The UFC’s decision to place Chael Sonnen into a coaching spot opposite Jon Jones for The Ultimate Fighter 17, with a light-heavyweight title shot to follow, was roundly criticised by fans and fellow fighters when it was announced last week.
Dan Henderson, a Team Quest team mate of Sonnen’s and the lead contender for the title shot until the switch, said that the move “degrades the sport of MMA”. Other fighters - Anderson Silva among them - voiced much the same sentiments and they were echoed by a large part of the fanbase.
Why the ire? Well, Sonnen is coming off a second-round TKO loss at middleweight in what was his second failed attempt to take the title. And he was finished so definitively in the second fight with Anderson Silva that UFC president Dana White immediately and categorically stated there would be no third meeting because there was no need and fans would not buy into it.
“This one was pretty decisive. He's beat him twice. It's not like this is the rubber match. He beat him twice. He beat him. Chael is in a position that most guys are -- when you go on a run at the title, and you lost two times, back at the end of the line,” he said in July.
Fast-forward a few months and Sonnen’s “end of the line” spot has actually turned out to be the front end of the light-heavyweight line rather than the back end of the middleweight line. How did he get there? The same way he got the lead contender spot in the middleweight division - being the biggest hype-man in the MMA world today.
Of course he wins fights as well, but Sonnen’s rise from middle-of-the-road to top of the 185lb pile was facilitated by his calling out of Anderson Silva in a robust fashion that at the time was jaw-dropping and has still yet to be replicated. Sonnen said it drove him mad to see fellow fighters act awestruck around Silva and so he decided to “stick my finger in his chest and call him out”.
Ever since, Sonnen has been like a quote machine. Or indeed a quote machine-gun. Nothing and nobody has been off his radar and while he has been outrageous in some of his comments - his comments on Brazilians evoke mixed feelings - in other instances he has said the things that many want to say but didn’t feel comfortable saying publicly. There are probably a lot of fighters who would like to pass comment on Jon Jones’ DUI, for example, but don’t for one reason or another.
White has declared Sonnen to be a ‘top five’ pay-per-view draw and as the UFC derives most of its revenue from PPV that has elevated him to something approaching sainthood at West Sahara Avenue, Las Vegas where the company is headquartered. At present he can do no wrong and so such inconveniences as his suspension for non-disclosure of Testosterone Replacement Therapy are ignored and instead he is at present one of the most visible faces of the company.
But the question remains - does the decision to give him the light-heavyweight title shot ‘degrade’ the title as Henderson says it does? In black and white terms, Sonnen has no business being anywhere near a light-heavyweight title shot and so it seems like an unconscionable decision. But lets look at Dana White’s explanation for it on the recent conference call.
“I've said this before and I'll say it again. Dan Henderson had the opportunity for the fight and he got injured. Every one of these guys that are bitching about a title show now, were offered the fight and turned it down. They refused to fight Jon Jones. Now they're bummed out because Chael stepped up on eight days notice and he's going to coach The Ultimate Fighter and fight him,” he snapped.
Seems fair on the face of it - but on reflection, how does Sonnen ‘stepping up’ on eight days notice for an injured Henderson in October mean that he then becomes the lead contender for a fight taking place in April? Jones has an injury to recover from, true, and so does Henderson, but surely the two of them could rest up and then take up where they left off?
Or why not ask Henderson to coach opposite Jones on The Ultimate Fighter? White admitted he hadn’t even spoken to Henderson about it, inadvertently making it clear that Sonnen was the only one who had been considered for the slot. And the TUF connection raises the question of whether there is more to Sonnen’s shot than simply ‘stepping up’ six months before the fight is due to take place.
Two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter on FX have tanked, hard. Friday night is a graveyard slot for male 18-34 programming but the show is also beset by other problems, including the fact that the format just isn’t compelling any more. There’s also a dearth of real characters in recent seasons and the rivalry between teams always plays out via the same pranks and the same drunken posturings.
The veteran pro-wrestling writer Dave Meltzer is widely regarded as an authoritative source on television goings-on and he made some interesting comments about the move from Fridays to Tuesdays which will mark the Jones/Sonnen series of TUF.
“The Ultimate Fighter did a 0.49 rating on 10/5, roughly half of what would have been considered a below average rating a year ago. If the show can be saved, Sonnen is the guy to do it, and saving the show and drawing a big buy rate from a business standpoint may be a lot more important right now than a bunch of guys who are more deserving of a title shot, but there is right now no fans clamor to see any of them get a title shot,” he wrote in The Wrestling Observer.
In other words, business need has overridden the strictly sporting criteria that would - or at least, should - normally govern the awarding of title shots. Its much the same scenario with Alistair Overeem. Having failed a drug test in March, causing his UFC 146 fight with Junior Dos Santos to be scrapped, he has still been declared to be the lead contender in the heavyweight division.
Overeem will end his current suspension on December 27 and then be ringside for the title rematch between champion Dos Santos and the man he took the belt from, Cain Velasquez. As the prince anointed, Overeem will be the next to challenge whoever emerges as heavyweight king. So one can fail a drug test, receive a ban and then possibly be declared champion in his first fight back. Not the most palatable anti-doping message perhaps, but again, business need.
The UFC has always shied away from a rigid ranking system to determine contenders and title shots. This is precisely because it wants the flexibility to declare its own contenders using whatever criteria it sees fit at the time. And while we can all rail against that in terms of ‘sporting purity’, it has been a very useful tool in the UFC’s success and that has in turn made MMA a viable career for the hundreds of fighters that make up today’s rosters.
So, do Sonnen’s and Overeem’s shots devalue the belts? In purely sporting terms yes, there’s no two ways about it. But in the overall big picture, it isn’t likely to have any detrimental effect on the sport or the organisation as a whole. In fact the opposite is true - Sonnen vs. Jones and Overeem vs. the heavyweight champion are two of the biggest fights available right now and their success will more than offset any damage caused by the unstable foundations they are based on.