Anderson Silva has lorded over the UFC’s middleweight division long enough to create dilemmas for challengers.
Dilemmas that look like specific little purgatories.
Dilemmas that look like Rich Franklin trying to add body mass.
"Ace" was first to effectively get punted out the division by Silva, having fought "The Spider" twice and having lost spectacularly both times. A third fight in a lopsided affair was not and will never be in the cards. But then again gatekeeper wasn’t either. Reluctantly, and with the fresh dangling carrot of a different belt in play, he moved up to 205 pounds to see what havoc he could create there.
Turns out, not much.
Franklin’s (nearly all the way) back down 185 pounds with a set of new hopes. The problem is these are the kinds of hopes that have little to do with him. They are A.) that Anderson Silva retires, B.) that somebody (anybody!) dethrones Silva, or C.) that Silva bolts the division himself for 205 pounds.
Four years later and Franklin’s still at the mercy of Silva. And in a game flooding over with control freaks, playing wait-and-see can be harder to stomach than any kind of loss.
That’s precisely what Chael Sonnen wants nothing to do with, now that Silva has shot his star from the sky. Rather than settling for hopes like these -- hopes that are out of his control, and therefore intolerable -- he’s leaning towards a reinvention as a light heavyweight.
To paraphrase Sonnen, you don’t retire as a non-champion, you simply quit.
Sonnen’s not ready to quit. Instead, he’s gathering some things for his knapsack and headed north. The good news is that he isn’t reimagining himself into the WWE (yet) or anything drastic. Sonnen still has a driving desire to win a UFC belt, and he’s thinking of honing in on Jon Jones, is all. If not Jones immediately, then the people who might get him to Jones. Sonnen told UFC Tonight that “traditionally [changing weight classes] is a good way to get a fresh start and start over.”
That’s a fact.
We’ve seen it plenty in the fight game with everyone from B.J. Penn to Randy Couture -- and even with Tim Boetsch, who is closing in on a chance at Silva after a mediocre run as a light-heavy. Sonnen is as popular a star right now as anybody in MMA. He isn’t getting a third Silva fight with an 0-2 record head-to-head, but so long as he’s viable, he should capitalize on it. And so long as he can win fights, he can be accelerated in the new weight class because the UFC loves his ability to sell them.
There are plenty of consolations here.
But the question is: Can he succeed at 205 pounds? Though he presented a unique challenge to Silva by being 99 percent about dogged wrestling -- which made up 99 percent of Silva’s vulnerabilities -- the road to Jones is dotted with guys who won’t be bullied. Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson, Ryan Bader, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira and so on. Not to mention Jones, who doesn’t get taken down and lose the way Sonnen wins.
The top at light heavyweight isn’t tailor-made for an upset like it was at 185 pounds. Sonnen’s strengths are a lot of guy’s strengths where he’s headed. It’s not a red carpet he’s looking at to Jones.
But like Sonnen has made clear, competing in the sport is only meaningful if becoming the champion is the goal. At least at 205 pounds that can still be the goal. Just like it was with Franklin back in 2008. There are a lot of parallels. Sonnen debuted in the UFC as a light heavyweight against Renato Sobral in 2005. Franklin did too, against Frank Shamrock that same year.
Both were in their mid-30s when they attempted to perpetuate glory in bigger frames. That is, if Sonnen does what it sounds like he'll do by moving up.
The difference between Franklin’s move and Sonnen’s is that Franklin was at one time a champion in the UFC. Sonnen can’t say the same thing. He has the WEC belt that Paulo Filho sent him after not making weight for their title fight, which was a gesture toward something real. That one is legit -- if unofficial. He has the fake UFC belt that he paraded around with ahead of the rematch with Silva. That one had good shtick value.
But he doesn’t have the real thing.
And in a pursuit to get it, he’s facing up to the inevitable -- switching to a weight class that doesn’t have Anderson Silva at the top. No sense is waiting around for Silva to lose, bolt or quit.
Besides, Silva won’t have to quit. By Sonnen’s standards, Silva can simply retire. Being a champion makes the distinction.
And the good news for Sonnen fans isn’t necessarily that he’s fighting on so much as he refuses to quit.