FanSided’s resident MMA guru Elton Hobson would like to take a moment to talk to MMA fans and make a simple request: please, pretty please, stop whining about Chael Sonnen’s title shot, or the UFC’s process for selecting title challengers. Especially when we’re the ones to blame.
Sometimes, a writer is overcome by the sudden urge to just let loose and write in public.
Wait, that didn’t sound right. Let’s try again – sometimes, I’m struck by a desire to just pull my Samsung out of my pants and…damn it, there I go again. There has to be a way to convey this idea without sounding like I should be forced to wear an ankle monitor and stay away from small children for the rest of my life.
Simply enough, sometimes I get so caught up in a certain news story (or set of stories) that I know that I have to get in on the debate, right then and there.
So as I write this, I’m riding a subway in beautiful Toronto, Canada. And I’m going to tell you a simple story, with an even more simple message: if you’re an MMA fan, and you have a problem with how the UFC awards title shots, than you’re a complete and total hypocrite. Sorry to break it to ya.
This is a debate that comes up on a yearly basis (if not more) so I’ll give you the cliff notes version: essentially, the UFC awards title shots almost entirely based on how much eyeballs you can bring to a fight (and hence, how much moolah Dana White and the Fertitta brothers will be bathing in that night). The problem is that this comes at the expense of trivial things like a fighter’s record, strength of competition, status as a contender, and “legitimacy” as a world title challenger.
That’s the story UFC-critical fans, fighters, and media have been singing to the high heavens all week. It all centers on the UFC’s decision to grant Chael Sonnen a gig as coach on the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter”. Oh, and a world title shot against fellow coach Jon Jones. Don’t want to forget about that one.
Chael Sonnen getting a title shot at LHW!? Have the gods gone mad? Sure, Sonnen used to compete at 205-pounds, but not since 2006. He’s also a middling 1-2 at light-heavyweight in the UFC. That’s not exactly a recipe for a top-flight title challenger.
But wait, it gets better! We all know Sonnen is coming off a crushing defeat to Anderson Silva – his second loss to the reigning champion of a weight class below light-heavyweight. So coming off a loss, with no establishing fight at LHW, Sonnen gets to cut in line against Jon Jones. Cue the howling from the rafters.
It started with Junior dos Santos, who took issue with Sonnen (as well as Alistair Overeem) for talking their way into title fights. But his comments were pretty muted, and as a Brazilian his taking issue with Chael P. Sonnen isn’t what you’d call surprising.
But the tune was soon picked up by guys like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson. These are two absolute legends at light-heavyweight – as well as two guys who have had their issues with Dana White in the past. And fans and media have picked up the chorus as well, and so the story of this week goes: the UFC’s title shot process is broken. The UFC has abandoned legitimacy in favor of quick dollars. The UFC is hypocritical.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Let’s start with this: since when has the UFC abandoned giving title shots to deserving – but hardly popular – challengers? This past year alone, Renan Barao, Chad Mendes, Yushin Okami, and Carlos Condit all got UFC title shots. None of these guys are even close to superstars in the world of MMA. Condit is likely the most popular of that group, and he’s “the guy who point-fought Nick diaz” to most casual fans. That’s not to insult any of these men – it’s simply the reality based on how they have drawn in the past.
The casual fan would likely answer back here that the UFC had “no choice” but to give these guys title shots. This is a funny thing to say – not only because it’s not entirely true, but because it reveals how two-faced some fans can be about this whole issue.
And over the years, the UFC has granted many a title shot to contenders that hadn’t yet “broken through” with the fans yet. Demian Maia, Patrick Cote, Mark Hominick, Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, Shane Carwin, Frankie Edgar – and those are just off the top of my head. The reason fans overlook these fights is simple – they haven’t been watching.
Anderson Silva provides an interesting example in this discussion, because I believe the UFC is attempting to avoid the mistakes with Jon Jones that they made with Silva. In fact, any problems regarding who “deserves” a title shot almost always come up once a champion cleans out a division. When a champion first wins the title, there’s almost always a stable of top guys to challenge him. Once a champ has cleaned out the top 5 of the division, however, things get interesting.
And no one has done more cleaning that “the Spider”. The result was challengers who may have “earned” their title shots on paper, but who were still relative unknowns to fans. And the result for the UFC was absolute bombs on PPV. Sure, Anderson Silva absolutely stinking up the joint didn’t help matters, but that doesn’t effect PPV buys before the fact. And the fan’s verdict has been crystal clear: it doesn’t matter how many #1 contender fights you win. If you’re not a big name, we aren’t paying attention.
So now that the UFC is finally listening to you guys, and trying to make fights you’ll care about, you turn around and say the UFC title shot process is “broken”. Yeah, it is – because us fans broke it. Or put another way – the fight promoting business is working like it always has, and putting on fights that will make the most money.
Let’s not forget what an absolutely dreadful 2012 the UFC is having in terms of injuries (and other foibles) derailing big fights. If even half of the main events that Joe Silva penciled in actually happened, I doubt we’d be having this discussion right now. Instead, we have a year that’s seen the first ever UFC event canceled in the Zuffa era, sagging ratings for “The Ultimate Fighter” and aside from Silva vs. Sonnen II, no truly blockbuster fights.
And then there’s Mr. Jones. This year has been uneven at best for a guy who should be the biggest star in the sport. There’s the DUI arrest, the lackluster fight with Rashad Evans, and the whole “turning down a middleweight who’s coming off the couch on a week’s notice” thing. His stock has never been lower, in a year when lightweight has been tied up and champions GSP, Jose Aldo, and Dominick Cruz have all been on the shelf for an extended period of time.
But what about Sonnen? What people don’t realize about him is not only does he make fights a “big” deal, he rehabilitates his opponent’s image as well. Going into the first Anderson Silva fight, Silva was the most despised fighter in MMA. People were vowing never to pay for one of his fights ever again. Dana White had threatened to fire him. He was almost universally hated.
In the space of a few months, Sonnen not only set up Silva for his highest-grossing PPV fight to date – that was the easy part. What he also did was become so aggravating, agitating, and annoying that fans were once again backing Silva. He brought Anderson back from the fringes of fan hatred and made him a hero again – before even stepping into the Octagon. That’s a rare kind of fight promoter, a “heel” in the truest, classic pro-wrestling/boxing sense.
And wouldn’t you know it – Jon Jones is in some serious need of image rehabilitation. And he’s also coming off a win over Vitor Belfort after pretty comprehensively clearing out he top of his division, so it’s not like there’s a long line of obvious challengers to his title. Outside of Dan Henderson and maybe Alexander Gustafsson, there’s no one else at 205-pounds that could challenge Jones right now in a non-rematch fight. And neither of those guys would draw close to the interest Chael Sonnen can, and will.
The UFC is a business, not a charity. And they’re not in the business of promoting fights no one wants to see (rough 2012 aside). And finally, they’re interested above all else in putting on fights we – us fans that is – want to see. And like Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven”, we fans have made it very clear that deserve ain’t got nothing to do with title shots.
Hell, Brock Lesnar is the highest drawing champion in MMA history, and he challenged for the UFC title in his third UFC fight after going 1-1. Fans complained, stomped their feet, and said the UFC title shot process was “broken”. Then we all tuned in for every single one of Lesnar’s fights.
Just like we’ll all tune to the Jon Jones/Chael Sonnen saga. We’ll watch “The Ultimate Fighter” and we’ll order the PPV and all the while we’ll complain about how unfairly the UFC awards title shots.
And I seriously doubt any of us we’ll see the irony.