Updated below with more comments …
Boxing and MMA promoters have to walk a fine line between hucksterism and sports. The UFC has long walked it better than most.
Dana White didn’t build up Kimbo Slice as one of the world’s best heavyweights — EliteXC did that. White and company instead gave Kimbo a chance to work his way up through The Ultimate Fighter, taking advantage of his notoriety but not treating him as something he wasn’t.
The UFC might make some matchups just for fun. When boxer James Toney barked his way into a UFC shot, White put him on a main card and fed him to powerful wrestler Randy Couture, who duly took him down and demolished him. Last weekend, needing a main event for one of the many injury-rattled cards this year, White put middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a non-title light heavyweight fight against the durable Stephan Bonnar, a classic case of the unstoppable force against the immovable object. (Unstoppable force 1, immovable object 0.)
But title fights? No. Aside from the title shots granted to the winners of the “Comeback” season on The Ultimate Fighter, title contenders have usually earned their shots. Perhaps Brock Lesnar was fast-tracked in the heavyweight division, but he was essentially part of a four-man tournament to settle a weight class unhinged by Couture’s contract dispute. Vitor Belfort got a surprising shot as a late replacement, but he’s a past champion who still has a lot to offer. The UFC just doesn’t hand out title shots to undeserving fighters.
Chael Sonnen has no claim to a title shot at 205 pounds. None.
The case for Sonnen: He gave Anderson Silva fits in two shots at the middleweight title, and he has the wit (and willingness to stretch the truth) to sell a fight.
The counterargument, from MMA Mania’s Brian Hemminger: “Chael Sonnen hasn’t fought at light heavyweight since UFC 55 over seven years ago when he was choked out in the second round by Renato Sobral.”
And here’s the dean of the MMA press corps, Yahoo’s Kevin Iole: “A guy who did nothing to qualify for a title shot is getting one for no reason other than that he’s quick with a quip. The UFC bills itself ‘as real as it gets,’ but this time, it’s nothing but a fairy tale.”
But wait, there’s more …
– As exciting as Sonnen’s hype might be, he isn’t the most exciting fighter in the cage. Through 14 fights in the UFC and WEC, he has exactly one finish — his October 2011 arm-triangle choke win over Brian Stann. Before that, his last finish in the cage was against Kyacey Uscola in SportFight in 2007.
– In his current UFC stint, he’s 5-3. And I’m not convinced he beat Michael Bisping.
– Sonnen got TWO shots at the middleweight title and lost them both. Now he’s supposed to move up and be a contender without fighting anyone else?
– After his really impressive performance in the first loss to Silva, Sonnen’s postfight drug test showed a 16.9:1 testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. It’s supposed to be 1:1. The World Anti-Doping Agency allows for natural variance up to 4:1. Nevada’s commission allows 6:1, even when Sonnen was approved for therapeutic use of synthetic testosterone.
– Other light heavyweight fighters exist.
Sure, the UFC might want to give The Ultimate Fighter a jolt, given the current ratings. (The current season isn’t bad, but for some reason, people just aren’t tuning in. Don’t tell me Friday nights are a problem, unless you’re telling me MMA fans are high school football fanatics. Or players.)
So if the UFC really wants to have Sonnen on The Ultimate Fighter, here are a couple of suggestions:
1. Have Sonnen and Jones fight a non-title catchweight bout. That way, if Sonnen somehow gets lucky and beats Jones, he’s not the “champion” of a weight class in which he has no other notable wins.
2. That Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin rematch (Griffin beat him via first-round submission in another promotion in 2003) the UFC was planning? Put Sonnen and Griffin on TUF.
Updates: Fighters are speaking up now: