With The Ultimate Fighter ratings at an all time series low since its inception in 2005, TUF needed a Hail Mary play to position itself as interesting again, let alone relevant in the scope we view MMA in. The announcement of UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and the polarising motormouth Chael Sonnen as the next season's coaches is a master stroke by the UFC on many levels.
Some people might be quick to complain about the lack of competitiveness the eventual match up between the two coaches will be, how Sonnen has positioned himself in his second straight title fight opportunity after losing his last in embarrassing fashion, and that this is nothing more than a desperate attempt to inject new life into a tired show.
Raspberries. This fighter pairing is the first since Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans on season 10 that will make this series can't miss, must see television, and if handled correctly the build to a fight between Sonnen and Jones should result in their bout being one of the biggest of the year.
I'm going to be honest, I haven't watched a single episode of TUF on FX this season. Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson do nothing for me as coaches, and I wouldn't place their match higher than an opening slot of a main PPV card. Having them fight on the TUF finale is indicative of their collective worth in the UFC; Shane Carwin has the charisma of a brick, Roy Nelson's novelty look & attitude has worn thin, and a win for either guy does nothing for their careers other than double their disclosed purse for the evening. Having two fighters no one cares about coaching a bunch of fighters no one should care about, in a format TV audiences in general and for a long time haven't cared about, easily explains how abysmal this season is doing.
UFC probably won't fix the quality of talent vying for a contract on the next season, not as long as their producer continues to choose 'personality' over 'ability', but the coaches' star power is a marked improvement. We have one of the best fighters in the world, a young phenom who has taken the sport by storm, in against a veteran who has shocked the world by giving the best pound for pound fighter there's ever been the most competitive and dramatic fights of his career, and between them their own conflicting personalities and less than amicable opinions of each other fuel their competition as both coaches and fighting rivals.
Usually I'm opposed to tying up title holders with this reality show, but the timing has worked out well for UFC on this occasion. Jon Jones' arm is in worse condition than previously thought since the dramatic fight with Vitor Belfort, where the Brazilian veteran came close to upsetting the champion with an attempted first round armbar at UFC 152. Jones has been one of the most active champions and key players in UFC over the last couple of years, so not only has injury forced him out of action, he could probably do with the break in schedule as well.
Now while Chael Sonnen could have remained a PPV draw during the time spent on TUF and away from the big stage, he'd only be otherwise drifting aimlessly at middleweight as the top gatekeeper, and there are only a certain number of marketable fights he can have right now at Light Heavyweight before his value diminishes due to possibly being on the wrong side of unfavourable stylistic match ups. The time away from fighting gives him the opportunity to put the weight for the 205lbs limit on properly, and the time to train to make a match up with Jones as competitive as possible.
Here we have two entities in the UFC who have a certain level of disdain for each other; Jones has had his buttons pushed and should be looking forward to silencing his most vocal foil to date, while Sonnen though part exaggerated and contrived in his barbs probably has a genuine issue with Jones' recently perceived Prima Donna routine over the UFC 151 debacle -- something that can be easily milked and can engage the audience in. I expect the tension to be palpable on set, and the antics and confrontations between the two to be both entertaining and compelling. The more Sonnen and Jones deliver, the more the editing can focus on them and less on the TUF fighters' in-house antics. These fighters that go on TUF to win the show are best used as props at this point, vehicles for action and extensions of their feuding coaches. The less we see of the fighters from the typical reality tv aspect, the better.
In the time UFC will have taken to film and edit TUF, as well as the roughly 12 weeks broadcast schedule of the season, they'll have had plenty of time to build a great card around Jones vs Sonnen, and if the UFC 151 fiasco is any indication they'll have learned not to hang an entire event on such a thin thread. If after 12 weeks the Jones vs Sonnen PPV falls through under similar circumstances without a strong undercard to soften the blow, the aftermath would be devastating. If they repeat history instead of learn from it, the UFC may irreparably damage the good will they currently have with their fans.
Most people expect Jones to blow Sonnen out of the water when they fight, but most people are quick to forget the same was said of Sonnen prior to his first fight with Anderson Silva. Even now, most people are focusing on Sonnen losing in embarrassing fashion to Silva in the rematch, and yet are forgetting the one sided first round he scored against the pound for pound best and greatest fighter the sport of MMA has ever seen. Styles make fights and it could well be that Sonnen has nothing for Jones, but many thought the same of Vitor Belfort as well.
The 12 week TUF build is the UFC's opportunity to promote these two fighters correctly, leading to a fight that could put Jones over and into that next level of mainstream transcendence, and elevating the UFC in the process. It's also free, potentially entertaining television, and that's never a bad thing.