The decision to book UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones opposite former Middleweight contender Chael Sonnen as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter and follow up with a title shot for Sonnen shows that Dana White and FX TV have bigger things on their mind than the integrity of the sport.
The response of hardcore fans and media to the announced booking of failed Middleweight contender for a stint coaching The Ultimate Fighter followed by a title shot against Light Heavyweight Jon Jones has been pretty much universally negative.
Kevin Iole's response was typical:
In the UFC, with some exceptions, it's clear. One must win his way to a title shot.
Sonnen, though, is getting a title shot simply because he's outspoken and because there is no better self-promoter in the sport.
He didn't earn this shot. He was given it. And that demeans the belt.
It will, though, make Jones, Sonnen and the UFC a lot of money and figures to immeasurably help the ratings on TUF. The reality series created by White and Fertitta, and that helped turn the UFC into a multibillion dollar business, has been listing recently.
However, Chael had some words of wisdom on yesterday's media call to officially announce the fight and coaching stint:
"Welcome to life. We don't deserve things, you get what you get.
"And 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," he said. "They all sat there and said their little things. But I called everyone one of those bastards out and I'll call them out right now.
"I have no problem getting a tune-up fight and slapping anyone of those guys around, including the karate kid (Lyoto Machida)."
Dana White reinforced Sonnen's point by claiming that all of the "more deserving" contenders had already turned down their shot to face Jones:
"I've said this before and I'll say it again. Dan Henderson had the opportunity for the fight and he got injured," White explained.
"Everyone of these guys that are bitching about a title show now, were offered the fight and turned it down. They refused to fight Jon Jones. Now they're bummed out because Chael stepped up on eight days notice and he's going to coach The Ultimate Fighter and fight him? I mean, it's pretty simple.
"[Jones and Sonnen] will do this," White continued. "They'll fight, and then we can continue to have the light heavyweight division rolling and have an absolute No. 1 contender when Jones comes back [from injury]."
Chael and Dana may be larding their commentary with some egregious B.S. but he's striking at a fundamental truth every kindergartner is already tired of hearing, "Life's not fair." Ultimately the sport has to survive as a business or there won't be any competitive sanctity to protect.
Jeremy Botter details the context in which these decisions were made:
But the fact remains that the UFC is far more similar to the WWE and its histrionic, contrived storylines than folks would like to believe. I'm not saying you have to like it, or even accept it. I'd much rather see the UFC operate like a traditional sporting organization, and I think they'll have to do just that in the future if they want to maintain any kind of long-term success.
Jones vs. Sonnen was booked because the ratings for The Ultimate Fighter have gotten increasingly worse, and the UFC needed a big hook for next season when the show moves from Fridays to a new, as-yet-unspecified weekday evening. Jones and Sonnen are the hooks. If they can't deliver big for FX, then it's highly likely that nothing the UFC does with TUF will ever save the show.
It is true that Dana White is denying that TUF's troubles had anything to do with the decision (per Kevin Iole):
"That's what the word is, that TUF needs the help?" White asked in response to a question whether the decision was driven by a desire to give the show a boost. "People love to speculate and talk [expletive], but the truth of it is, they don't know what the [expletive] they're talking about. I have all the answers. The Internet does not. We built this company and we know what we're doing. That had nothing to do with it."
Of course it didn't Dana. Honestly, White's credibility on this topic is pretty thoroughly shot at this point so I'm not paying much attention.
Luke Thomas talked about the reasoning going into the UFC's decision making at MMA Fighting:
Even if unfair, what's done is done. The question is whether a) any long-term gain is achievable and b) cynical matchmaking for financial returns has any lasting deleterious effect on the sport. If handled correctly, I'd argue yes on the first count, no on the second.
...it is fair to suggest this is a new UFC, one where decisions seem more to be an acceptance of industry best practices and less a repudiation of boxing promoter behavior.
Zuffa has presented itself as an organization in the fight business, but trying to right many of the wrongs boxing has committed. They've gone as far as suggesting boxing's descent into a niche sport full of corruption and greed was a blueprint on what not to do and they've done that on a number of meaningful levels. From getting the sport on network television to offering fighters accident insurance, Zuffa has followed that plan with great success.
In other critical respects, however, they're beginning to operate under more standard operating practices that are long established by their boxing brethren. In addition to booking Jones vs. Sonnen, they're promoting fight cards with one meaningful bout at the top followed by filler. And while it may pain some members of the MMA community to acknowledge as much, there is long-term gain to be had in some of this.
Dave Meltzer explained more of the situation driving the UFC and FX to desperate measures in The Wrestling Observer(subscription required and highly recommended):
It is expected that as part of the deal in getting Jones and Sonnen on the show, that FX will move the show from Friday night to Tuesdays. Moving a show that is steadily declining in ratings from a night you expect to do badly to a night that you need to do well in to carry the weekly average is a risky move for FX. It's one that programmers will almost never do, and shows that FOX as a network is both trying to save the show and is also committed to helping build UFC since it's got the contract for six more years. It also puts pressure on the show do to large ratings since FX is in a battle for top ten on cable and needs a show on a Tuesday not to drag down the weekly average.
...there is desperation at stake. The Ultimate Fighter did a 0.49 rating on 10/5, roughly half of what would have been considered a below average rating a year ago. If the show can be saved, Sonnen is the guy to do it, and saving the show and drawing a big buy rate from a business standpoint may be a lot more important right now than a bunch of guys who are more deserving of a title shot, but there is right now no fans clamor to see any of them get a title shot.
With the build of 12 or 13 weeks of the show, Jones vs. Sonnen could be Jones' biggest drawing fight to date. In addition, the reality show is Jones' best bet to rehab his image. He was heavily booed in Toronto against Vitor Belfort, and he is not like Josh Koscheck, Sonnen or Michael Bisping where they have worked to garner that kind of a reaction. The one thing about the show is people who watch it weekly believe they know the person, and it can turn people around, to a degree.
In the end, the UFC and FX have to do what they have to do to keep The Ultimate Fighter alive. Since it seems to be unthinkable to re-think the show, they have to feature coaches that fans care about and the combination of the UFC's best young fighter and it's most compelling personality combined with a new and improved (non-Friday) time slot on FX will certainly give TUF one last chance to thrive.