Chael Sonnen wasn't the most deserving fighter when it came to the light heavyweight division title fight, but that's exactly the position he's claimed after stepping up in Dan Henderson's stead and agreeing to challenge Jon Jones at the much-anticipated UFC 159 main event.
Sonnen needs to make the most of his chance against Jones, because another loss in a title fight could force his hand to hang up the gloves for good.
The main event fight between Jones and Sonnen is a long time coming.
Scheduled to face Henderson back in August, Jones was at the middle of the biggest—and only—UFC cancellation of our time. Sonnen stepped up to replace the injured Hendo at UFC 151, but Jones refused to fight Sonnen after he lost to Anderson Silva a month prior and didn't have time to prepare for the bout (h/t Los Angeles Times).
Jones then defended his title at UFC 152 by easily taking out Vitor Belfort before agreeing to coach The Ultimate Fighter with a mind toward taking the UFC 159 main card fight against co-coach Sonnen.
That road has led to this April clash.
Sonnen will put his career on the line in Newark, and he'll have to find a way to overcome the same disadvantages the rest of Bones Jones' other 17 defeats have found out firsthand to have any shot at surviving this fight and earning a win.
In fact, Sonnen is a huge underdog for this caliber of a fight.
Part of that stems from the marketing value of his name—and more importantly, his mouth. Sonnen is a noted UFC bad boy, never afraid to stake his claim to a fight regardless of his standing as a contender that has never taken that next step up the ladder.
As noted by Matt Erickson of USA Today, Sonnen is a 10-1 dog on Saturday but is really embracing his role to not have a chance against Jones. In a fight that some (i.e., Dana White) feel would be the biggest upset in UFC history, Sonnen has one more chance to change his career trajectory.
To do so, expect him to recall his experience in his most-recent loss—Silva.
Not that specific loss, but the five-round thriller back in 2010 that started his current rivalry with the Spider. Sonnen managed to keep Silva off-balance, took advantage of the fact that Silva was considered to be coasting for much of the fight and likely would have taken home some sort of decision if not for getting submitted in the latter stages of the final round.
It was, to date, the biggest fight of his UFC career.
However, Sonnen tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone after the fight (h/t MMAFighting.com) and hasn't done anything to affirm his place as one of the sport's top fighters.
His rematch against Silva was indicative of what the first matchup might have been if Silva had really been engaged, and his place in this fight is the result of a marketing ploy to drum up a "rivalry" between Jones and Sonnen that didn't really exist until Jones refused to fight him on short notice.
Now, Sonnen is fighting for his MMA career.
It's an idea that David King of Yahoo! Sports also sees as a possibility, since Sonnen's MMA career has been largely based on his ability to out-wrestle lesser opponents. Don't get me wrong—Sonnen is one of the sport's premier wrestling talents, and his wins over Yushin Okami, Brian Stann and Michael Bisping cement that fact.
However, the clock is winding down on his career if he can't reach the top of the podium with a win over Jones. Ironically, he got this title shot with virtually no light heavyweight experience, mainly because the company was desperate to fill the void at UFC 151 before Jones backed out.
If he loses a second straight title fight, where do you send him? Back to middleweight, where Anderson Silva has already beaten him twice? In a talented group of light heavyweight contenders that includes Lyoto Machida, Hendo and Rashad Evans?
Sonnen's been a professional fighter since 1997. This will be his 41st professional fight on Saturday, and we could be seeing a changing of the guard with respect to his place in the UFC. Though he's never been one to duck or dodge a fight, going down to the middle of either division and having to work his way back up at age 36 is a tall task indeed.
Couple that with what King notes is a successful stint as a broadcaster and seller of different brands, and he could choose to put the gloves away for the luxuries of his fame.
While one realizes Sonnen has a "never say die" attitude toward the ring, this is truly a do-or-die fight to back up the talk he's so proudly stated over the course of the buildup for this fight.
It makes him a dangerous opponent for Jones, as he really has nothing to lose if you look at his career resume.
Bones will have the length and reach advantage over Sonnen all night long. He won't, however, have the luxury of no pressure to defend his title. He is joining Georges St-Pierre and Silva in terms of title defenses, and that can take its toll on an athlete.
However, a sound victory over Sonnen would be a huge disappointment for the challenger. We'll see what that kind of decision does to the headstrong Sonnen, and if Jones can be the final strike to an otherwise against-the-odds career for Chael Sonnen.