It is a familiar refrain: Chael Sonnen, coming off a loss, finds himself in position for a title shot.
It happened in 2013. Sonnen lost a middleweight title fight to Anderson Silva the previous July, only to find himself competing for the light heavyweight title in his first bout in the division since 2005. Chased from the middleweight division after two losses to the champion, Sonnen moved up and, with a calculated leap, skipped right over all the light heavyweights who were jockeying for their own opportunity to face Jon Jones.
Sonnen lost that fight, making him 0-3 in title fights in the UFC. He rebounded with a submission win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua but was finished by Rashad Evans a few months later. Retirement talk began to swirl; a post-fighting career as a television personality felt closer than ever. Sonnen ultimately decided to continue fighting, but his days as a title contender were over.
Logically, it was tough for fans to imagine Sonnen going on the kind of run that would earn him a rematch with Jones or a shot against middleweight champion Chris Weidman.
Of course, we forgot one very important detail: This isn’t just a regular fighter we’re talking about. We’re talking about Chael P. Sonnen. And when Chael P. Sonnen is involved, logic goes out the window.
Who wins this fight?
Sonnen was scheduled to face Wanderlei Silva at UFC 175. But after Silva allegedly ran from Nevada State Athletic Commission officials who showed up at his gym for a random drug test, he was pulled from the fight and replaced by Vitor Belfort. Silva was an opponent Sonnen would most likely defeat; it was never a good style matchup for The Axe Murderer.
Belfort? That’s an entirely different story. He has perhaps been the scariest fighter in mixed martial arts over the last few years, though it is impossible to say how much of that rampage was fueled by the now-banned testosterone replacement therapy regimen Belfort was on. But TRT or no, there is no question Belfort is a challenge many times greater than Silva. And still, Sonnen instantly accepted the opponent change, on short notice and with zero complaining.
If you’re wondering why Sonnen again finds himself in the title picture, the previous paragraph explains it all. He is the ultimate company man, willing to fight anyone in any weight division with zero notice. He famously offered to fight Daniel Cormier on one week’s notice after Evans was injured and pulled out of their UFC 170 bout in February. That was not the first time Sonnen has volunteered to step up and help out the UFC, and it won’t be the last.
Sonnen is such a company man, in fact, that he often is not consulted before being booked into a fight. White and the UFC brass know he’ll say yes to anything they ask, so they don’t bother asking until they’ve leaked the news to one of their preferred media partners. When Globo’s report hit the web on Wednesday, Sonnen was in the middle of preparing for an episode of UFC Tonight. He wasn’t aware of the opponent switch:
Not that I doubt it but Chael is on set of UFC tonight &hasn't been told he's fighting Vitor Belfort. Globo probably right but Chael in dark— FrontRowBrian (@FrontRowBrian) May 28, 2014
This is the kind of action that fosters loyalty with the UFC. When White knows he can count on you to help him out of a bind, you’re going to get preferential treatment. You’ll receive opportunities that others will not. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lost three consecutive title fights. It doesn’t matter if it makes zero sense from a sporting perspective. If you are a willing partner, someone the UFC can rely on, you will never be more than a stone’s throw away from the main events and championships.
Keep in mind, too, that the UFC is not a sports organization. It is an entertainment-first organization where popularity almost always outweighs skill. Hardcore mixed martial arts fans don’t like to hear it, but it is true: The UFC is nearly the same thing as professional wrestling. Stars are built the same way. Events are promoted the same way.
The only difference between the UFC and WWE? One promotes real fights, while the other presents fixed outcomes.
If the UFC were a straight sports organization, the idea of Gina Carano getting a title shot after five years away from the sport would be laughed out of the building. Matt Brown would’ve already earned a title shot by virtue of his winning streak, instead of being kept on the outside because he isn’t all that marketable. Brock Lesnar, with his 2-1 career record, never would’ve faced Randy Couture for the heavyweight title.
And Sonnen going 0-3 in title fights and yet finding himself in position for another would be unthinkable.
|Paulo Filho||WEC 31||12/12/07||Loss, submission, round 2|
|Anderson Silva||UFC 117||08/07/10||Loss, submission, round 5|
|Anderson Silva||UFC 148||07/07/12||Loss, TKO, round 2|
|Jon Jones||UFC 159||04/27/13||Loss, TKO, round 1|
But Carano will receive an immediate title shot when she comes to terms with the UFC. Brown has to beat the dynamic force that is Robbie Lawler for his eighth straight win before he gets a shot. Lesnar became the heavyweight champion in his fourth professional fight. And Sonnen, if he beats Belfort in July, will find himself standing across the cage from Chris Weidman at some point in the future.
Ludicrous? Perhaps. But history tells us that, in the wild world of the UFC, things don’t always have to make sense. Sometimes, you’re rewarded with big opportunities simply because you offered to help the UFC out when it needed it. And those who entertain the masses will always find themselves in big fights, regardless of their record.
Sonnen is a company man. He is an entertainer. And even if he beats Belfort and then loses to Weidman, it might not be the last time we see him in a title fight. That is the truth, and it’s better for everyone if we figure out a way to accept and deal with it sooner than later.