2012
On Wednesday night, the UFC offered the fight to Lyoto Machida, but Machida turned it down due to the short notice. The UFC then called Chael Sonnen, who accepted the fight and even told White he would fly to Vegas that night and fight Jones immediately.
As of Wednesday night, the UFC PR machine spun up and started working on advertising and commercials for the Jones vs. Sonnen fight. But then, according to White, the unthinkable happened: Jones turned down the fight with Sonnen, saying that he wouldn't take the fight on eight days notice.
A furious White placed the blame on Jones and coach Greg Jackson, who advised the young champion not to take a fight with Sonnen at the last minute.
"This is a selfish, disgusting decision. I don't think this is a decision that is going to make Jon Jones very popular," White said.
Bleacher Report was the first online media outlet to catch up with Sonnen that day. He understood Jackson's desire to protect his fighter, but couldn't understand Jones' decision to go along with his coach:
Dan Henderson, Matt Lindland, Randy Couture. These are the guys who molded me not just physically, but mentally. They would fight anybody, any time, anywhere. Some people mean it when they say that.
I'm from that same mold. I'd never disrespect those guys that gave so much to me by being the first one from our group to back down. And I never say that to sound like a tough guy. I say that because I think it's really important that you're never a bully in this sport.
...The only litmus test I have for myself—am I willing to fight anybody? When the day comes that I won't fight somebody, I won't fight anybody. If there is someone out there that makes me go 'I'm not fighting him,' then I'm not going to fight anyone anymore.
That's what bullies do. Bullies pick and choose who they get in fights with based on who they think they can beat. I will never, ever do that. When the day comes that I back down, I will quit this sport.
Fighter and fan sentiment was almost all against Jones. Heavyweight Matt Mitrione spoke for many when he told Ariel Helwani that Jones seemed "douchey" to him.
"Over time he went from a pretty cool guy, humble, to as arrogant as I can handle," Mitrione said. "He seems really disingenuous, blah, not my flavor of a human being."
Other fighters on the card were quick to point out that Jones' decision to refuse the Sonnen fight would hit them hard in the pocketbook:
August 24, 2012
The UFC settles on Vitor Belfort as the next man to face Jones for the light heavyweight strap, but only after both Lyoto Machida and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua refused the fight on just a few weeks' notice.
Belfort told UFC Tonight that he initially thought the contract offer was a joke:
I told Lorenzo Fertitta ‘if you need me to replace Hendo I can’. That’s how it’s supposed to be with every fighter, to be able to go in there and to replace a guy who is injured. He texted me back telling me that they have it all under control and that they are going to cancel the fight and Lyoto Machida is going to fight him in Canada. I said ‘OK.’ I was just trying to help the organization.
All of a sudden I am in my house and my cousin said ‘Hey you are going to fight Jones.’ I said ‘Yeah stop, stop saying that.’ I thought he was just playing. He says to me that he is serious, and that he has the contract. All of a sudden I see my phone and I see Lorenzo’s text asking me if I’m willing to fight Jones in Canada."
The fight became the new main event for UFC 152 in Toronto. UFC 151 ceased to exist.
For all the complaints about Sonnen's fitness as a light heavyweight contender, Belfort made even less sense on paper. Like Sonnen, he had been competing primarily as a middleweight. Unlike Sonnen, he didn't have a track record of sustained success in that division against top-10 opponents.
August 25, 2012
A sensitive Jones is clearly hurt by the backlash from fans and fellow fighters, tweeting that he was "carrying the cross" for the company's decision to cancel UFC 151:
August 26, 2012
Sonnen, always an opportunist, offers a "Jon Jones" special at his pizza joint in Oregon. The pie is topped with chicken and cheese, and customers are encouraged to buy one quickly "before our chicken runs out and we are forced to cancel." Mean Street Pizza also delivers the Jon Jones special so that customers can "avoid a DUI."
September 4, 2012
Jones tells Helwani that he felt like a "piece of meat" after the UFC 151 debacle. He also further explained his rationale for turning down the fight with Sonnen:
I clearly said 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. It's like, why would I contradict myself when I clearly just said that I feel Chael Sonnen is a racist? The way he treats Brazilians, it's totally uncalled for; I have zero respect for him...I'm honored to fight Vitor Belfort. Vitor's a Christian like I am, he's an honorable man, he's a good, classy, clean-cut dude. This is an honor to fight Vitor Belfort.
