Disclaimer: I understand that many people will disagree with what I write in this article, but please approach it with an open mind because I am just trying to offer a differing perspective on this issue. Also, this is not my hardcore set in stone, I will argue with anyone who disagrees with me oopinion. I am just thinking out loud about how I am kind of starting to cut Sonnen's some slack.
Thanks to The Rocketeer for letting me know when Chael Sonnen last Light Heavyweight bout occured.
Chael Sonnen over the course of his last seven fights is 5-2 with his two losses coming to the greatest fighter ever to compete in mixed martial arts, Anderson Silva, and to Sonnen’s credit, he has been the Spiders most competitive opponent since 2004. Sonnen established himself as the clear number two fighter in the middleweight division, but since a third bout with Silva seems unlikely Sonnen decided to move up to the light heavyweight division, a weight class he has not fought in since UFC 60 in a submission loss to Jeremy Horn. Due to Sonnen’s success at middleweight and extremely marketable personality, it was clear that he would more than likely gain a title shot with 2-3 solid performance against name opponents in the octagon. Sonnen’s initial 205-pound debut would come against Forrest Griffin, as Sonnen attempted to avenge an earlier career loss. However, this fight would not occur due to the now infamous circumstances surrounding UFC 151.
The current Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones” Jones was scheduled to face Dan Henderson at UFC 151 until “Hendo” had to withdraw due to a knee injury. The UFC tapped several fighters to be a replacement, but none of them would face the champion on short notice except for Chael Sonnen. After counsel by his head trainer, Greg Jackson, Jones decided that it was too risky to fight Chael on eight days notice. The UFC cancelled UFC 151, and Jones would go onto defeat Vitor Belfort by armbar at UFC 152. It looked as if Sonnen was back to square one for his title aspirations at 205. His fortunes changed when the UFC saw the dollars signs created from the whole UFC 151 fiasco so Sonnen and Jones were booked to coach The Ultimate Fighter 17 reality show, and Sonnen would challenge Jones in April 2013 for the Light Heavyweight Championship.
This caused outrage among the hardcore mixed martial arts fans because Sonnen had done absolutely nothing to warrant a title shot at 205. There is a huge difference in stepping up to save an event like Sonnen was trying to do at 151, but a pre-booked title shot for a guy coming off a loss to a Champion at a lower weight class? Moving down in weight and getting a quick title shot is understandable, but up? It made absolutely no sense except business sense. The only other time this had happened is when Randy Couture moved up to Heavyweight to take on Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 after coming off back-to-back knockouts to Chuck Liddell. Even in that scenario Randy had been a Champion previously at both heavyweight and light heavyweight, and the heavyweight division at the time was historically weak (example: Tim Sylvia was the reigning and multiple time champion). None of those conditions applied in this instance with regards with Sonnen. The title shot was completely undeserved, and even Sonnen admits that he talked his way into this shot. However, I believe that Sonnen in the last few months has validated his title shot and some could even use the word “earned” (relatively speaking).
I know that previous statement sounds like downright blasphemy, but hear me out. Sonnen has done little in the cage to garner this shot, but he has done something even more important, he made The Ultimate Fighter watchable again. I used to enjoy watching the ultimate fighter because it was interesting seeing these fresh fighters interact with current UFC superstars. The last several seasons of the Ultimate Fighter has been unbearable, and quality of the prospects on the show began dramatically decreasing. I was not going to tune into this season because I could not stand the show anymore. The fact that Sonnen and Jones were the coaches caused me to take an interest into the show, and I have realized that this shows talent level will more than likely make a huge impact on the UFC’s welterweight and middleweight divisions (I think Gilbert Smith could make lightweight). The talent is great and would probably have gone unnoticed if the show’s coaches followed the usual mold that TUF coaches have been lately. It seems that the UFC want to continuously push a coaching paradigm on the fans that does not deviate much from “Aging Great with the personality of a sardine can” vs. “Perennial Contender that takes himself way too seriously.” Sonnen made the show interesting not by employing excessive trash talking, but by being an awesome coach (the guy brought in Mickey Rourke!). Jones, while a bit young, and overly gifted to be a real coach, has not been the worst TUF coach either.
Sonnen’s performance on the show has started to soften my position on whether or not I should be angry that he unjustly got his shot at the belt. In addition, if you really think about it there was not a plethora of challengers, outside of Henderson, in the light heavyweight division since Jones has defeated most of the men at the top of the division. I know Henderson definitely got screwed out his third UFC title shot, but Sonnen and Jones have saved The Ultimate Fighter, and couldn’t Henderson be sacrificed for the sake of the most important thing in the history of mixed martial arts?
The Ultimate Fighter when it has been an interesting season, with great coaches and a talent-filled roster has an unprecedented impact on the UFC pay per view buy rates. The five UFC pay per views that precede the historic Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale was 88,000. These included pay per views that had historically popular fighters like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz. After the Finale, the buy rates for the next five pay per views averaged 170,000 buys. These five pay per views that followed the first TUF Finale were the five before season 2 finale. The five pay per views subsequent to the season two finale averaged 390000. The pay per view buy after the first two seasons were double both times after each finale! Now the doubling effect would obviously tail off, but there was still a 105,000 buy increase after season 3 for the next four pay per views! There would be seven pay per views between season 4 and season 5, and the average buy rate would still increase slightly.
Now the UFC buy rates increase would start tapering and remain constant at about 500,000 buys per pay per view from the season 5 finale to present. While the average remains constant overtime, there is usually a slight bump in pay per view buys after a TUF finale from a season that most fans would consider enjoyable, but if you look at the same stats regarding pay per views that follow disappointing seasons of TUF there is usually no boost. Now I know that there are other factors effecting buy rates, but for arguments sake I hope the importance of TUF shows. The UFC needs great quality TUF production to continue to attract the casual or mainstream fan to the sport. Sonnen is helping give us a quality TUF that we have not seen since TUF seasons hit double digits.
Could not the hardcore fans just overlook the fact that Sonnen has not earned a shot by his record, and give him a pass since he has been doing such a great job of the Ultimate Fighter so far? It will also be interesting to see how Jones deals with a strong relentless wrestler the caliber of Sonnen because that is a challenged that Jones really has not faced (Hamill and Bader are nowhere in Sonnen’s class when it comes to MMA wrestling and relentlessness). I think that this match up may ultimately prove dividends for the sport in the long term, but if not then I will be the first to say that I am wrong.