When Chael Sonnen was laying pinned up against the side of the Octagon and getting beat down by Jon Jones like a hapless fifth grader at the mercy of his teenage older brother, nobody suspected he was less than 30 seconds away from potentially capturing the UFC light heavyweight title. Unless Sonnen's training partner and Brazilian jiu jitsu ace Vinny Magalhaes had shown him a heretofore unknown submission that one sets up from the fetal position, the fight's opening frame was in the bag for the champ.
However, unbeknownst to the competitors in the cage and everyone watching at home, Jones' left great toe was jacked up something fierce. Two rivulets of fresh blood were flowing from the wound, highlighting the grisly gap between Jones' great and index toes.
Needless to say, with an injury like that, no sane athletic commission doctor would have allowed Jones to come out for the second round. Here's where things get truly weird: if the champion had been unable to continue fighting due to injury, thanks to an arcane technicality the title would have been awarded to a challenger who spent the majority of the bout doing his best impression of a practice dummy.
Instead referee Keith Peterson - who must have been in a hurry to make a 1:00 AM appointment to get more ink added to his already heavily tattooed neck or something - jumped in early and waved the fight off before giving an obviously still conscious Sonnen time to weather the storm Jones was reigning down upon him. The result was a TKO victory for the champ with just 27 seconds left to go in the first round.
It's probably for the best Peterson called a somewhat early halt to the action before rushing to get the Japanese kanji for "itchy trigger finger finger" permanently etched over his Adam's apple, because if he hadn't the heads of all those up in arms about the decision to grant Sonnen a title shot in the first place likely would have exploded in unison upon seeing the undeserving challenger awarded a title he did nothing to earn.
Regardless, it wasn't long before this near brush with the absurd was used by some columnists and online fans as justification for their staunchly-maintaned position Sonnen had no business fighting for the light heavyweight strap.
According to MMAJunkie.com's Ben Fowlkes, Sonnen was "thoroughly exposed" by Jones. What's more, a fluke title victory by Sonnen would have been "bad" for a company that "whether it likes it or not, [is] the guardian of an entire sport, not to mention the careers of all the greats."
While I think Fowlkes is hands down the most talented prose stylist covering MMA today, his analysis leaves something to be desired this time around.
First of all, I'm having trouble understanding how exactly Sonnen was "exposed" in this fight. Was it because he looked like a rabbit trying to defend itself against a hungry mountain lion in there against Jones? If that's the case then everyone Jones has faced so far with the arguable exception of possibly Lyoto Machida - who at least won a round against the champ before getting summarily choked out in the second - has been "exposed" as well. Remember we're talking about a guy who makes the best of the best at 205 pounds look like dishrag-armed wimps on a regular basis.
Perhaps Fowlkes meant Sonnen's performance on Saturday night exposed him as a blown up middleweight fighting in a weight class he doesn't belong in? However, when you consider how easily Sonnen gassed out in his past couple performances at 185 pounds it could very well be that at this stage in his career light heavyweight is a better fit for him since he doesn't have to deplete his body by cutting an entire toddler's worth of weight.
Another thing that doesn't quite add up about Fowlkes' argument is the implication that the controversial nature of Sonnen's title shot would have somehow made it worse if the championship had changed hands on a technicality. If Jones had been dominating against any other contender who was awarded the belt due to Jones injuring his toe, how would it have been any worse for the UFC, the sport they are apparently in charge of watching over, or the "careers of all the greats?"
Allow me to humbly posit that Jones losing his belt thanks to a freak injury would be an equally thorny situation whether the challenger was Alexander Gustafsson, Chael Sonnen, or Tank Abbot coming off a successful stint on The Biggest Loser. Sonnen "talking his way into the match" isn't what would make such a title change a bad deal for all involved; rather it would be the idea of a challenger who we all saw get beaten from pillar to post for five minutes walking out of the Prudential Center the new light heavyweight champion of the world thanks to a befuddling technicality. It's got nothing to do with Sonnen and everything to do with the intersection between the unpredictable nature of the sport and an imperfect set of rules.
The fact is, in a sport as dangerous as MMA, every time a champion gets in the cage to defend his belt it's possible he could get hurt in a freak accident like Jones did this past Saturday. To prevent the belt from falling into unworthy hands in a situation like this, I would advocate for a rule that prohibits the title from changing hands in the case of an injury to the champion unless it comes about as an immediate result of a legal offensive maneuver his opponent intentionally delivered (think an elbow opening a deep cut for instance).
What I wouldn't do however, is use the ever-present specter of random happenstance leading to injury in combat sports as an argument against promoters attempting to make the best possible matchups for business. Sonnen put far more eyeballs on Jones than a more "deserving" contender like Gustafsson would have, and judging from preliminary indications he likely also made Jones a lot more long green as well.
Speaking of which, if the UFC is indeed "the guardian of [the] entire sport" of MMA thanks to their position as far and away the industry leader, then maybe it's worth taking a second to consider how they got there in the first place. Here's a hint: it involves earning enough cash over the past eight years that Lorenzo Fertitta could put Scrooge McDuck's money bin to shame if he ever had an uncontrollable urge to find out what it feels like to dive head first into a 30 foot room filled with gold coins. Promoters don't amass those kind of cash reserves by leaving money on the table in order to cater to a vocal minority of hardcore fans and their notions on what is "good for the sport."
One of Dana White's go-to lines when defending the company's sometimes controversial booking decisions is to declare how he is "in the business of putting on fights people want to see." These "people" he's talking about aren't the comparatively few who visit websites like MMAJunkie.com or WrestlingObserver.com on a regular basis; they're the masses who are all too happy to hand over $50 for the UFC's wolf tickets because at the end of the day their primary concern is being entertained, not analyzing the business.
It may not be to the liking of those who champion the purity of the sport above all else, but more people were interested in seeing Chael Sonnen face Jon Jones than any "legitimate" contender at light heavyweight. The championship may have almost fallen into Sonnen's possession thanks to what would have gone down in history as one of the flukiest title changes of all time, but if it had been Gustafsson or Glover Teixeira getting shut down by Jones for all of round one instead of Sonnen the only difference for the UFC's bottom line would have been a significantly smaller pay per view buyrate.
MMA is an exceedingly chaotic game where, thanks to all the violent variables in play, it's impossible to predict what will happen once the cage door shuts. This volatile nature of the sport is all the more reason for the UFC to make the best matchups for business rather than taking a page from Bellator's far less successful meritocratic booking strategy. After all, if the long term health of the sport is ultimately what's at issue here, what could be better for the future of MMA than the industry leader putting together fights that appeal to the largest number of fans possible?