September 16, 2012
White reveals to USA Today that Sonnen has been training to fight Jones in case Belfort was forced to drop out of the bout:
"He's been training since he got offered the Jones fight. He said, 'I'm in full camp right now because Vitor will get hurt and pull out, and it will be Jones vs. Sonnen, anyway.'" White said.
September 23, 2012
After nearly shocking the world with a first-round armbar, Belfort was the victim of a brutal one-sided beating, as Jobes eventually finished the fight with a keylock.
October 12, 2012
Jones begins to rethink his position on a potential Sonnen fight:
October 16, 2012
Less than two months after telling the world that he "refused" to allow Sonnen to jump to the front of the line for a title fight, Jones does just that, agreeing to coach against him in the 17th season of The Ultimate Fighter:
"This should be a good one," White told the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story. "Jon has accepted the fight. He knows the fans want to see that fight."
His title fight with Sonnen is booked for UFC 159 and Sonnen's fight with Griffin at UFC 155 is cancelled.
October 17, 2012
During a media conference call, Sonnen bristled at the idea, voiced loudest by Vitor Belfort, that he didn't deserve a title shot against Jones:
Welcome to life. We don’t deserve things, we get what we get. And let’s understand, not one of those fighters said ‘Hey Dana, I’ll fight Chael. Let me prove that I’m the number one contender, let me fight that guy.’ Not one of them.
White, in not so many words, told any fighters who didn't like it that they had their shot at Jones, and only Sonnen stepped up:
"Every one of these guys that are bitching about a title shot now were offered a fight and turned it down. They refused to fight Jones. Now they're bummed because Chael stepped up on eight days' notice."
Even Henderson, a longtime friend of Sonnen's, was not pleased:
November 22, 2012
Jones can't seem to make up his mind about the Sonnen fight, telling USA Today:
Chael definitely doesn't deserve to fight me, and everybody sees that. As long as people see that at the end of the day, I'm happy with that. But at the same time, a lot of people have said, 'Why not be the guy to shut him up once and for all? Why not be the guy to make his words very irrelevant once and for all – put a stamp on what Anderson did to him.' That's what I'm going to try to do.
January 15, 2013
Sonnen announced he would be joining the team at UFC Tonight in his usual bombastic style:
I was offered 60 Minutes, The Today Show, The Tonight Show. They even said they would change the name to The Chael Sonnen Show if I signed onto any of those sinking ships. But I signed on the only dotted line that is important. I am going to join you in two weeks on January 29 on Fuel TV for UFC Tonight. I am going to bring the wisdom and the wits and we are going to sit side-by-side. You are going to be with the often-imitated, never-duplicated, the C to the H to the A to the E to the L on UFC Tonight.
The move led to increased speculation that the fight with Jones, should Sonnen lose, would be his last.
January 20, 2013:
Belfort beat Michael Bisping at UFC on FX 7, then used his post-fight interview time to take digs at Sonnen:
"Take that punk Chael Sonnen...get him out," Belfort yelled. "Dana, Lorenzo, kick him out. Let me fight Jon Jones. I need that rematch. Take that clown away. Go home...You did a reality show. Go home. Let me fight the real champion. Champion against champion, not that clown."
The idea of Belfort, or Sonnen for that matter, being granted a title shot would seem ludicrous were it not for the precedent set by—and here's where it really gets trippy—Vitor Belfort.
His critique of Sonnen's title shot was tinted with more than a little irony. Belfort, too, was granted a shot at Jon Jones, despite having spent years fighting at middleweight. Belfort too was granted his shot despite losing, in an all-time highlight reel knockout fashion, to Silva.
Don't get me wrong. There is every reason to rail against Sonnen's title shot. It's insulting to the very idea of sport, a blatant money grab that demeans the work done to separate cage fighting from boxing and pro wrestling, its combat sports brethren not known for transparent or sensible matchmaking.
But Belfort has walked in Chael's shoes. There's every reason for fighters to be huffy about Sonnen's unearned opportunities. Belfort, however, lives in the sport's only other glass house. Almost anyone can complain—except Vitor Belfort.
Sonnen, working as a broadcaster that night for Fuel TV, wasn't about to let Belfort go unanswered, accepting a challenge that was never made:
Let me be really clear and talk to you, Vitor. You've been telling the world that you want to meet Jesus and I will gladly arrange that travel. First, I'm going to get rid of Jon Jones, but you are next.
