Everywhere you look, people keep asking if this is going to be it for Chael Sonnen. That should tell us something about his fight at UFC 159, shouldn’t it?
Here he is, a day away from fighting UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones – Sonnen’s second UFC title fight in as many outings – and the big question isn’t whether he’s going to win; it’s what he’s going to do after he loses. That he will lose is practically a given, or at least as close as you’ll ever get in MMA. Some oddsmakers have Jones as a 10-to-1 favorite. Even Sonnen’s supporters seem like they’re mostly hoping for a semi-competitive decision loss. Optimism, after all, has its limits.
The best reason to think Sonnen (27-12-1 MMA, 6-5 UFC) will beat Jones (17-1 MMA, 11-1 UFC) is based in a kind of sport-specific superstition. Jones is such a clear favorite that it almost seems like he’s daring the MMA gods to hit him with a lightning bolt. Sonnen might win, the thinking goes, solely because he absolutely shouldn’t. It would be ridiculous if he did. He’s older, smaller, slower, and less skilled in practically every area. The only way you can even talk yourself into believing that he has earned this title shot is if you tell yourself that there is no such thing as earning a title shot, that profitability is the metric that really matters, that anyone who thinks you should actually have to win fights in order to get a crack at the champ is hopelessly naive. As with the whole Sonnen schtick, this fight asks you to start with the assumption that the truth is negotiable. What do facts really mean, anyway?
Just look at this quote from Sonnen, who has made it a point to work a sales pitch into his running denial that his only value in this fight is as a salesman.
“I just answer the questions. I don’t manufacture conflict,” he said. “I would never try to sell a fight. I’m not going to disparage a guy and create a fake animosity to try to get $50. This is what it is. This is a superfight, the two baddest dudes in the world in a steel cage until one of us has had enough. If that interests you, it’s Saturday night – and it’s only on pay-per-view.”
Obviously Sonnen does not expect anyone with even a passing familiarity with his routine to believe this. When he says he would “never try to sell a fight” seconds before uttering the phrase “only on pay-per-view,” he knows exactly what he’s doing. He does not mean what he says, especially when he says that he does. He hopes we’ll agree that, at least when they’re arranged in an entertaining, occasionally rhyming fashion, it doesn’t matter what words actually mean. In this way, he lets us in on the joke. Greatest? Best? Baddest? That’s just stuff you say. The important thing is that you never stop talking.
That’s why the most intriguing question with this fight is not, as UFC President Dana White claimed, “Can Chael Sonnen do something?” It’s what will he do if he can’t? If the fight goes the way most people are expecting, and if it turns out that the guy who’s better on paper is also better in the cage, what happens next? What’s to become of Sonnen after he gets reminded yet again that there are some realities you can’t just talk your way around?
That’s kind of the beauty of fighting as a sport, after all. It’s a truth serum. Even the most skillful of frauds is exposed by the inescapable logic of well-ordered violence. The violence does not care if you are good or bad or funny or well liked. The violence cannot be negotiated with.
Even if he doesn’t pull off a miracle, Sonnen has prospects. He has a future at the broadcast table, as long he emerges from this fight with his head still in one piece. He has a place waiting for him in a business where it’s only talking, no truth required, which is probably why so many people are waiting for him to transition to that full-time once his title aspirations have run aground in another weight class.
Sure, he could hang around for a few more money fights against other light heavyweights whose careers are stuck in an angry idle, but that’s about it. He can take off the suit and jump in the cage just often enough to remind people how he got there. He can talk up the title fights he was in, gradually trying to convince us (or maybe himself) that getting the fight and the paycheck was more important than getting the win. What else is there?
Because face it, if he tried to go up another weight class and talk his way into a heavyweight title shot, even the people who are presently arguing for the infallibility of ticket sales and pay-per-view buys as the end that justifies the means would have to admit that the absurdity level had gotten a little too high. Even they would want off this ride then. That’s because whether you believe that wholly unearned title shots are bad for the sport or just meaningless fun, eventually you have to feel like your intelligence is being insulted. It’s one thing to be in on the joke with Sonnen. It’s another thing to be his mark.
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