Jeremy Lambert: Jon Jones is officially a middleweight. Sure he might be fighting at 205 and defending the light heavyweight title, but his last opponent had been competing at 185 since 2008 and his upcoming opponent dropped to 185 in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. It’s not necessarily Jon’s fault that he’s fighting middleweights, but he is.
Last week Dana White announced that Jones and Chael Sonnen will coach the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter and then fight for the light heavyweight title in late April. That’s right, Sonnen is getting a title shot despite losing his last fight at 185, not having a win at 205 since 2005, never having a UFC win at 205, Dana White promising that he wouldn’t talk his way into a title shot, and there were a couple of contenders who were scheduled to get a title shot long before Sonnen had aspirations of moving up in weight.
When the announcement was made, it brought back the long time “sport vs. entertainment” in MMA argument. Jones vs. Sonnen is a great fight from an entertainment perspective because Sonnen is charismatic and talks a good game while Jones is one of the sport’s biggest draws. But from a sport’s perspective, it’s an indefensible fight as no one with any sense of logic can claim that Sonnen deserves a title shot under these circumstances.
Samer Kadi: MMA is a sport. The UFC is a business. The UFC promotes MMA, and therefore, combines both business and sport. To state the obvious, like any business, one of the main purposes of The Ultimate Fighting Championship is to maximize profit. Providing its audience with entertainment goes a long way in achieving that goal, and the UFC have historically succeeded in doing just that. Quite admirably, they did it while managing to more or less maintain a certain measure of balance between sport and entertainment. After all, the reason the sport of MMA even exists is to determine who the best fighters in the world really are.
In general, the topic of “sport vs. entertainment” has been somewhat of a false dilemma, as the two are hardly mutually exclusive, and have coexisted for the better part of the UFC’s tenure. For most fans of the sport, watching the best fighters in the world compete against one another is plenty entertaining, and at times, quite enthralling. Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Jon Jones – the UFC’s top 3 draws at the moment – didn’t reach superstardom on the mere premise of entertainment. First and foremost, they have attained their current status by being extremely skilled at what they do. Chuck Liddell’s personality was no more animated than a Grey Maynard interview, but he remains one of the most popular fighters the sport has ever witnessed, largely due to being a one-of-a-kind knockout machine.
Of course, that is not to suggest that authentic mixed martial arts skill is the only form of entertainment, or that fans aren’t drawn to some of the less “pure” aspects of the sport. After all, we live in a world where after spending a season on “The Ultimate Fighter,” Kimbo Slice managed to get two official fights in the UFC, one of which on PPV. Likewise, the UFC is where James Toney was brought in to serve as a laughing stock for the sheer amusement of MMA fans, by being squared off against one of the sport’s all-time greats. In fact, St-Pierre, Silva and Jones themselves engaged in professional wrestling-esque feuds that sparked huge interest and boosted buy-rates even further, while the sport’s biggest draw to date once suplexed Paul Wight through a Smackdown ring.
However, with the exception of a handful of examples — Couture’s crack at Sylvia and Lesnar’s premature title shot come to mind — the UFC have done their best to keep the legitimacy of their titles intact. Unless injuries dictated otherwise, the UFC title is generally contested between the best fighter in the division and his most deserving challenger. They engage in manufactured, and sometimes legitimate, feuds along the way, but that was merely a bonus — or a distraction, depending on your point of view.
Chael Sonnen is often labeled as someone who talked his way into title shots, but that ignores the fact that he had to beat Yushin OKami and Nate Marquardt for his first, and Brian Stann and Michael Bisping for the second. Even the above-cited exceptions came in MMA’s weakest and most shallow division, where very few – if any – alternatives were at the UFC’s disposal. However, Sonnen’s recently announced light heavyweight title shot, in a division often dubbed as the most stacked in MMA and against a man he has no shot at beating, is perhaps the first example of sport and entertainment being totally separated, with the latter taking full priority over the former.
Jeremy Lambert: The UFC was partially built on mismatches. Ken Shamrock had no chance at beating Tito Ortiz the second and third time around, yet both fights did huge numbers. Royce Gracie had very little chance at beating Matt Hughes, yet it did the biggest buyrate in the history of the company at the time. Those fights came at a time when the UFC, while not struggling, wasn’t exactly established. They had The Ultimate Fighter on SpikeTV, but that’s about it. Dana White certainly wasn’t talking about being bigger than soccer at the time of those fights.
Things are different nowadays. The company essentially has their own network, they’re on commercial television, and, for the most part, they’re being treated like a legitimate sport. They’re not being run like a legitimate sport though, especially in the case of Jones vs. Sonnen. Bud Selig can do a lot of stupid things, including have an exhibition game decide home field advantage in the World Series, but he can’t just put the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the World Series because it’ll produce the best rating.
And that’s what this fight, and the fact that Jones and Sonnen are coaching TUF, is about: ratings and buyrates.
The Ultimate Fighter stopped being relevant years ago, but the UFC still views it as this show that produces great talent. The ratings for this season have been the lowest ever, and instead of taking a hard look at the problem and trying to fix it, the company has decided to put a band aid over it. Jones and Sonnen may get the ratings back to a million viewers a week, but so what? Is one season of better, but still mediocre, ratings worth holding up the light heavyweight title and giving a title shot to an unworthy challenger? Jones and Sonnen on PPV will likely draw more than Jones vs. anyone else in the division thanks to Sonnen’s gift of gab, but so what? Is increasing the buyrate for one event worth hurting your credibility, putting on a fight where the challenger has no chance, and potentially killing any big fight potential the challenger ever has again?
