Just a couple days ago the UFC announced Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches for the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter. And as is the way of such things, the internet turned into a torrent of disdain, for the UFC, for John Jones, and (to some extent) Chael Sonnen. Most of it sounded about like this: “I can’t believe they gave this guy a title shot coming off a loss and coming from another division.” Sprinkle in a little “Jones/Dana is such a f---ing hypocrite/money-grubbing-corporate-shill.” And you more or less have the tenor of fan and media reactions.
All of this made me think, does Chael Sonnen getting a title shot really cheapen the belt? Historically how much is that belt worth? And where does this match-up rank in the world of guys who’ve gotten a chance to compete for light heavyweight gold. Here is a quick and dirty list of everyone who’s ever fought for the UFC light heavyweight title, in chronological order.
Also I realize this is long as hell. I may post a cut down version later.
Frank Shamrock (legit) vs. Kevin Jackson (questionable)
In this first light heavyweight title fight (then middleweight) Shamrock was obviously pretty legit, at the time he was riding a four fight winning streak, off an up and down career in Pancrase in Japan. He was known, he was winning, fair game. Jackson is questionable at best. He’d won the UFC 14 Middleweight Tournament, which got him the title shot, but brought his MMA record to all of 3-0, not exactly cream of the crop. He was an Olympic gold-medalist, so he gets the benefit of the doubt, but this was essentially the beginning and end of his MMA career.
Frank Shamrock vs. Igor Zinoviev (questionable)
Many will remember this as one of the more one sided beatings delivered in Shamrock’s career, if you haven’t seen this fight, do, it’s gruesome. Zinoviev had won a few fights, and held a meaningless belt, but he was also coming off back to back draws coming into this fight, he was a warm body when warm bodies were hard to find. Also Shamrock ended Zinoviev’s career, that’s worth noting.
Frank Shamrock vs. Jeremy Horn (questionable)
Remember this is only looking at these fighters at the time of their title shot, not over their whole career. And I was tempted to dismiss Horn outright at this point early in his career, he already seemed destined for journeyman status with a record of 9-2-3 compiled over two years, and had 3 draws and a loss in his last 6 fights coming into the UFC. Still these were the dark ages, so I can’t be too hard on him.
Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz (deserved)
Ortiz was young at this point, and inexperienced, but his 4-1 record was almost entirely within the UFC and he had a built in feud with the Lion’s Den to propel him into the title shot, it made sense, and represented the only really great challenger Shamrock faced in his title reign.
Tito Ortiz (questionable) vs. Wanderlei Silva (deserved)
And here we have Ortiz again; with Shamrock vacating he got an instant second chance at the belt. Hard to sell coming off a submission due to strikes, but it makes enough sense that I won’t pan it. And Silva at this point was about as legit as title contenders come. He was on a 6 fight win streak, and just beginning his dominance in Pride that would become the high watermark of his career.
Tito Ortiz vs. Yuki Kondo (deserved)
Ah for the days of Pancrase as a dominant organization. Kondo came into this fight with a 29-8-3 record and riding a 4 fight win streak. Neverminding that he somehow lost to Semmy Schilt the year before (by submission of all things), he was one of the world’s premier fighters at the time.
Tito Ortiz vs. Evan Tanner (deserved)
It’s hard to remember, for the way his career (and life) ended, how great a fighter Evan Tanner was at this point in time. Coming into his fight with Ortiz his record was 23-2 and if it hadn’t been for a TKO loss in Pancrase the year before he would have been unbeaten in his last 17 fights, the man was a beast and eventually UFC middleweight champ.
Tito Ortiz vs. Elvis Sinosic (undeserved)
And here it is; the first total joke of a challenger in light heavyweight history. Sinosic was 4-3-1 coming into this fight. He was propelled to the title with a submission win over Jeremy Horn. Is that impressive? Yes. Is getting TKO’d by Ortiz in the first round impressive? Not so much.
Tito Ortiz vs. Vladimir Matyushenko (deserved)
Matyushenko = Great fighter, great record, great legacy.
Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock (undeserved)
“But Shamrock was the man.” You might be heard to say. “But he was 6 years past his prime and coming off a loss.” I would say in return. This pretty much marked the beginning of the pathetic that became Shamrocks career.
Nothing like a 2 fight losing streak (both by stoppage) to get you a title shot in your first fight in a totally new division. I like Randy, you like Randy, we all like Randy, but this made no damn sense. Also Liddell was 12-1 at this point in his career and looking every bit the killer he was.
Randy Couture vs. Tito Ortiz
Champ vs. Champ = great. (Couture may not have deserved the shot that got him the interim title, but he won, so who cares.)
