September 14, 2012

It's bizarro time in the UFC. In a week, Jon Jones will defend his light heavyweight championship against a man who has been fighting as a middleweight for five years. And on Thursday the fight promotion booked its middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, in a bout against a light heavyweight.

It's as though these two pound-for-pound luminaries aren't satisfied with merely poo-pooing any suggestion of a superfight. They have to dance around in each other's airspace and tease us.

But we'll get over it. Just like we'll get over seeing main event fights crumble before our eyes.

Ah, now there's an area in which Silva and Jones are a million miles apart. A few weeks ago, Jones saw UFC 151 vaporizing all around him and just let it happen. He's said over and over that declining replacement opponent Chael Sonnen nine days before the event, after Dan Henderson pulled out with a knee injury, was best for his career, and he's right, competitively speaking. PR-wise, maybe not so much. Let's see how he's welcomed to the octagon a week from Saturday when he steps in against bulked-up 185-pounder Vitor Belfort in a hastily scheduled UFC 152 main event.

And let's also keep tabs on how many pats on the back Silva gets for stepping up this week to save UFC 153. Next month's card in Rio de Janeiro had lost both its main event and co-main in the space of two hours on Tuesday. The top-billed bout was a huge loss, as José Aldo's featherweight title defense against former lightweight belt holder Frankie Edgar was as close to a superfight as we've had dangled in front of us in a while. To replace that, the UFC needed something special. And an Anderson Silva fight is special ... even when he's facing one-foot-in-the-retirement-home Stephan Bonnar.

"This is old-school UFC: A card is in jeopardy, but guys that are world champions and superstars stepped up and jumped in and saved the card," UFC president Dana White told USA Today, which first reported the Silva fight as well as two other additions to the Oct. 13 lineup, Glover Teixeira vs. Fabio Maldonado (stepping in for injured Quinton Jackson) and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria vs. Dave Herman. "This is why the fans love this sport and why we went on a 12-year run without canceling an event."

That's White's way of making his words do double duty: as a compliment for Silva and a subtle jab at "Bones" Jones, whom he blames for the unprecedented cancellation of UFC 151. But the comparison doesn't quite hold water. Silva is moving up to a weight class 20 pounds heavier than his own, yes, but in a non-title bout against a fighter barely on the radar. A more apt parallel to the Jones situation would be if Bonnar pulls out nine days prior to 153 and Silva is asked to put his belt on the line against, say, Nick Diaz, who like Sonnen is a weight class lighter but, despite having lost his last fight, is considered to be one of the top guys out there and poses different threats than the champ's original opponent. Of course, Diaz is on suspension, so that's not going to happen. But you get the point.

That is not to diminish Silva's team-first attitude. The champion didn't have to step up, wasn't even asked to. And even though he'll enter the octagon riding a 16-fight winning streak and as a huge favorite over the 35-year-old Bonnar, there's always risk involved when in with a tough, durable dude. When you're Anderson Silva, a guy who's undoubtedly in the discussion when pundits assess who's the greatest fighter of all time, that risk is to your health and to your legacy.

Silva vs. Bonnar need not be oversold, though. It's simply a fight that serves a purpose, allowing fans in Brazil who bought tickets to see their featherweight champion defend his belt to not feel like something was taken from them. And because it's not a title bout, the apparent mismatch doesn't cheapen Silva's leather strap in the same way that the Jones vs. Sonnen fight would have and Jones vs. Belfort still will.

This is a distinction I brought up with Dana White when we spoke last week -- before Silva vs. Bonnar was made but after Jones had been asked to defend his belt against a middleweight who hadn't fought at 205 pounds in seven years, then against a guy who hadn't been in a light heavyweight bout in five years. Whatever happened to moving up the ranks in a weight class? It's one thing to match guys from different divisions, but shouldn't a title fight warrant higher standards?

"I don't disagree with you one bit," said White. "But we have to deal with what's dealt to us. It is what it is. Guys get hurt, so you go right down the line until you come up with a new opponent."

And the line of light heavyweight contenders keeps going and going until you're eventually in the middleweight division?

That's what White would have us believe. Lyoto Machida had been promised the Jones vs. Henderson winner, and when Henderson pulled out he was the first one offered the short-notice Jones bout. He turned it down, as did the next light heavyweight White turned to, Mauricio Rua. And when UFC 151 was cancelled altogether and the Jones defense was shifted to 152, Machida was announced as the challenger. Prematurely, it turned out. "The Dragon" declined again, and so did "Shogun." "Now, while these guys are turning down fights," said White, "Vitor Belfort is blowing us up, going, 'I want this fight. I'll take it.'"

So he got it. And now White is doing his best to sell it. "It's an interesting fight," said White. "They've never fought before. He's a former heavyweight champion, a former light heavyweight champion. So he definitely has the pedigree and the credentials."

The pedigree and credentials will need to be dusted off, as dated as they are. The heavyweight championship White referred to was in a UFC 12 tournament 15 years ago. The light heavyweight reign came eight years ago and ended in his first defense. But Belfort does have a couple of assets that Jones will have to contend with. Said White of the Brazilian with 14 knockouts among his 21 victories: "If Belfort goes in there and lets his hands go, it's an interesting fight."

Perhaps so, but the UFC is doing a better job of respecting its championship belts by putting Silva in a non-title fight. With no belt on the line, there's less need to justify why the match was made.

"I know," White acknowledged when asked about the folly of putting champions in with guys who haven't earned their shot. "In my perfect word, that [expletive] never happens. The system you were talking about is the system that we abide by and how we run it. But ... injuries, man." Indeed, within the last year, five of his seven champions have had fights derailed by injury. Other main events and co-main events also have fallen prey to the sick bay. "Every [expletive] day," said Dana, "I'm afraid to wake up. Who's next? What will we have to fix?"

The UFC president spoke those words just a couple of workdays before getting the call from Aldo. And then he fixed it. And he did it well.

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