There are plenty of takeaways from Tuesday’s bombshell news that light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen will be opposing coaches in the next installment of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, which will culminate in a light heavyweight title fight between the two in April.
One is that Sonnen’s mouth is able to talk himself into a title fight in what will be only his second fight in the light heavyweight division, even if his body wasn’t able to get him past Anderson Silva as a middleweight.
Another is that Jones’ debt to the UFC brass, incurred when UFC 151 was cancelled after Dan Henderson was injured and Jones refused to fight Sonnen as a short-notice replacement, is now paid.
But the most important takeaway from the fight announcement, which UFC president Dana White revealed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times today, is this: Dana White is the biggest promoting genius in sports today.
“Jon has accepted the fight,” White told the newspaper. “He knows the fans want to see that fight.”
For a man prone to over-the-top statements, that might be the biggest understatement in White’s UFC career.
Of course, a fight of this caliber doesn’t need a hype man to tell us how epic it’ll be.
Jones is the hottest thing the UFC has going, a 25-year-old new breed of fighter who has never really lost a fight (his only mixed martial arts loss was a disqualification for illegal elbows in the finale for The Ultimate Fighter 10). As the UFC has moved into the American sporting mainstream in recent years, Jones has become its flagship product, a soft-spoken son of a preacher who can cross over with audiences previously untapped by the UFC.
The 35-year-old Sonnen, in contrast, harkens back to the loud-mouth style of professional wrestling. He made a cottage industry out of trash-talking Anderson Silva and his Brazilian countrymen, and hyped their two fights into two of the greatest moments in recent UFC history. And after he lost his rematch with Silva in July, he immediately turned his sights on Jon Jones, announcing that he was moving up to light heavyweight and prodding Jones with Twitter tweaks.
“I KNOW you will never fight me,” Sonnen tweeted at Jones in August. “Don’t be afraid. But I’ll always be the monster in the closet of your mind, little JJ.”
And now we’ll have months of buildup — taping for the show starts in a couple weeks in Las Vegas, and will begin airing on FX in January — before the next light heavyweight title fight, which will be on April 27 at a yet-to-be-determined site.
It’s no secret that the UFC has had its struggles in 2012, its first year of a seven-year television deal with FOX. More than a quarter of the UFC’s announced fights in 2012 have been scrapped due to injury, according to a recent analysis by MMAFighting.com. Injuries affected the main event at UFC 143 (Georges St-Pierre pulled out of a fight with Nick Diaz), UFC 147 (Vitor Belfort), UFC 149 (Dominick Cruz), UFC 151 (Henderson) and UFC 153 (Erik Koch).
So faced with the slew of cancelled fights, Dana White was forced to create some magic.
First was his announcement of a potential superfight next year between St-Pierre and Silva at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. It would be a fight between two of the greatest fighters in UFC history. In fruition, it ought to do bonkers pay-per-view buys. At minimum, the prospect has fans salivating.
And then came Tuesday’s announcement, which improbably one-upped a chance St-Pierre/Silva superfight.
Jones has been viewed as an unstoppable force inside the Octagon, and as someone who has all but cleared out the light heavyweight division. Of course, Silva had once been considered unstoppable, too, before Sonnen nearly pulled off a miracle upset at UFC 117 in 2010. Sonnen dominated Silva for five rounds before succumbing to an armbar with less than two minutes left in what was the fight of the year.
The great thing about being the head of the UFC is that you can make any fight you want. You don’t have to cringe when the New York Yankees get knocked out of the playoffs by some small-market team. You are the kingmaker. You can take Sonnen and his 6-5 UFC record, pit him against Forrest Griffin in his first light heavyweight fight at UFC 155 in December, and then schedule him to take on Jones in April.
Dana White only needs the vision to do it, and the will to convince the fighters to accept. And his vision of having Jones put his title belt on the line against Sonnen is a vision that Jones said no to as recently as last month. Jones said he didn’t believe Sonnen had earned his shot at the light heavyweight belt. Jones and Silva also shot down fans’ clamor for a superfight between those two.
But meanwhile, as fans were bummed that a Jones-Silva fight didn’t appear to be in the cards, Dana White was working his magic behind the scenes. He put together a television show that ought to do great ratings, created a rivalry that ought to increase the UFC’s profile and put together a light heavyweight title fight that ought to keep fans talking for the next six months. It’s the most exciting thing to happen in the UFC all year, the work of a genius.