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
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
Chael Sonnen by the numbers
Since numbers don't tell the whole story...
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.
And on the undercard...