UFC president Dana White had problems to solve.
First, one of his biggest stars, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, had an arm injury, which was going to keep him out of action several months.
• WAGENHEIM: Bout is 'TUF' to swallow
Second, his franchise reality TV series, The Ultimate Fighter, seemed on the verge of sputtering out. In its 16th season, and its second since moving from Spike TV to FX, the show recorded the lowest single-episode viewership of its entire run on Oct. 12, drawing a mere 624,000 viewers.
So for White, putting Jones on TUF opposite UFC resident motormouth Chael Sonnen as coaches on season 17, with the two fighting at the end of the season, was a win-win solution. Jones and Sonnen will begin filming the show at the end of the month for a winter/early spring airing, and will culminate the champion defending his title against Sonnen on April 27 at a TBD venue.
Problem solved. Or so it seemed. In mixed martial arts' unique bubble of subculture, in which White can enrage a segment of his Internet audience by picking tomato soup for lunch instead of minestrone, jumping Sonnen to the front of the line at light heavyweight and giving him a crack at Jones' title raised more than a few hackles.
And not without reason. Sonnen has fought at middleweight since 2005. He was slated to meet Forrest Griffin in December in his return to light heavyweight, a bout which was canceled in the wake of Tuesday's TUF announcement. Not only is Sonnen getting a title shot in his first bout at light heavyweight, but he's coming off a loss to middleweight champ Anderson Silva in his last fight.
"Everyone keeps saying its because [Sonnen] talks, its because he does this," White said on a Wednesday media teleconference. "I've said it 15 times on this call: He was the only guy who stepped up. ... Every other contender turned down this fight. Chael Sonnen was the only one who took it."
Top light heavyweight contenders such as Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson took to Twitter to express their disapproval of White's decision. But White swatted back at them Wednesday, while also noting others were already scheduled to fight one another, such as Alexander Gustafsson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who will fight on Dec. 8.
"So basically we got the word after Jon went out and got his elbow checked that he couldn't fight until April. So it made sense for him to do The UltimateFighter,'" White said. We can still do the Machida fight, Henderson can fight, Gustafsson and 'Shogun' are gonna fight in December. Everything will keep on moving."
Sonnen, for his part, all but flaunted his cut to the front of the line. "Welcome to life," Sonnen said. "We don't 'deserve' things, you get what you get. You've got to understand, not one of those fighters said, 'hey Dana, I'll fight Chael, let me prove I'm the No. 1 contender.' Not one of them. They all sat there and said their things, and I have no problem calling every one of those bastards out, and I'll call them out right now. I have no problem getting a tuneup fight and slapping any one of these guys around, including the Karate Kid [Machida]. Not only do they not want to come into the heavy water and fight me, they don't want to fight Jon. No one called out Jon. ... I will fight anybody at any time. They all say these big things, but not one has stepped up."
Shooting for the reality series begins in late October. Jones will rehab a right elbow ligament injury while he coaches one team of fighters, while Sonnen will coach another, as the fighters compete in a tournament which plays out weekly. Jones and Sonnen will then fight at the conclusion of the series,
Does such a bout demean the sport of mixed martial arts and push it too much toward the realm of entertainment? You don't have to travel far back in a time machine to be reminded that combat sports have a long history of making popular, big-business fights over the purists' howling objections.
Did Oscar de la Hoya, with three wins in five years, really have any business stepping in the ring with a prime Manny Pacquiao in Dec. 2008? Pacquiao bludgeoned him straight into retirement and the public rewarded them for the spectacle by making the bout the biggest grossing pay-per-view event of the year.
Likewise, UFC has made a string of such fights over the years. Tito Ortiz's entire trilogy with Ken Shamrock was derided the entire way. Their first bout in 2002 put the new-era Zuffa on the map and their 2006 bouts in July and October, respectively, drew what were at the time company PPV and cable TV ratings records. Brock Lesnar got a shot at heavyweight champion Randy Couture in just his fourth pro MMA bout. Not only did that fight draw a monstrous PPV buy rate, but Lesnar actually won the title.
A decade of experience has shown UFC the louder the MMA intelligentsia complains, the bigger gate receipts it can expect on fight night.
But will this particular gamble pay off? The Ultimate Fighter was a novelty when it first appeared in 2005. The masses didn't know much about mixed martial arts, which had been banished from cable television for nearly decade. The format served both to educate the audience to the sport's intricacies and serve as face time for a generation of new stars. The memorable first season produced stalwarts like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, and Kenny Florian.
But every television idea eventually grows stale. Short of scrapping the show entirely, UFC could have responded to TUF's declining ratings in one of several ways. One of the most popular of the series' seasons was its fourth edition, in which fighters who previously fought in UFC, but had been cut, were brought back, with the promise of a title shot for the winner. That ended with Matt Serra scoring a famous upset over Georges St-Pierre to win the welterweight title. Enough time seems to have past for a reprise. Or, with Zuffa owning the Strikeforce brand, and women's MMA as hot as its ever been, they could have attempted the first all-women's edition of TUF.
Instead, White and FX doubled down on the old format and amped up the star power. Sonnen, with his touch of carny, has a nonpareil ability to talk people into watching his fights. Jones can simultaneously rehab a strained elbow ligament while also doing the same for his public image. Jones took a beating in the court of public opinion after he turned down a fight with Sonnen (yes, many of the same people pillorying UFC for making Jones-Sonnen just two months ago made Jones public enemy No. 1 for not fighting Sonnen) after which White cancelled UFC 151. Three months of regular TV face time should help win back over alienated fans.
Jones and Sonnen gave a sneak preview of what to expect during Wednesday's press call. Sonnen fired off his usual string of one-liners, but Jones demonstrated a previously unspotted talent for verbal sparring.
As Sonnen rambled, Jones butted in and asked Sonnen about his controversial use of testosterone replacement therapy.
"I'm in a lot better shape than Jon, or anyone else he's fought," Sonnen said. "I'll admit, skill for skill, Jon is better. He's fantastic. He will admit I'm in better shape than anyone he's fought."
"On TRT or off?" Jones retorted.
"On TRT, Jon," an annoyed Sonnen responded. "You tell everyone and let the media know."
Short-term, Jones and Sonnen's combined star power should be enough to squeeze one more season of solid ratings out TUF. If not, the series is in real trouble.
FX is clearly banking on a turnaround; FX executive vice president Chuck Saftler, who was on the Wednesday call, said the series would be moved out of its current Friday slot, which has done a number on the rankings, and moved to a TBD weeknight.
"Certainly with Jones and Sonnen as the coaches for this upcoming season, we have probably the best casting that we've seen for this show and we have really high expectations for what the ratings will be as a result," said Saftler. "I think with the move off Friday and the casting, we have very, very big expectations for ratings."