If you're a UFC light heavyweight with a few consecutive wins Tuesday's news that Chael Sonnen would be coaching The Ultimate Fighter against Jon Jones and then meeting him for the UFC light heavyweight championship had to be disheartening. Here you've grinded you're way through grueling training camp after grueling training camp and picked up hard fought win after hard fought win only for a middleweight fresh off a loss - with no wins in the UFC at light heavyweight to his credit mind you - to leapfrog over you and your accomplishments straight into a title shot just because he talks more trash than a Waste Management superintendent. "It's not fair," you might be telling yourself, and if so you'd be right - it's not fair. In a just world the fighter with the most consecutive wins would challenge for the championship. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. Instead of getting upset it might behoove UFC light heavyweights to ask themselves just why they were passed over in favor of Sonnen.
There are two possible answers here, neither of which are very comforting. First, you may have a loss on your record to Jones. If that's the case then you really don't have much of a justification for outrage since the champ has already run through you once like a band saw through a stick of melting butter. The second, and most unsettling, answer is this: you haven't done enough to make fans care about you. Don't feel like you're being singled out just because you're a light heavyweight though. This is a problem affecting every weight class in the UFC. For all you jilted fighters out there unsatisfied with your position in the divisional pecking order there are lessons to be learned from how Sonnen has used his gift of gab to become one of the top draws in the company despite a mediocre 6-5 UFC record.
Sonnen built his case for his first fight with Anderson Silva - and in the process made himself a star - by milking every second of camera time for all it was worth and by giving reporters lots of easy copy with a prodigious stream of quotable soundbites. This is something far too fighters understand. Rather than a chore to be dreaded, every interview is a platform to forge a connection with fans. Time and again fighters squander this precious opportunity with well-worn cliches about how they have just come off the best training camp of their lives and empty promises that their upcoming fight "will be a war." What's even worse is how many fighters fail to capitalize on the momentum provided by a big win. These fighters have a large captive audience listening to their every word but when Joe Rogan or Jon Anik ask them who they want to face next the best they can come up with is the evasive line, "It's not my job to make fights. I'll fight whoever the UFC puts in front of me."
Actually, if you're a UFC fighter, it is part of your job to make fights, or at the very least campaign for fights that advance your career. If you want to maximize your earnings during your short window of opportunity as a professional fighter it's also incumbent on you to do something that gives the audience a reason to care whenever you step in the cage. If fans are emotionally invested in you - whether they love you or hate you - they'll spend money to watch you fight. Otherwise you're just another guy on the card.
This isn't to say everyone who wants a UFC title shot should head to Youtube and start taking notes on old Superstar Billy Graham promos; that's Sonnen's shtick and anyone who copied it would seem like a cheap imitation. But there's a middle ground between pro wrestling showmanship and fighters who lack the imagination to deviate from a stock list of cliches or who think it's disrespectful to call out a desired opponent. These fighter's often say they plan to let their actions in the cage do their talking for them. Unfortunately these silent but violent messages often fail to resonate with the same force as a simple soundbite.
Look at Alexander Gustafsson for example. He's quietly won five in a row at light heavyweight to little fanfare. Consequently only the hardest of the hardcores would care about him facing Jon Jones right now. From a legitimate sporting perspective there is no argument to be made for Sonnen getting a title shot over Gustafsson. However, is anyone delusional enough to think Gustafsson would draw television ratings on TUF or a large PPV buyrate against Jones? Gustafsson has a big fight against Maurício "Shogun" Rua on the December 8th FOX show that has been talked about as a likely title eliminator, but just ask Shogun how reliable that stipulation is. While he has a chance to make himself into a bigger name in his fight against Shogun, what happens if he loses? The UFC will have a hard time convincing fans Shogun has a chance against Jones after how easily he was disposed of by the champ last time and Gustafsson will have to go on another winning streak to get close to the title picture. It begs the question whether or not Gustafsson would have had an easier path to a fight with Jones if he had made more noise after his past few wins about how he was the man to unseat the dominant champ?
Obviously not every fighter is in the position to go calling out the champion, but that doesn't mean they can't provide fans with emotional hooks to help draw them into their fights. This past weekend Jon Fitch was involved in the fight of the night against Erick Silva. The fight itself was an exciting back and forth affair but a big part of what made it so dramatic was the knowledge Fitch was fighting for his career. All week when speaking to reporters Fitch made no secret of what was at stake for him in the fight: if he lost he would likely be forced to stop training full time and get a day job to help his family out of dire financial straits. As a result the normally dull Fitch became a compelling figure for the first time in years. It didn't take Chael Sonnen hyperbole or Nick Diaz unpredictability for Fitch to make his fight seem important - all it took was a simple story fans could relate to.
Believe me, I understand the outrage over giving Sonnen the title shot against Jones. In a business where the tension between sport and entertainment is always in play this move ignores the sporting aspect of the equation to a regrettable degree. However, I'm also a realist. The UFC need something big to save the dying TUF franchise and Sonnen will draw more on PPV against Jones than any of the other available options. While it's a shame worthy contenders at light heavyweight will have to wait until a middleweight who barely has a winning record in the company gets the brass ring they've been diligently striving towards, from the UFC's perspective this was the best fight they could make for business.
That's the thing with brass rings though; sometimes you have to reach out and take them rather than quietly waiting your turn.
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