October 19, 2012

"Sorry to do this to you, Bones, but I have no choice but to strip you of your championship."

That's what I would say to the light heavyweight alpha male if he were standing in front of me. And if I had a couple of bodyguards at my side. Or at least a big stick and an escape plan.

Jon Jones didn't do anything wrong and does not deserve to be discredited or demoted, but when he steps into the octagon next April to face Chael Sonnen, it simply cannot be a championship fight. It just can't. We've gone over and over all of the particulars that make Sonnen, though a stout middleweight, unworthy of a title shot at light heavy. To review: He hasn't fought in the 205-pound division in seven years, lost his only UFC bout at that weight and is coming off a loss in his chosen division. That's not a championship contender's resume. So if Chael is being handed a chance at the belt, we can only conclude that said belt is meaningless.

Yes, I know it's the folks at the UFC, not you and I, who issue these championships. And if Dana White & Co. insist on calling this farcical matchup a title bout and hyping it as such on posters and in TV ads, there's not a damn thing any of the rest of us can do about that. But Jones vs. Sonnen will not be referred to as a championship fight in this space.

What would it say about me if I were to write about a "championship fight" that I know is not remotely worthy of that vaunted categorization? That'd be like a journalist watching a vice-presidential candidate pretend to wash dirty dishes at a soup kitchen and then writing a naïvely factual story that describes the photo op scene as if the politician were actually helping out the homeless. We all know that would never happen, right?

Considering that the Jones-Sonnen bout will be an outgrowth of the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, the FX reality show on which the two fighters will serve as coaches, maybe we can compromise and simply call Jones' title the TV Championship. Isn't that a title right out of some old professional wrestling promotion? Then again, the rasslin' folks might take it as an insult to be lumped in with something as fake as this UFC "championship" nonsense.

Think I'm being harsh? Consider the livid reaction of some of Sonnen's fellow fighters. Among them was former champion Lyoto Machida, who lost to Jones last December and declined a short-notice rematch at last month's UFC 152, a spot instead taken by Vitor Belfort. "With all respect," Machida wrote in broken English on Twitter, "but for me Chael does not deserve the title shot. I would like to know what he had done in LHW for deserve!!"

Sonnen shot down such denigration during Wednesday's media conference call to announce the Jones fight, saying, "Let's understand, not one of those fighters said, 'Hey, Dana, I'll fight Chael. Hey, Dana, let me prove that I am the No. 1 contender. Let me fight that guy.' Not one of them. They all sat there and said their little things. But I called 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 those guys around, including the karate kid."

It wasn't only "karate kid" Machida who lashed out, though. The Jones-Sonnen announcement also drew the ire of Chael's beloved mentor and former training partner, Dan Henderson, who on Wednesday tweeted this sarcastic take: "I guess I should just quit training to win fights and to be exciting for the fans and just go to shit talking school." Ouch, my friend.

"Hendo" did soften the blow a bit the next day, taking to Twitter again to clarify: "And just to make it clear, I will always [have] love for Chael and don't blame him for saying yes to a big opportunity. But giving him that fight [right] now degrades the sport of MMA."

It's true that Sonnen is not the bad guy here. Neither is Dana White, really. The UFC president has been in a tough spot ever since a Henderson knee injury a little under two months ago got the ball rolling on this whole mess. When the UFC went looking for a replacement challenger for Jones at UFC 151, Chael was the one man willing to step up. Jones declined to take the fight on eight days' notice, though, and the UFC canceled the event. Then, when fans assailed Jones for refusing to fight, White apparently interpreted the outcry as a call for Jones vs. Sonnen.

So he made this fight, he says, for that reason. It's also a convenient way to reward Sonnen while punishing those contenders (Machida and Mauricio Rua) who declined to fight Jones at 151 or 152. And it doesn't hurt that the loquacious Sonnen presumably will be good for a ratings boost The Ultimate Fighter desperately needs. But White insists that the essence of this matchup is that it's "a fight people want to see."

