Newark, New Jersey will host the UFC 159 main event; a main event that has a lot of people talking, but not for your typical reasons. Less about anticipation, and more about skepticism, the Prudential Center will ultimately have the last word when all is said and done. After all, once the cage door shuts, the only thing left will be victory in one corner and defeat in the other.
It's not everyday that a champion defends his title against a fighter coming off a loss (in a lower weight division no less), but so it goes when it comes to the miracle of magniloquence.
Even the most ardent supporters of Sonnen can admit he earned his title shot with words, not fists. Of course, those same supporters will counter with the ole' William Munny chesnut that 'deserves got nothing to do with it'. Talented contenders are a dime a dozen. But for a fighter to be talented, and a symbol for spectacle...only striking while the iron is hot can be the guiding principle.
I don't fall into the latter camp. In fact, I side closer to Tim Burke (minus the 'not paying to watch' part). But we'll table that discussion for Sunday. This piece is not about polemic, or promotion. It's about figuring out who can win, or more accurately...is it even possible for Chael to win?
What both men can do: First off, because I'm not half as educated as my position implies, you should read Mike Riordan's article first. It does a great job of breaking down just what exactly each fighter's wrestling credentials mean.
Fans, and observers can get caught up in credentials. They're certainly important, but MMA has a tendency to subvert skill in place of chaos. This is why an ADCC wizard can be submitted by someone who is merely an above average one (see Yahya vs. Calvalcante), and a K-1 champ can be destroyed by a lesser striker (see Overeem vs. Silva).
So on paper, Sonnen is better in the wrestling department. It's his key to victory. His only key to victory. While he doesn't have an exceptional shot (see Frankie Edgar for that), his grip allows to close the distance if an opponent sprawls lazily. Wrestlers, especially the wrestle-boxer types typically have this problem. They're prone to giving up on a shoot because they feel like they can only get the takedown if it's setup with strikes. Sonnen does a good job of not caring to set up his takedowns with strikes. I know that sounds strange, but my point is that he understands his limitations, and fights accordingly. If he can get in on Jones, it's quite possible he can put him on his back.
For Chael, the best part is that his jiu jitsu, despite lame attempts to make fun of it, has not just improved over the years, but is actually quite good. Thus far he's been able to cut through the guards of Brian Stann and Anderson Silva. Neither are known for their defensive grappling, but it's an impressive feat nonetheless. Sonnen has developed serviceable striking to compliment the rest of his game but ultimately it's a straight left from his southpaw stance that will allow him to properly set up his takedowns if that's the way he wants to fight.
For Jones, the list is too long when it comes to the number of ways he can violently dispatch an opponent. One of the reasons many consider this fight a joke is that it would be one thing if Jones simply had great wrestling, but he also has a brilliant array of chokes. There's every reason to believe Sonnen will simply shoot in, and get caught with a guillotine like even the technically fantastic Lyoto Machida did against Jones, and it's Ken Shamrock vs. Dan Severn at UFC 6 all over again.
It's also just as likely that Jones will take Sonnen down, and just try to blast him with elbows. Or maybe he decides to stay at range, and land elbows, spinning back elbows, spinning back kicks, a jumping roundhouse, or Blanka's electric shock. It's whatever Jones wants while the fight stays standing.
What both men can't do: Obviously, Jones is still learning. You can't expect a 25 year old who began his career in 2008 to be perfect, but he's coming damn close. Still, he makes mistakes on the feet. The biggest one is his stance. He still keeps his legs too close together when stalking forward, and his front heavy foot stance makes him vulnerable to leg kicks.
And if Jones does take Sonnen down, Jones still has a tendency to leave his hands on the ground, making his arms more susceptible to an armbar. Brandon Vera seemed to get a copious amount of chances in their fight, and then there was Vitor Belfort's near-miracle.
Of course, none of this matters because Sonnen can't kick. He has more reasons to fear the takedown than Jones does. And he's not saavy off his back. Which leaves us with a standard prediction...
There's a reason why Sonnen was never good at 205 (despite being much improved since then). His game relies on strength. At 205, he won't have that advantage, and because he lacks ability elsewhere, he's always at risk. Sonnen could only shock the world against Silva because Silva has always been vulnerable defending the takedown. Jones has not been vulnerable there. In fact, his wrestling is likely his greatest strength.
Hopefully this doesn't feel like a waste of time, but I'm afraid the hype on Jones is real, and Sonnen is a charlatan.
Prediction: Jon Jones by Guillotine 1:34 into round 1.