Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen is a call from boxing's playbook - and that's ok
If you're having difficulty understanding or accepting the booking of Chael Sonnen vs. Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title, there's a previous fight that can help explain all the madness. It involves two boxers and their once-terrible fight: Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley.
In late 2010, it was announced by Top Rank and Bob Arum that Pacquiao, largely viewed as boxing's best or second best boxer, would face the aging Mosley in May of 2011.
Pacquiao, then 31 years of age, was on top of the boxing world. In the previous year he'd knocked out Ricky Hatton with one punch at light welterweight. He moved up to welterweight and bludgeoned the highly-regarded Miguel Cotto in a twelfth-round stoppage. While his subsequent fight against Joshua Clottey was nothing to write home about, Pacquiao then moved up to middleweight (at a 150-pound catch weight) where he won a title in his eighth division.
Mosley, however, was in a very different predicament. From 2008 on he was fighting inconsistently. It's true he defeated Ricardo Mayorga and in 2009 ran over Antonio Margarito. But more than 15 months after dispatching Margarito, Mosley looked dreadful against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. He appeared every bit his age: slow, shopworn and just not there. Mosley followed up that performance with a dreadful effort against the very average Sergio Mora. Some called for his retirement after the fight.
All of the aforementioned is why the boxing world was livid when it was announced Mosley's next fight after drawing with Mora would be against Pacquiao.
Judging by media outrage, everyone seemed to hate the fight. Yahoo's Kevin Iole wrote at the time the bout was 'garbage'. ESPN's Dan Rafael echoed similar sentiments, saying the fight was bad for boxing. "A one-sided loss and a draw in an awful fight," Rafael wrote in December of 2010, "is not supposed to be how you land a fight with the pound-for-pound king and the sport's most popular fighter."
Fans seemed incensed, too, some going as far as calling for a boycott on the bout.
The answer was that Mosley still had name value and wasn't a huge threat to Pacquiao. Fans and media knew that, of course, but were too dismayed at how uncompetitive the bout would be.
Fast forward to fight night on May 7, 2011. While the fight was admittedly lackluster, it was an unmitigated box office smash generating an $8,882,600 gate - currently the seventeenth-best in Nevada's history. That's also $3.485 million more than Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz 2, the then-largest Nevada gate in UFC history.
The fight also did gangbusters on pay-per-view, pulling an estimated 1.34 million buys. And did the whole affair stain Pacquiao's and Arum's next attempt to draw at the box office? Nope. Pacquiao's following fight - a rubber match with Juan Manuel Marquez - is the current tenth-best gate in Nevada history and earned 1.4 million buys.
To be sure, Jones vs. Sonnen is different than Pacquiao vs. Mosley. Jones and Sonnen are battling over a coveted and meaningful title; Sonnen is not a 'shot' fighter; neither fighter is as popular as Pacquiao and so on. But the situation is instructive from a macro perspective: a promoter is overriding the strong concerns from high-information fans and media while running roughshod over sporting criteria for financial gain.
On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, UFC President Dana White denied this, arguing the bout was made because other contenders previously turned the fight down and the timing with Sonnen and Jones worked out. While the latter is true, the former is not. It's not clear why Dan Henderson, who was to fight Jones at UFC 151 before withdrawing due to injury, couldn't also presumably be ready by April. And under meritorious criteria in evaluating suitable light heavyweight contenders, Sonnen is a complete non-starter.
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.
First, no one is suggesting Dana White or the UFC are now tantamount to Bob Arum or Top Rank. Whatever one's opinion of Jones vs. Silva, White's and the UFC's record on promoting meaningful bouts between contenders with greater frequency is clear. That's especially true relative to Arum, who just this week suggested an utterly senseless bout between Nonito Donaire and Jorge Arce was on his radar.
But 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. They've done the opposite, successfully so, on a number of meaningful levels. From getting the sport on network television to offering fighters accident insurance, Zuffa has followed their plan with great returns.
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.
The short-term wins are obvious. TUF - the most important show in the history of the sport - will likely get a temporary reprieve from execution. When Jones and Sonnen fight in April, the bout should be a huge financial success.
Long-term, this could also be very good for Jones. He's a star, but not a big one. Just as Sonnen's rivalry with Anderson Silva ultimately did wonders for the middleweight champion's popularity, Jones could emerge as a much bigger star. Between the television exposure and the likelihood of looking exceptional in a widely-watched bout on pay-per-view, Jones can walk away from this with an easy win, wider visibility and as a bigger box office draw. After all, Silva's UFC 153 dismantling of Stephan Bonnar - a universally-expected outcome - was so stupendous it resulted in some declaring him the greatest of all time. Yet, he accomplished what he was supposed to do and did so in a bout of essentially zero significance. Even against outmached opponents, strong performances matter.
To White's point on Wednesday's call, this also gives time for the light heavyweight division to establish a clearer line of contenders. White's claim that the rest of the contenders put themselves in this disadvantageous position by declining a bout with Jones is unfair given all of those offers were short notice and not accompanied by a reality television stint on FX. But Jones will be healthy again and will have to defend his title in the latter half of 2013. In between now and then, some hierarchy can be made.
This isn't to say those who call the Jones vs. Sonnen fight a farce are wrong. On sporting terms, it is. Sonnen isn't a nobody, but Jones is going to blow through him.
There's clearly a push-pull going on here. The media and fans who push back against cynical matchmaking serve as the conscience of the sport. It is their hardline resistance that serve as a helpful reminder to promoters that blatant cash grabs or questionable matchmaking will only be tolerated in limited amounts.
Ultimately, though, fans and media should also be honest with themselves: the sky is not falling. In fact, if the UFC gets a few lucky breaks along the way, this could end up being a rather sizable win for the sport, the larger casual fan base (who this is really all about, anyway), Sonnen and Jones. In a year where the popularity of the sport is normalizing, this is hardly the worst outcome.
There's evidence to suggest the UFC can do this and succeed, both for short-term and long-term gain. Bouts like Pacquiao vs. Mosley, as different as it is from Jones vs. Sonnen, demonstrate there's much to be gained with careful if cynical matchmaking between two popular attractions.
Say what you want about what the boxing industry does wrong, but they're creating new stars at a surprising clip. They're also able to lionize their top fighters much better than in MMA. Neither of these phenomena are accidents. The UFC could do a lot worse than employing a tried and true method of fight promotion from their playbook.