October 17, 2012

Chael Sonnen Chael Sonnen (right) was last seen getting dominated by Anderson Silva at the main event of UFC 148. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Remember that fake UFC championship belt a mischievous Chael Sonnen used to sling over his shoulder for press conferences and television appearances in the contentious leadup to his July rematch with Anderson Silva? You know, the one that he impishly told an interviewer on ESPN was proof that he was the real middleweight champion?

Well, let’s pull it out of the closet and dust it off. That plastic-and-pleather strap is the one that rightfully ought to be put up for grabs next April 27 when Sonnen challenges once again for the UFC championship. This time at light heavyweight, though.


Yep, this is not another Chael media ploy. The UFC actually announced on Tuesday that Sonnen, who has competed in the fight promotion’s 205-pound weight class exactly one time -- and that was seven years ago and he lost -- will challenge Jon Jones after the two serve as coaches on the 17th season of The Ultimate Fighter.

Jones need not bother to bring along the shiny brass-and-leather belt that he’s been proudly wearing for the last 19 months, the one he acquired by knocking out a champion and in the time since has defended against four former titlists. That belt signifies something earned, something extraordinary, something real. So "Bones" should leave it home in the trophy case. When he steps into the octagon next spring to take on a middleweight fighter with a heavyweight mouth, the fake plastic belt will suffice for the fake title defense.

That is not to deny that the next several months will be a lot of laughs. Chael is at this very moment locked in a windowless room with a team of joke writers brainstorming a Top 10 list for Letterman and five minutes of couch chatter for Leno.

And there’s no doubt that Dana White and Co. will benefit from this arrangement, which first was reported by The Los Angeles Times and later was confirmed by the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter will get a much-needed boost in ratings, and that springtime pay-per-view, featuring two of the organization’s top draws, is sure to do big numbers.

Maybe that’s good enough for the UFC: a financial boon generated by a dud of a fight.

Yes, a dud.

Sonnen has nothing with which to seriously threaten Jones. The most recent light heavyweight challenger, Vitor Belfort, is a puffed-up 185-pounder, too, but he has an explosiveness that some thought might get to “Bones.” Dan Henderson has the overhand right, Rashad Evans is quick afoot, Lyoto Machida unorthodox. Sure, Chael has wrestling, which put him in advantageous positions over and over in his two fights with Anderson Silva. But while he might have an edge in that discipline over Jones, too, it won’t be as pronounced and will be more difficult to take advantage of because of the champ’s length and reach. Trainer Greg Jackson will concoct a game plan for Jones to keep the fight standing, and then it’s watch out, Chael. Even if Sonnen does manage to put Jones on his back, he’s not exactly a killer from top position, as we saw in the losses to Silva.

Which brings me to an I-can’t-let-this-go aside: Why is a guy who lost his most recent bout -- at a lower weight class -- getting a title shot? It was bad enough when White, hoping to save ill-fated UFC 151 from cancellation, tried to foist Sonnen on Jones as a late replacement for the injured Henderson. Chael just happened to be the one guy who answered the phone and said yes when the fight promotion desperately reached out. But now there’s time to make a real championship fight, and a stable of actual light heavyweights to call upon.

Dana White told Yahoo! Sports that Sonnen was not in his original plan, that he’d hoped to reschedule the Jones-Henderson title bout for the UFC’s annual event on Super Bowl weekend. But the arm injury Jones suffered in last month’s Belfort fight will keep him out of the cage until April. So plans were reshuffled, and Chael got the shot. “It’s a fight people want to see,” said White.

Fine. The people have spoken. The wallets have opened. Now just put away the real championship belt. It’s not needed this time.

--Jeff Wagenheim

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