Randy Coture vs. Vitor Belfort (borderline deserved)
Belfort was at the height of his early Belfortness at this point, but he’d also just lost to Chuck Liddell and gotten this shot for beating fighter/soup can Marvin Eastman.
Vitor Belfort vs. Randy Couture (deserved)
This rematch had to happen.
Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell (questionable)
I know, I know. Liddell was great early in his career, he was a great champ after this, but right here, at this point he’d already lost one shot at the belt, had gotten KO’d in Pride, and was only on a two fight win streak. They were impressive wins and the smell of rematch was in the air, and he was probably the best opponent available, but that doesn’t make it 100% legitimate.
Chuck Liddell vs. Jeremy Horn (deserved)
Definitely the high watermark of Horn’s career. He was 78-13-5 at the time, and had already beaten Liddell once.
Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture (undeserved)
Seriously, a submission over Mike van Arsdale after getting KTFO by Liddell the last time, that’s what gets you a title shot…
Chuck Liddell vs. Renato Sobral (deserved)
Sobral is one of the forgotten faces of the fighting world, mostly because he constantly makes an ass of himself. But for a while he was a great fighter, this was that while.
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz (deserved)
Tito won 5 straight to get another title shot. He earned it, and it would destroy him.
Chuck Liddell vs. Quinton Jackson (questionable)
Jackson was riding a four fight win streak, but his best opponent in there was Travis Lutter. And that streak was coming off bad losses to Shogun and Wanderlei. He and Chuck had a history though, so this felt like a sensible fight.
Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson (deserved)
Henderson may not have deserved his shot at the Pride belt, but you can’t argue with a Champ vs. Champ matchup.
Quinton Jackson vs. Forrest Griffin (borderline undeserved)
It’s not the fact that it was a completely overblown win over Shogun that got Griffin a title shot that makes him such a poor contender here. It’s that Griffin, just two fights earlier, got KTFO by Keith Jardine. Or at least it’s those two things combined, either way this wasn’t really a fight Forrest deserved.
Forrest Griffin vs. Rashad Evans (deserved)
A 12-0-1 record = unquestionable legitimacy.
Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida (deserved)
Rashad, meet Lyoto, also legit.
Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio Rua (questionable)
Rua doesn’t slide into illegitimacy here because his only real loss in the past 6 years was his crap showing against Forrest Griffin (I’m passing on his injury TKO Loss to Coleman). But his terrible win over a 90 year old man (again Coleman) and a KO of the latter-day (read shot) Chuck Liddell shouldn’t have paved his way to UFC gold.
Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio Rua (deserved)
If you saw the first fight, you know they had to do it again.
Mauricio Rua vs. Jon Jones (deserved)
Jones was dominant, undefeated (for any real value of defeat), and freakishly talented. Definitely a fight he deserved.
Jon Jones vs. Quinton Jackson (deserved)
Surprisingly Jackson went on a 4-1 roll after losing the title. His wins weren’t the prettiest, but as a recent former champ giving him another shot was a fine idea.
Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida (undeserved)
If anyone seriously thinks that Machida’s win over Randy Couture placed him back in title contention, just stop reading, stop watching, this sport isn’t for you. I love Machida, I love his crane kick, but he looked terrible in his losses to Shogun and Jackson and shouldn’t have been anywhere near a title fight.
Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans (deserved)
4-0 since losing the title, check; built in rivalry/story line, check. Great fight on paper (in reality, not so much), needed to happen.
Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort (questionable)
This fight really makes more sense on paper than it did in reality. Other than a loss to Anderson Silva (you know the one), Belfort has been on a tear for the past five years. This also brings up a point that I will get into more with Chael, but the light heavyweight-middleweight divisions represent one of the UFC’s most fluid weight spans. The list of former light heavyweights now at middleweight is huge. That said, I don’t take a lot away from Vitor for not having fought there in a while.
Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen (borderline undeserved)
So here’s the thing, if we take it for granted that there are a lot of former light heavyweights at middleweight and that’s not that big a deal (seriously, about half the UFC’s middleweight division have competed at light heavyweight at the highest level of the sport). Then Sonnen has lost 4 times in the past 6 years, 2 of those being to Anderson Silva (possibly the GOAT). He’s beaten Stann and Bisping (both former light heavyweights) and has generally fought at a very high level. It’s true he’s coming off a disappointing loss, but as we’ve seen, it’s not a new thing for the UFC to give a guy a title shot after a loss.
All told it’s not exactly fair, and it’s not exactly worthwhile for the UFC to give Sonnen this chance, but in five years it will just be one of the numerous title shots given to guys who didn’t quite deserve to be there. A shame yes, a crime, no.