What do we make of Chael Sonnen?
That's the question reverberating around my head, 24 hours after Sonnen surprised us all by beating Mauricio "Shogun" Rua by submission to cap off an excellent debut for the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Fox Sports 1 Saturday night.
The surprising part isn't that Sonnen won. I predicted that outcome earlier this week. I believed that Sonnen's new affiliation with the Reign Training Center in southern California would, for the first time in a very long time, make Sonnen an even better fighter than the man who twice stepped in the cage with Anderson Silva and took on Jon Jones earlier this year. I felt the experience of working with a disciplined team instead of spending most of his time training solo near his home in Oregon would sharpen Sonnen's skills, and I was right.
But even though I predicted that Sonnen would easily handle Rua, I never expected him to win by submission; a prop bet on Sonnen submitting Rua clocked in at plus-575 via 5Dimes, which is to say that oddsmakers, media and fans didn't expect it to happen. And yet, happen it did, as Sonnen utterly dominated Rua before securing a fight-ending guillotine choke late in the first round.
Sonnen provided plenty of interesting talking points after Fox Sports 1, but the rest of the card delivered in spades, too. But what's next for "The Bad Guy" and the rest of the FS1 winners? I'm here to play fantasy matchmaker and tell you what I'd do with Sonnen, Travis Browne and the rest of the victors from the Fox Sports 1 main card.
Let's take a look.
Sonnen's decision to move back down to middleweight surprised me, mostly because he's had just two fights at light heavyweight.
But after giving it some consideration, the move makes plenty of sense. Sonnen was utterly dominated by light heavyweight champion Jon Jones earlier this year, and it'll be awhile before he can work his way back to a fight with the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Middleweight is a different story. Despite losing two title efforts to Anderson Silva, Sonnen has a clear chance to work his way back into a title fight because Silva is no longer champion. Even if Weidman loses to Silva in their December rematch, Sonnen could angle for a third fight with the Brazilian simply because he recently lost.
Earning another title shot will require another win over a top middleweight contender; potential fights with Vitor Belfort or Lyoto Machida, who seems intent on dropping a weight class, would give Sonnen the credibility he needs for another title fight.
But with that said, I'd still book the fight Sonnen wants. He and Wanderlei Silva have taken shots at each other for several years, and while a win over Silva wouldn't cement Sonnen as a title challenger, it's still a big fight with a very public grudge that needs to be settled.
UFC 167, which features Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks in the main event, is in need of a co-main event. I can't think of a better option than Sonnen vs. Silva.
If not for Sonnen submitting Rua in the main event, Travis Browne's knockout of Alistair Overeem would have easily been the most surprising result from the UFC's debut on Fox Sports 1.
Browne showed plenty of heart in surviving Overeem's early onslaught. And with one violent front kick knockout, Browne signaled that he's ready to move from prospect to contender. Which means that, for his next fight, Browne deserves to face someone a few steps up the ladder.
The winner of the UFC 163 bout between Josh Barnett and Frank Mir makes perfect sense. At the time of this writing, Mir is ranked sixth in the heavyweight division. Barnett is 10th—a few places behind Browne, who is ranked eighth—but the former UFC heavyweight champion and longtime veteran also has the kind of name value that can give Browne a boost, provided he wins the fight.
Browne is quickly becoming an interesting player in the heavyweight division. He's incredibly agile for a big man, and he just knocked out a former K-1 Grand Prix champion. I'd like to see him face a wily veteran, and both Mir and Barnett fill that role admirably.
In beating Iuri Alcantara (the artist formerly known as Yuri), Urijah Faber cemented the fact that he's still one of the best in the bantamweight division. Alcantara had little name value—at least when compared to Faber—but he's still a very dangerous fighter, as he proved in the first round when he put Faber in precarious positions throughout the first five minutes.
But as he tends to do, Faber survived and dominated Alcantara for the rest of the night. And even with the win, the major question surrounding "The California Kid" remains: What do you do with a fighter who beats everyone in the division except the champion?
Faber mentioned before the fight that he'd like to consider superfights. I like that idea, and I have the perfect fight in mind: Faber moving back up to featherweight (or a catchweight of 140 pounds) for a fight against former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar.
It makes sense. The only other logical opponent for Faber at bantamweight is Michael McDonald, but that fight would kill a potential contender with no real return. And Faber is good at killing contenders; since the beginning of his career, he's undefeated in non-championship fights.
I like the idea of Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz unifying the bantamweight title whenever Cruz finally returns from his seemingly endless layoff. While that happens, you pair up Faber and Edgar for a big fight, and then let Faber get back in the title chase next summer.
Matt Brown ran his winning streak to six by crushing Mike Pyle in the first round.
That's a stunning thing, and it means something in the welterweight division. But at the same time, Brown has yet to compete against a top-ranked fighter, and so he cannot be given the one thing he truly wants: a title fight against Georges St-Pierre.
It is time, though, for Brown to face a contender, or at least someone who can put him in the conversation. That's why he should face the winner of the Carlos Condit/Martin Kampmann bout, which serves as the main event of the next FS1 card.
The timing works. St-Pierre and Hendricks don't face off until November, which means that there's plenty of time for Brown to face the Condit/Kampmann winner later this year and determine the next challenger for St-Pierre. And make no mistake about it: if Brown were to beat Condit or Kampmann, there's no question that he'd be the rightful top contender for the championship.
I cannot recall a fighter with just one UFC fight receiving the kind of treatment that Conor McGregor gets, both from the fans and the promotion itself.
It was clear heading into his fight with Max Holloway that the UFC loves the Irishman. From his birthday dinner with Dana White (followed by a Vegas jaunt in White's Ferrari) to the fact that McGregor was given his own open workout during fight week, McGregor is receiving the superstar treatment from the UFC and fans alike.
And if that wasn't enough, he was also given a main event walkout for his fight with Holloway; it's the first time I can recall a preliminary fighter getting such treatment.
And though McGregor did not finish Holloway as he desired, it's still obvious that he has the talent and the charisma to be a major featherweight star, perhaps even the UFC's first true star below 155 pounds. I expect him to be fast-tracked up the ladder in anticipation of the UFC visiting Ireland next year, when he might be a viable challenger for Jose Aldo.
That's why he needs to face a top-10 fighter for his next outing in the Octagon, and the winner of Erik Koch vs. Dustin Poirier fits the bill. Despite Koch's loss in his last fight to Ricardo Lamas, he's still ranked 10th in the division. And both are good style fights for McGregor, who will likely be protected from wrestlers such as Nik Lentz for the time being. He'll eventually be forced to face Lentz or Chad Mendes, and we'll learn a lot about his all-around skill set once that time comes.
But for now, he's a star on the rise, and the UFC tries to protect guys like that as long as it possibly can. Koch and Poirier are beatable fights for McGregor. But more importantly, they can help vault McGregor into the top 10, and they'll help provide an exciting fight.