A viewers' guide to UFC 159: Jon 'Bones' Jones vs. Chael Sonnen
If you've read these SI.com viewer's guides to UFC events in the past, you know the drill. You get a little backstory on the headliners, a few telling (or at least oddball) statistics on both fighters, and the kind of cogent analysis of the main event that you simply can't wait to take to the sportsbook (yeah, I know, to bet the other way). And then -- and only then -- do we get around to sussing out the reason you should care about the marquee bout.
This time, though, let's just cut to the chase. Why? Because, in assessing the worth of the UFC 159 main event, the "why" is more essential than the who, what, when or where. So ...
Why should you care about Saturday night's light heavyweight title fight (10 p.m. ET, PPV) in Newark, N.J., between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen? The best answer I can furnish: It depends on what's important to you.
As a fight fan, you always want to seize an opportunity to watch the best do what they do. And Jones (17-1) clearly is the best in the 205-pound weight class. He's an Anderson Silva retirement party away from being the pound-for-pound king as well. Though his creativity has become a bit paint-by-numbers in his most recent fights, "Bones" is a don't-blink performer whose handiwork can yank you out of your seat at any moment. That's tough to ignore.
It's even more problematic to ignore, however, that this title fight represents everything that's wrong with mixed martial arts matchmaking. Sonnen (27-12-2) is a quality fighter -- his wrestling is relentless, his standup game efficient -- and he does have the distinction of having given Silva his toughest challenge. But therein also lies the problem, which is a two-parter: (1) Chael lost for a second time to "The Spider" in his most recent fight, which alone should have scuttled any immediate opportunity to go for a championship belt; and (2) his fights against Silva, as well as all others on his resume going back to 2006, were in the middleweight division, not light heavyweight, which further discredits his claim on a title shot at 205.
So this is what it's come to in the UFC: pitting an elite champion against a guy who's coming off a knockout loss and hasn't fought in the weight class in more than half a dozen years. Sonnen does know how to draw a crowd, though. And it's prizefighting, after all, with the prize being the cash generated from the paying customers that carnival barker Chael can entice into the circus tent to buy up all the popcorn. The Marketing Department is just doing its job. The Competition Committee? Not so much.
And Chael isn't apologizing. "I don't earn title shots; title shots earn me," he said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. "I don't go after main events; main events go after me."
As scripted for soundbites as that is, the man's right. Sonnen didn't talk himself into this one. He did step up to challenge Jones last September after an injured Dan Henderson pulled out nine days before a title fight. When "Bones" didn't take the bait, the UFC cancelled the pay-per-view card and company president Dana White, rather than casting a hairy-eyebrow gaze inward at his matchmaking team's failure to have a Plan B at the ready, demonized his light heavy champ and canonized Chael. Even after the dustup had settled and more deserving 205-pounders were available for Jones -- Henderson was healed and Lyoto Machida, though unwilling to step in with "Bones" on short notice, was very much ready for the title shot he'd earned by beating light heavyweights -- White continued to have Sonnen on the brain.
"Every one of these guys that are bitching about a title shot now were offered a fight and turned it down. They refused to fight Jones," Dana said in response to criticism he heard from media and fighters after selecting Sonnen to coach opposite of Jones on The Ultimate Fighter. "Now they're bummed because Chael stepped up on eight days' notice."
Yes, he did. Good for Sonnen. If Jones had accepted that makeshift replacement fight, no one would have criticized UFC matchmakers for thinking outside the box to salvage an endangered fight card. But now? With actual 205-pounders waiting in line? Meritocracy be damned, the UFC is devolving into the mentality that makes I'm-going-to-act-antisocially-and-you'll-be-unable-to-look-away reality television a ratings winner over well-scripted comedy or drama. In a sports context, what if the NFL had told the conference-winning 49ers to go home so the Super Bowl could feature the Cowboys, who didn't even make the playoffs but nonetheless are "America's Team" because they sell a lot of jerseys? Pro sports is about money, sure, but it cannot be all about money. To be in the big game, you should earn your way.
Jon Jones has earned his place in Saturday night's championship fight. Chael Sonnen has not. But go ahead and watch if you cannot look away. And that vat of popcorn sitting in your lap? Munch and munch away like a jonesing addict, even if an abundance of the kernels never even popped.
Jon Jones by the numbers
100: Percent of takedowns defended during his UFC career, according to FightMetric statistics. Something has to give when the unstoppable force (takedown machine Sonnen) runs into the immovable object (the never-been-taken-down Jones).
4: Title defenses, tying Jones with Chuck Liddell and Frank Shamrock behind Tito Ortiz, who defended the light heavy belt five times.
8: Consecutive victories, tied with Lyoto Machida for the longest streak in the UFC weight class. (Jones actually has been the better man in all 18 of his fights, but he was disqualified for illegal elbows during a thorough beatdown of Matt Hamill.)
5: World champions he has beaten to establish and continue his own title reign. Sonnen is the first opponent he's fought in over two years who has never worn a UFC championship belt.
2.48: Significant strike differential in his UFC fights -- that is, the difference between the number of telling blows he lands and those that his opponents land. He ranks sixth best in the UFC.
Chael Sonnen by the numbers
1.15: Strikes absorbed per minute during his UFC career, tied for third in the promotion's history. That defensive prowess is going to be tested.
1,356: Total strikes landed during his UFC career, ranking seventh all-time.
5: Consecutive victories in bouts against opponents not named Anderson Silva.
5: Fights (including Saturday's) among his most recent six that will have been either a title bout or title eliminator.
8: Losses by submission. Meanwhile, he's 16-1 in fights that go the distance.
Since numbers don't tell the whole story...