What people, exactly? Though I realize it's dangerous to draw conclusions based on the sordid opinions spewed on Twitter and in Internet forums, reaction to this matchup has been not just negativity but revulsion. It was so one-sided that on Wednesday afternoon I posted on Twitter an invitation for anyone who believes Jones vs. Sonnen is a legitimate championship fight to speak up. The invitation was retweeted by several interested people, enabling it to reach many thousand fans. I got two responses. Let's allow the more spirited of them to lead off this month's MMA mailbag:

You're ridiculous. Where was your [bellyaching] and crying when Frankie Edgar got an automatic title shot at FW after 1-2-1 record?--@TGD21

I think it's fair to criticize the UFC for giving Edgar an immediate shot at José Aldo before he'd fought a single featherweight bout. I think it would have been fair to criticize the UFC for giving Randy Couture a coming-out-of-retirement title shot at heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia back in 2007 after a long stint at light heavy. There are legitimate arguments to be made against these and many other title matchups.

But Edgar and Couture were former champions, and we sometimes make exceptions for champions, past as well as present. For fighters who handle their time under the hot lights gracefully, the moniker of "ex-champ" can carry with it a lifetime pass to the Credibility Hall of Fame. Sonnen does not have that hall pass.

We can't reasonably mourn #Pride and hate on comic mismatches at the same time.--@bigpeteward

Fun fights are fun until someone gets hurt. Or something does -- such as the reputation of a title belt. I'm not a big fan of comic mismatches -- although I did rather enjoy the most comic of them all, Couture vs. James Toney -- but it's OK by me that they exist as long as that existence does not stray anywhere within the proximity of a championship.

I'll admit my guilt in being among those who have wracked their brains trying to find an opponent who would finally serve the GOAT-worthy Anderson Silva his comeuppance. Now that Silva has somehow attained the ability to paralyze his opponents whenever his knee comes into contact with them, his abilities seem to have entered into the realm of the mystical. The size differential that would be in play during a "superfight" with GSP means that Silva's magic knee has a much shorter distance to travel before encountering Georges' mortal coil, disrupting his "ki" lifeforce and leaving St-Pierre sprawled motionless on the canvas. It wouldn't be much of a superfight when only one of the combatants possesses super powers.

And so the superfight of the reluctant duo, Silva and Jones, appears to be the only option left that would put Silva in the cage with someone who appears to pack the kind of gear that would have a chance of stopping him. But I'm having doubts about wanting this fight to come to pass. Is it just mass- or, even worse, personal schadenfreude that I am caught up in? We know what a Silva win would prove, but what relevance would a loss to a younger, bigger and faster Jones have to Silva's already well-earned legacy?--Patrick, Rahway, N.J.

Just because it could turn out to be not a career-defining bout is no reason to walk away from Jones vs. Silva. I'm not one of those people who contend that we absolutely must see this fight happen in order for the two men's legacies to be fulfilled. But if there's a chance that we might see the world's two best fighters, pound for pound, meet in the cage, that's too enticing to miss out on, whatever it leads to.

The reaction of Dana White to the Jeremy Stephens arrest last week is both worrisome and infuriating. There is an arrest warrant out for the guy, and White is not even thinking about the alleged victim in the case but rather the dollars in his pocket. Dana is starting to smell a little like Penn State.--Grant, Pittsburgh

Penn State? C'mon, Grant, let's not go overboard. I'll acknowledge that the trouble White went through try to spring Stephens for his fight seemed excessive, mysteriously so considering that bthe guy was buried deep in the undercard. But while I didn't get it, Dana's fighters sure did. Going bat for one of his guys is not going to hurt his favorability rating with the fighters he asks to go into a cage and lay it all on the line.

Why do you think the UFC -- and MMA in general -- is so keen on developing smaller weight classes (flyweights, bantamweights, etc.) but still refuses to bring in heavier weight classes such as a 225-pound division?--Stephen, Lethbridge, Alberta

That's got to be next, unless the UFC opts to go with 115 pounds, 105, 95 and 85. And while a 225-pound division would thin the big-body talent pool, it nonetheless would level the playing field for guys just north of 205. Beyond that, there's the appeal of adding another championship belt, which would be a good thing so long as the UFC doesn't go and devalue it with some bogus title fight.

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