Audacity pays in the UFC. Chael Sonnen is nothing if not audacious.
Chael Sonnen is “The Man.” He is the first No. 1 contender to never appear on your 205-pound rankings. He’s looking right past the “Forrest” through the trees. What does he see? Jon Jones standing there on a filthy red carpet that the UFC is rolling out, waiting for him to come get his.
How did we get here?
That’s the bit of tricky business that precedes Sonnen’s coaching stint versus light heavyweight champion Jon Jones on the 17th season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” That’s the bit of “business” that has pro wrestling fans high-fiving each other. It’s the kind of business that everybody can’t help but see the business end of it. In fact, plenty feel compelled to describe this sort of business as brilliant to the squinting types who need it.
But for the so-called fastest growing sport on the planet -- a sport that has come so far in so short a time from the days of Brock Lesnar’s transition and the James Toney experiment -- does meritocracy taking a backseat to spectacle advance the cause? After all, to call it a sport, shouldn’t it behave as a sport? For all the Royce Gracie/Matt Hughes left-field matchmaking of yesteryear that try to justify the logic of making Sonnen-Jones, aren’t we discounting the system that makes the thing go round at this advanced stage? It’s 2012, the year of fulfilled national broadcast dreams. Haven’t these Fox cards been about establishing No. 1 contenders?
Are we saying that all the scaffolding is really just a house of cards?
Of course we are.
And if you don’t get the decision to pair Sonnen and Jones, this is one of the reasons why. Never mind Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua and any of the contenders at 205 pounds who have blown their chances, knees and savings trying to find their way to Jones.
Those names are just old meritocracy playing tricks on you, and meritocracy is really more of a convenience than it is an honor code. Besides, there are other pieces to digest with the news of Sonnen-Jones, stuff that fight fans might find disheartening. For instance, the next time we see Jones fight it will be next baseball season. In April. We’re still in this baseball season.
Why is this a reason to rejoice? When did we get so happy with news of deprivation? Jones didn’t like Sonnen on eight days’ notice to rescue UFC 151 (when Sonnen was volunteering to help out in a pinch), but likes it on six months’ notice (and Sonnen is pinching himself at his good fortune). As for Henderson, Rua, Machida and anybody else? Turn on each other for now, and business might open again for title shots come summer 2013.
That’s the silver lining being extracted from Sonnen’s silver spoon.
Then there’s the hunch that this thing won’t be remotely competitive. When Sonnen was fighting Silva, his pin-the-ears-back wrestling played into the champion’s vulnerability.
Against Jones, who’s 10 years younger? Good luck with that.
And finally, there’s the bit of glaring privilege: Sonnen is in Jones’ division because he had nowhere else to go. He nearly beat Silva once, but lost to him twice, the second time anticlimactically. He nearly lost to Michael Bisping, too, but survived. He had to bolt the middleweight division, ultimately, because of failure. He’s never been a champion and he’s coming off a loss -- in a fight that, given the years of lead-up, didn’t come close to living up to billing -- and yet he’s in the penultimate spot at 205?
But there I go spinning off toward the merit thing again. It’s easy to do in a situation like this.
I get it -- Sonnen shows up on the scene as $onnen. He comes in to breathe some life into a fading TUF franchise, and he sells a fight (even as common sense tells you it’s a fight he can’t win). Watching him scour Jones for six weeks spread over a dozen shows is by turns fun and agonizing to contemplate. But that’s the idea. It’s tantalizing television.
In short, Sonnen is entertainment, and entertainment is still the bedrock of sports. And in the UFC’s case, TUF is just part of the whole. There’s no offseason; the UFC is always going. For that reason, disruption is part of the process of casting. It isn’t as if the NFL plucked the Baltimore Ravens from a season in progress to film a season of “Hard Knocks." But you know what? It sort of feels that way.
Jones would have fought between now and April. So would have Sonnen. He’d have fought in December against Forrest Griffin. Now both are out of action until April, and for what? Some television hijinks?
Bottom line is that Sonnen sold us on Anderson Silva, and he’ll sell us on Jones. That’s enough to trump your rankings, your better sense and your silly Silva superfights.
It’s a business decision that’s understandable from the perspective of business. But understanding it doesn’t mean you have to like it.
“I guess I should just quit training to win fights and to be exciting for the fans and just go to s--- talking school,” Henderson tweeted in response to this announcement.
Jokes and truths are so hard to tell apart on Twitter. Same goes for the fight game.