Chael Sonnen beating if not outright dominating Mauricio Rua was not really a massive surprise to MMA media and fans alike. The shock of Sonnen's victory comes from his 1st round submission, which marks only the third time Shogun has been submitted, and just the fifth time Sonnen has tapped anyone out. Sonnen, of course, called out Wanderlei Silva in the post-fight poem/interview with Joe Rogan. Wanderlei is 3-4 in his last seven fights while Chael is 4-3, but the level of competition and stakes have been vastly different for the two men.
There's been quite a stir over the future of Chael, and whether or not he should take the Rich Franklin route of "company man fights" against someone like Wanderlei Silva, or if he should once again make a run at a title shot. He's 36, 0-4 in Zuffa title fights dating back to his WEC loss to Paulo Filho, and his last title shot was basically gifted to him by the UFC. It's understandable that some fans don't want him in the title picture again, but I disagree.
Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a Chael Sonnen fan. I've never been "won over" by his schtick, and that possibly comes with my historical dislike of pro wrestling, but I have made it consistently clear in the past that he is one of the greatest middleweights in UFC history and possibly one of the best MMA wrestlers we've ever seen.
If Sonnen can compete at an elite level, he should be in the title picture, either at middleweight or light heavyweight. Remember, Sonnen's last middleweight win was as recent as January 2012 against current top 5 middleweight Michael Bisping, so it's not as if his move to light heavyweight erased his proven status at 185. As of Saturday night, he has as many wins against top 10 opposition at 205 lbs as Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira. By the end of today, he will likely be ranked in the top 10 in two divisions leaving him close to a title shot in both. So, where should he go?
Option #1 - Middleweight
If Sonnen wants to return to 185, then he should be in prime position for another shot at the belt. He could face Vitor Belfort, rematch Bisping (where both men have a full camp to prepare for each other), or fight "Jacare" Souza if the latter can get by Yushin Okami. I personally would like to see Sonnen/Jacare over Sonnen/Belfort or Sonnen/Bisping 2. Sonnen realistically needs no more than two wins at middleweight to justify a title shot. What could possibly affect Sonnen's chances is the result of Chris Weidman/Anderson Silva 2 at UFC 168. If Silva wins, I'm not sure there's much of a reason to make Silva/Sonnen 3 after Silva stopped him twice, but if Weidman is the winner then we could have ourselves a fresh matchup.
Option #2 - Light Heavyweight
Let's be realistic, Jon Jones is never going to rematch Chael Sonnen despite my repeated joking that it could happen. However, if Jones either fails to defend his title or vacates it to make his move to heavyweight, the window of opportunity widens for Chael. He's already managed one top 10 win, and two possible opponents I see as suitable for him in the immediate future are Rashad Evans and Phil Davis. Both of those fights are far more difficult than a clearly declining Shogun, but the reward for beating either of them is the undisputed legitimacy of being a top light heavyweight. I don't think the UFC would hesitate to promote Chael as a multi-divisional threat who could pose problems for either Weidman at middleweight or a non-Jones champion at light heavyweight.
I would rather see Sonnen return to middleweight where he's an established force and doesn't really have to build his way up to the top when he's already there. Light heavyweight is more difficult, primarily because Jones is still the champion, and I believe there are more 205ers he could lose to than 185ers.
Love him or hate him, Chael Sonnen is here to stay. I think it is too early to write off Sonnen as someone who has declined to the point where he should just go on a money grab tour when he is still capable of fighting and beating the best in the world. Will he become a champion at long last? Doubtful. I'm not sure he beats Weidman, Anderson, or even Gustafsson, but as long as he's earned the right (as he did for both fights with Silva), then let him have it.