Should fan interest decide No. 1 contenders?
By James Walker
As usual, Chael Sonnen spurs heavy debate.
The big news in mixed martial arts this week is the UFC’s announcement of a light heavyweight title fight
between champion Jon Jones and challenger Chael Sonnen. The pair will coach the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and will meet on April 27. Both are sure to generate tons of buzz and entertainment.
But there is a bigger picture here that needs to be addressed in MMA: Should fan interest decide No. 1 contenders?
How did Sonnen get his second consecutive title shot in two different weight classes? The answer: Sonnen talked his way into being a No. 1 contender.
Sonnen sells tickets and pay-per-views. The fans want it, and the UFC is very good at giving the fans what they want. But is that more important that what happens in the Octagon?
Sonnen leapfrogging more accomplished and proven light heavyweights such as Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida challenges the foundation of how a title shot is earned in the UFC. Is it based on merit? Fan interest? Or both?
White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva must this figure this out sooner than later. The answer to this question could determine how fighters in the future go about earning title shots.
The two sides of the argument
Point: Fighters must earn it in the cage
Based strictly on merit, there is no logical way to justify Sonnen as the No. 1 light heavyweight contender.
Sonnen is 2-2 in his last four fights, including 0-2 in title fights. For Sonnen to move up in weight and instantly leapfrog fighters like Henderson, Machida, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Alexander Gustaffson for the top spot is a slap in the face to the light-heavyweight division.
Should Sonnen jump ahead of other quality fighters because he's a better trash-talker and promoter? That is the message the UFC is sending to its fighters. As UFC light heavyweight Forrest Griffin told MMAFighting.com this week, “Why fight your way to the top when you can talk your way to the top?” It’s a valid point.
Sonnen is a blue-collar fighter who doesn’t need a free pass due to his master salesmenship. He is more than capable of earning his way up the rankings by stringing together several wins. Even one convincing win at light heavyweight is better than an immediate title shot.
As the UFC approaches mainstream status, there is increased pressure to please its fast-growing fan base. But the organization must also maintain the concept of earning a title shot in the Octagon as opposed to talking your way to the top.
Counterpoint: Give the fans what they want
The UFC, more than any other combat sport, is very interactive with its fans. The organization thrives on giving the audience what they want, and this is one of the reasons MMA is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports.
How long have we waited for Floyd Mayweather to face Manny Pacquiao in boxing? That doesn’t happen in MMA. If there’s enough of a buzz and push for a major fight, the UFC usually delivers.
Sonnen-Jones would generate more hype, more interest and more pay-per view buys than any light-heavyweight matchup out there. That’s not a knock on Machida or Henderson, but Sonnen is simply more interesting and more polarizing.
Sonnen will masterfully sell the fight, and Jones has a rival that he’s grown to dislike. There are natural storylines that do not exist with Jones-Machida II or Jones-Henderson.
Even Jones, who initially turned down a title fight against Sonnen in September, came around - thanks to the fan pressure.
“The more I realize how bad the fans want to see me fight Sonnen, the more I am beginning to disregard whether he deserves it or not," Jones tweeted last week. Continuing, "A part of me wants to do it for the fans. The other part of me feels as if it delegitimizes the importance of (the) championship."
Without a doubt, this is a difficult debate with valid points on both sides. It’s a tough line the UFC must walk carefully in the coming years as the sport of MMA continues to grow.