Let’s not forget that, on top of Dana saying that Chael wouldn’t talk his way into a title shot, he also said that Sonnen had less of a chance than Vitor Belfort against Jones.
This fight isn’t about seeing who the best is or making the most competitive fight, it’s about trying to save a dying TV show and trying to increase the slowly plunging PPV numbers.
Samer Kadi: Not even the UFC should be delusional enough as to legitimately believe that The Ultimate Fighter still produces great talent. In fact, they most probably don’t. However, they still see value in the show, and seem intent on righting a ship that may very well have sailed. Their line of reasoning isn’t entirely unfounded. There absolutely is benefit – and perhaps even necessity – in having regular programming on free television. It helps keep the UFC relevant beyond its PPV’s and free fight cards. However, it is time to accept that “The Ultimate Fighter” has run its course, and it is time to start looking into other avenues in that regard.
In FX and Fuel, the UFC essentially have their own television channels, and their contract with FOX dictates that they will have to provide them with specific, regular content. Unfortunately, TUF seems to have hit a dead end. They retooled the format last season to little effect, and every armchair suggestion for change thrown around is too miniscule to have a solid long-term effect. Fighters needing to fight their way into the house is hardly revolutionary, and has been done before. Fight commentary will not suddenly spark interest in watching sub-par fighters gas out two minutes into an already mediocre bout, and the quality of fighters is not going to improve when good talent will find its way to the UFC without having to share a roof with fifteen other competitors for twelve weeks.
Sonnen and Jones will improve the ratings. That much is all but certain. They also benefit from having very small shoes to fill. Any rise in ratings will likely be treated as a success, but one season of improved ratings will only delay the inevitable, which really begs to question whether the juice is worth the squeeze. A PPV headlined by Jones and Sonnen was going to produce good buy-rates irrespective of a full season of manufactured conflict.
In reality, almost two years of alarming drop in ratings and buy-rates have triggered a panic button for Zuffa. Unfortunately, instead of getting creative, look to find ways of building new stars, and change things up, they have decided to take a shortcut. Admittedly, it is going to pay short term dividends, but is almost assuredly to meet its end come April, once Jones dusts off his undeserving challenger with predictable ease.
Jeremy Lambert: The UFC seems to believe that a great rivalry between two charismatic fighters is what brings the ratings on TUF. After all, the season that featured Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson and drew the highest ratings in show history had nothing to do with Kimbo Slice being in the house. Even top draw Brock Lesnar failed to bring in TUF ratings as he had no beef with the kind hearted Junior dos Santos. Sonnen and Jones have a real rivalry (or as real as a rivalry between Sonnen and Jones can be) so obviously they’re going to do 3 million viewers each week. Especially since they’ll be moved off Friday night.
Reality is that, no matter who coaches, people don’t want to see two unknown and mediocre fighters fight at the end of the show, which is what the show is still all about. TUF can be effective in building interest in a fight, but is it any more effective than a three week Primetime series, which actually keeps the focus on the stars and the actual fight?
As mentioned by my partner, Jones and Sonnen will increase the ratings because they are stars, especially compared to the recent run of FX coaches, but how long will that last? The UFC will trumpet the show’s premiere, but when it returns to the same averages that they were drawing on SpikeTV, then what? There’s also the risk that people grow tired of Sonnen and even Jones. Neither fighter is exactly the most liked person in the sport and after 13 weeks of Chael’s pro wrestling material and Jon’s “I’m a nice guy but watch me bully this dude” act, people could be seriously turned off.
Not only that, but for the second straight fight, we’re going to see “the greatest trash talker in the history of combat sports” fail to put his skills where his mouth is and get decimated by the superior fighter and champion. People are already starting to tune out Sonnen, this could be the start of everyone finally pressing the mute button.
Samer Kadi: When all is said and done, this fight will do well on PPV, and many will claim vindication. However, very few have predicted disappointing buy-rates. The UFC feel some pressure to deliver so they came up with a fight that, while desperate, will prove financially rewarding. What is aggravating about the issue however, is the unconvincing justification they have offered, which is not only an insult to fans’ intelligence, but an insult to the more deserving fighters who were bypassed. The fact that Dan Henderson got injured and Lyoto Machida turned down the chance to face the man who destroyed him on mere three weeks’ notice should have no bearing on a fight that is scheduled to take place in April. It was a different scenario under different circumstances, and Zuffa using that as any sort of valid excuse is a slap in the face to the fighters who have actually accomplished something in the division.
Ultimately, this fight is about making money. Some will undoubtedly enjoy the predictable build-up, where Chael Sonnen will get championed for claiming the same old outrageous things every week while everyone turns a blind eye to the fact he never backs it up, Jon Jones will get ridiculed for getting “verbally destroyed” by Sonnen, a few people will develop a “gut feeling” that Chael will pull it off in the week leading up to the fight under the premise that he’s “in Jones’ head”, only for Jones to absolutely decimate him inside the cage. Dana White, Jon Jones, and Chael Sonnen will be very rich men, and we can finally move on and look forward to more credible fights.