What we should expect: Despite Sonnen not being a light heavyweight and despite his zero-fight winning streak, there's some sentiment that he poses a threat to Jones based on how he manhandled Anderson Silva for the better part of the seven rounds they spent together in the octagon. If Chael can do that to the top pound-for-pound fighter, why not No. 2? Well, here's why: Silva, for all of his astounding gifts, is no wrestler, while Jones is. He's not as high-level as Sonnen -- Jon was a junior college national champion, Chael an Olympic alternate -- but he doesn't have to be. The champ just has to be good enough to fend off a takedown or scramble out of trouble if his back does hit the mat. Between the length of "Bones" and other physiological advantages, and his proficiency with elbows in the clinch, I don't see this one ending well for Sonnen.
I'm not sure even Chael thinks differently. Though he's been playing mind games with the young champ by veering away from his stockpile of insults and heaping flattery on Jones, Sonnen has characterized his chances in this fight with some curious language choices. After assuring us during a Fuel TV appearance the other night that he is going to "walk across that ring and put Jon Jones on his prissy little ass," he tempered the tough talk with a qualifier he'd used before: "If he [has] an answer for that, then God bless him." We never heard such "win or lose" language from Sonnen during the buildup to either Silva fight. It sounds honest and even humble, but it's hard not to conclude that it's really just a safety net for when the "L" lands on top of him.
From Jones's perspective, this fight is a grand opportunity. Even though his opponent is undeserving of the title bid, Sonnen is widely recognized as the guy who made superman Silva look human. For nearly all of the 23 minutes of their first fight, and for the entirety of the opening round in the rematch, we saw Chael take Silva down (or knock him down) again and again, and smother him while raining down punches. If Jones comes out and dominates from the get-go, as the matchup of skill sets suggests he should be able to do, it will provide a side-by-side comparison: Jones-Sonnen vs. Silva-Sonnen. It will be a flawed comparison, as common-opponent scenarios often are, but it'll be a shorthand way for "Bones" fans to make the case that their man is The Man.
Why we should care: See above.
"Hurry up! Get this deal now before our chicken runs out and we have to cancel."
-- A flyer for Mean Street Pizza, a dining establishment in West Linn, Ore., owned by Chael Sonnen, selling customers on the Jon Jones Special Pizza, a menu special from back when Sonnen was picking a UFC 151 fight with the champ. "Loaded with chicken," said the ad, "and full of cheese."
"Chael Sonnen is a guy who people know he's done steroids throughout his whole career. It's probably the reason why his testosterone is low now. I don't think that's the heart or the attitude of a champion."
-- Jones, speaking on the Fuel TV show UFC Tonight last week. (Sonnen has never tested positive for steroids, though he was suspended in 2010 for failure to properly disclose his TRT usage. Jones later apologized for the accusation via Twitter.)
"I don't think he understands how good he is. For him to pay tribute to Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali earlier was a very nice thing for him to do, but the reality is that Jon Jones could beat Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in the same day. ... When he says he wants to be the best ever, Jon -- newsflash, buddy -- you are the best."
--Sonnen, taking a more flattering tone during Monday's conference call with MMA media
And on the undercard...
Sticks and stones: Michael Bisping has lost two of his last three fights, all of which were preceded by little or none of the trash talk we used to be able to count on from "The Count." Before that, the Brit was on a four-fight win streak, culminating with a double dose of acrimony in his buildup to bouts with Jorge Rivera and Jason Miller. Coincidence? Well, no doubt the shift in tide came about more because Bisping has fought tougher competition of late -- Sonnen, Brian Stann, Vitor Belfort -- but it's fair to say Michael is back in his comfort zone with all of the nastiness that's been fired back and forth between him and Alan Belcher. Part of the reason for their orneriness: Both guys are coming off a loss, and another on Saturday night would make middleweight title contention fade into the distance.
Heavy implications: How do you miss a paunchy 250-pounder and a statuesque 6-foot-4 guy? Somehow, Roy Nelson and Cheick Kongo have escaped notice for the most part in the buildup to this weekend's fight card, despite the fact that both heavyweights have built up a head of steam after some choppy seas. Roy has won two straight fights, and three of his last four. Cheick has lost just one of his last six. They both have heavy hands (11 KOs for Nelson, 10 for Kongo) and enough grappling know-how to keep this fight within a comfort zone. But only one can step forward toward the front of the pack of heavies.
The ground to stand on: Phil Davis is a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion and four-time All-America. Vinny Magalhães has won multiple medals in the world's most prestigious submission grappling event, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship. So watch these light heavyweights stand in front of each other trading punches for 15 minutes. Or until one of them falls involuntarily.
Jersey barrier: The latest Strikeforce refugee who'll try to flourish in his transition to the UFC? Pat Healy, who was scheduled to take on Gilbert Melendez for the ill-fated promotion's lightweight belt last year before the champ was injured in training. Healy fought anyway, winning his sixth straight, but now -- in his first UFC fight since 2006 -- he'll really have his mettle tested. Jim Miller is coming off a thrilling win over Joe Lauzon, but at just 2-2 over his last four fights, the Jersey tough guy is going to be a surly welcome wagon.
Not playing Games: The world is waiting for Sara McMann. OK, not the whole world or even the whole MMA world, but certainly the segment of the world that is excited by the emergence of women's fighting. McMann won a silver medal in wrestling at the 2004 Olympics, so it's an appealing fantasy to see how she'll fare against 2008 judo bronze winner -- and current UFC champion and media darling -- Ronda Rousey. It's a little early for that, as McMann (6-0) is developing her game more slowly than the "Rowdy" one. We'll get a sense if she's anywhere near ready for the big show this weekend when she takes on Sheila Gaff, a whirlwind of a fighter whose 10 wins all have come in the first round, nine within the first two minutes, four within 30 seconds. Ready or not, Sara, here she comes.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.