January 22, 2013
The Ultimate Fighter 17 debuts to strong ratings. Sonnen impresses fans with his thoughtful demeanor and stellar coaching. Botter welcomed a schtick-free Sonnen:
Gone are the pro-wrestling promos ripped from old-time star Billy Graham. Gone is the pompous, over-the-top character who claimed to be an undefeated world champion when we were pretty sure we saw him lose to Silva and others throughout his career.
In their place is an honest, humble and very realistic Sonnen, a man who is devoted to the young fighters on his team and is earnest about helping them overcome adversity and achieve their dreams.
Despite what you may think, or what you may think you know, this is the real Sonnen. This is the man I've interacted with for several years, and this is the man who is lauded by his closest friends and teammates as a stellar and caring human being.
Jones told Fuel TV that spending time with Sonnen helped soften some of his hard feelings towards his opponent. The two did not feud a lot during the show, choosing to focus their attention on their fighters instead.
April 2, 2013
In his birthday speech on UFC Tonight, Sonnen, among other things, claims to be the biggest draw the UFC has ever seen.
Jones responded a few days later on Twitter:
April 14, 2013
The Ultimate Fighter season ends with two of Sonnen's fighters competing in the finals. Jones and Sonnen are given an opportunity to promote their fight in front of millions during an interview with announcer Jon Anik. While Sonnen does his best, Jones refuses to even make eye contact.
Jones didn't appear interested in promoting the bout. Worse, he seemed to be actively sabotaging it:
It's not just that Jones has seemingly refused to promote the fight, though his lack of interest and sneering dismissal of the business side of his profession has to be troubling for the UFC, especially after all the time and effort they've spent building him into a star. Worse than disinterest, he's actively and continually downplayed the contest, making it clear that he doesn't believe Sonnen is a fit contender and that this isn't a competitive bout:
The beautiful thing about Chael is that he uses his words and that's about all he has, really. He's just a gang of quotes that no one's going to remember.
He's weak in every way, shape or form. He taps before submissions are even sunk in. I could put one hand around his throat and he's probably going to tap.
This is a classic mistake. When the true masters of the game promote their bouts, they never dismiss their opponents outright like that.
The fact is, Jones and all fighters have a very short window of opportunity to make a living in athletics. It makes no sense for him to minimize Sonnen's chances in this fight.
Jones gets paid based on how many pay-per-views the UFC sells. It's in his best interest for fans to consider Sonnen either a viable contender or a hated nemesis. Indifference, in this context, is worse than scorn.
April 16, 2013
Jones joins UFC Tonight to accuse Sonnen of being a cheater:
People know that Chael Sonnen has done steroids throughout his whole career and that’s probably why his testosterone is low now. I don’t think that is the heart or the attitude of a champion, so that’s what I meant when I said he lacks champion’s soul.
The next day, he apologized on Twitter:
April 18, 2013
Deadspin's Tim Marchman rips Sonnen in a well-written essay designed for casual sports fans. While Marchman understates his credentials and promotional skills, he makes a serious case that Chael is bad for the sport:
Chael Sonnen is a well-known asshole, less a person than the remnant of a figure crossed out of a bad novel's first draft for being too obviously representative. At 36, he's a convicted money launderer, state-chastised steroid user, failed Republican candidate for the Oregon House of Representatives, and shouting-head sports pundit; only involvement in a low-grade religious scam could make him a truer embodiment of American decline.
Even better, Sonnen is also a middling professional fighter who has won his way into a sequence of increasingly high-profile bouts simply by mounting an extended public relations campaign consisting in the main of vaguely deniable race-baiting. And even better than that, it, like the money laundering and the failed political run and the rest of it, is so obviously absurd, a joke Sonnen is so obviously in on, that it essentially negates itself. There is no Chael Sonnen outside of inverted commas.
April 22, 2013
Sonnen's farcical patter remarkably takes a turn towards further absurdity. He insists to reporters during a media call that he didn't talk his way into this title shot:
"I don't earn title shots; title shots earn me. I don't go after main events; main events go after me." Sonnen said.
Sonnen went on to praise Jones for his undeniable skills in the cage, insisting the phenom is a much better fighter than his former nemesis, Anderson Silva:
I don't think he understands how good he is. For him to pay tribute to Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali earlier was a very nice thing for him to do, but the reality is that Jon Jones could beat Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in the same day...When he says he wants to be the best ever, Jon, newsflash buddy, you are the best.
April 27, 2013
At long last, this ordeal will be over. Sonnen will have the chance to prove to Jones, and to himself, that he belongs in the same cage with the champ.