UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones will coach The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season 17 opposite Chael Sonnen, who becomes de facto number one contender in the 205-pound division because of it. At the conclusion of the season, the two will fight, with the champ's title on the line.
This is an interesting decision to say the least. It brings into question the motives of all involved because, quite frankly, at least from a pure sporting perspective, the fight makes no sense.
Sonnen has competed at light heavyweight just once in his UFC career, a submission loss to Renato Sobral. He's also coming off a technical knockout loss to Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, his second in four fights. At 35-years-old and 40 bouts into his professional career, it's fair to wonder just how much he even has left.
Jones, meanwhile, has one (bogus) loss to his record and his current eight-fight win streak has come against the cream of the crop in his weight class. Four successful title defenses, all but one by way of dominant stoppage, mark a career that is fast becoming the stuff of legend.
So how in the hell is it that these two came to be matched up?
That's a difficult question, mostly because you'll get a different answer depending on who you ask but each one will likely hold similar value as a legitimate response. Does Sonnen deserve a title shot? No, not based on the set of criteria most fans and pundits use to help determine top contenders in each respective weight class.
But it's that very system leading you astray.
At this point, it's become quite obvious that the powers that be within the UFC aren't just looking for skilled fighters who can wow us in the cage. No, they're also looking for promoters, or partners, if you will.
Though many of you may despise the connection, there's a very clear correlation between how the UFC runs its business and how WWE (or pro wrestling in general) runs its business. In WWE, it takes a certain set of skills to succeed, natural talent and ability inside the ring obviously being the most important.
After all, if you can't get the job done inside the ring, what's the point?
However, just as important as a wrestler's ability to work a good match is their ability to sell said match to the masses. They do this by way of what's referred to as a "promo." Think of what Chael Sonnen did after his UFC 136 win over Brian Stann last year. When he got the microphone from Joe Rogan, he called out Silva, saying he "absolutely sucks" and demanded a rematch. He was "cutting a promo."
He's done it time and time again, too, spending a great deal of time perfecting this craft. That's because even those wrestlers who struggle inside the ring when it comes time to work a match at a major pay-per-view can get by just fine if they're exceptionally good at cutting promos and making fans care about their matches.
There are larger forces at play here than just the fact that the fight doesn't make sense in the sporting sense, and I keep referring to that because I would think it obvious that mixed martial arts (MMA) isn't a sport in the same sense as say, football, baseball or basketball. Those sports establish a clear hierarchy based on a mutually agreed upon schedule of games played between each team throughout a season that leads to a playoff to determine a champion. This system works because it eliminates politics and outside influence from affecting the ability -- or inability -- to make contests come to fruition.
MMA doesn't yet have this, and it likely never will. There are a number of reasons for that, the least of which being that the UFC would probably never give up that much control over its product. The other, more established, sports leagues have no need to worry about which games will draw the highest viewership because they don't operate under the same pay-per-view model. The NFL has multiple television deals that pay billions of dollars annually. Sure, the set-up and schedule allows for the biggest games to get the prime television slots but it never affects the actual matching up of the two teams playing in said games.
That's a luxury the UFC doesn't want to give up. And it's because of the aforementioned pay-per-view model and shows like TUF.
In its never-ending quest for mainstream acceptance as a legitimate sport meant to be covered by all the major sports networks, the UFC signed a multi-year deal with FOX to air a number of fight cards annually on FOX, FX, and FUEL TV throughout each year, as well as any number of seasons of TUF, a flagship program for the promotion since its inception in 2005.
There have been a few hiccups in the year since the two went into business together, the biggest of which could be the fact that TUF was moved to Friday nights. That's a less than desirable time slot for obvious reasons but a switch to a live format was supposed to rejuvenate the show and renew interest, which had already been waning even dating back to its far more established days on Spike TV.
Except that didn't happen. In fact, the live format was ditched in favor of a return to the old stock format for the current season, featuring Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson as coaches. The result has seen TUF hit its lowest numbers in years, with one episode averaging just under 650,000 viewers over the hour long episode.
Obviously, this is a problem for not just the UFC but the FX Network. Surely they expected more bang for their buck and those numbers don't come close to comparing to some of the prime shows on the cable channel. This led to both organizations springing into action, with FX promising a timeslot change to a far more desirable day and UFC delivering an explosive pairing of coaches that has already created more buzz than perhaps any season before it, save for season 10, which featured street fighting sensation Kimbo Slice and two coaches with plenty of hate to go around, Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson.
Which brings us back to Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen, the pairing that is expected to inject life back into the dying program.
The announcement of as much brought disdain from not just fans and experts but fighters under the Zuffa banner. Notable among them was Forrest Griffin, who had been scheduled to square off against Sonnen at UFC 155 on Dec. 29 at the annual year-end show. He remarked he felt Sonnen had "talked his way to the top."
For the most part, he's right. But let's try to realize there are special circumstances at play here.
Sonnen, once he knew he was moving up to light heavyweight, before the UFC 151 situation and before this opportunity presented itself, strategically went about calling out Jones through various social media messages and interviews with the media. Was he trying to talk himself into a fight without having to earn it? Not necessarily.
But he was most definitely positioning himself to be in the right place at the right time.
Sonnen, knowing the unpredictable nature of the fight game and how valuable a commodity he can make himself simply by speaking negatively of his contemporaries, threw out a few barbs, created some buzz, and let the pieces fall into place. They did, too, when Dan Henderson suffered an injury and the UFC couldn't find a replacement opponent for Jones in the main event of UFC 151 just eight days before the show was scheduled to go down. So Sonnen was given a call as a last resort, and he immediately accepted.
Did he deserve it? No. Even Dana White had previously told the media Sonnen would need to win a fight or two before earning a title shot in his new weight class. But, again, these were special circumstances and because of Sonnen's careful planning and tactical approach to the fight game, he was in the right place at the right time.
Jones, knowing this, would have no part in it and shut down Sonnen's game by refusing to fight him on such short notice, causing the complete cancellation of UFC 151 and turning himself into the biggest heel in the sport in a matter of minutes.
Ultimately, Jones would fight Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 and win in spectacular fashion. Sonnen went back to preparing for his bout against Griffin.
Then, as noted previously, the bottom dropped out on TUF and its ratings hit an all-time low with nothing planned to save the show from dying altogether.
Suddenly, Jones vs. Sonnen was back on the table.
At that point, it only took a bit of subtle prodding to get "Bones" to accept the job and Sonnen, whose promotional skills had put him in the right position to earn an opportunity like this, wasted no time doing the same and a plan came together.
TUF is suddenly interesting again and FX is giving it a new day and timeslot to aid in getting ratings up. Jones and Sonnen have a platform to spend months promoting a fight that could top one million buys on pay-per-view. Dana White and the UFC make a ton of money in the process.
Does it make sense from a sporting perspective? Not really. But since when did that matter in the fight game?
The lesson here is quite clear. The UFC doesn't just want to employ a roster of fighters, they want to employ a roster of fighters who double as promoters and partners. If you scratch their back, they will scratch yours. If you help them, they will help you.
If you're a great fighter, that will certainly take you places. But if you're a great promoter, it will open certain doors for you that being a great fighter will not.
That's the game. There's nothing wrong with playing it.