In many ways, we're treading upon unprecedented ground. Never before had a coaching announcement for The Ultimate Fighter been met with as much scorn as when UFC officials announced Chael Sonnen will compete opposite Jon Jones on TUF 17, before challenging for Jones' light heavyweight title on an April 27 pay-per-view.
In the hours since, fans, fighters and pundits alike have hurled criticism at Jones-Sonnen, referring to the matchmaking as anything from an obvious money grab to a transparent ploy to reinvigorate a dying series. However, according to UFC President Dana White, Sonnen's abrupt entry into light heavyweight title contention was simply a result of circumstance.
"Basically, we got the word when Jon went out and got his elbow checked, that he was out and couldn't come back until April," White explained on Wednesday afternoon's media conference call. "So it made sense for him to do The Ultimate Fighter. Why block up [the division]? Machida can fight. Dan Henderson can fight. Gustafsson and Shogun are going to fight in December. Everything will keep right on moving.
"These guys will both coach The Ultimate Fighter. They'll fight when the season's over, and then whoever's next in line at 205 pounds can fight Jon Jones next for the title."
Note that White said "fight Jon Jones," and not ‘fight the winner.' Obviously that's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the challenger's chances, which Las Vegas oddsmakers have pinned somewhere around 7-to-1.
For Jones, the road to this match-up has been long and turbulent. The UFC light heavyweight champion was widely criticized for turning the fight down on eight days notice prior to the cancellation of UFC 151. At the time, Jones cited two factors which led to his decision; the first being the shortened schedule, and the second being his complete unwillingness to allow Sonnen ‘to talk his way to a title shot.'
Yet after being bombarded by fans still hoping to see the fight, Jones changed his tune less than a week ago, posting on Twitter, "The more I realize how bad the fans want to see me fight Sonnen, the more I am beginning to disregard whether he deserves it or not." Now Jones simply hopes the journey becomes a cathartic one, so he can put it all behind him and move onto the next stage his life.
"It really just had to do with getting over this chapter of my career," Jones explained. "I'm trying to move forward and do a lot of amazing things. The UFC 151 cancellation, it was a tough moment in my career, and I think beating Chael Sonnen, and after that beating Dan Henderson, would help me have closure to that whole situation.
"None of it had anything to do with whether or not I could beat Chael. It really was about just fighting and handling my career in the most professional manner. Taking a last-minute fight when you're fighting for a world championship is not fair to me. It's something that hopefully I'll never have to do. I just wanted to fight Chael with an appropriate time to prepare. It wasn't that I [don't think] I can beat Chael. I absolutely know I can beat Chael and I feel really confident going into this fight.
"I'm a championship fighter," Jones concluded. "And I don't think Chael's really a guy who knows how to win championships. "
Jones' last jab is the most telling, as it is also the focal point for the public's outcry.
Sonnen, coming off a decisive loss to Anderson Silva, last fought at light heavyweight in 2005. By any traditional measure, it's hard to justify him leapfrogging a laundry list of contenders at 205 pounds.
Several UFC fighters have already criticized the decision, including Sonnen's close friend, Dan Henderson. But Sonnen, as he always does, had an answer for critics who say he doesn't deserve the title shot.
"Welcome to life," Sonnen flatly said. "We don't deserve things. You get what you get. And let's understand, not one of those fighters said, ‘Hey Dana, I'll fight Chael. Let me prove that I'm the No. 1 contender. Let me fight that guy.' Not one of them. They all sat there and said their little things. I've called every one of those bastards out, and I'll call them out right now. I got no problem getting a tune-up fight and slapping any one of these guys around, including the Karate Kid.
"They don't want to fight Jon Jones," Sonnen continued. "Not one of them has called out Jon. The only fighter to call Jones out is me. Nobody called me out. I don't turn down fights and I never get hurt. I will fight anybody at anytime. So these guys can say all these things they want, but not one of them has stepped up. I‘ve got to deal with this all the time, where guys always get jealous of an opportunity, but they never want to walk out to the mound and point to the crowd and tell them where they're going to hit the ball. I will. I'll call my shots. And as far as talking my way into it, what do I care about that? So what I talked my way into it? I wanted it, and I got it. I talked a cat out of a tree earlier today. I'll do whatever I want."
Sonnen's point regarding his disgruntled colleagues in the light heavyweight division was soundly echoed by White.
"I've said this before and I'll say it again. Dan Henderson had the opportunity for the fight and he got injured," White explained.
"Everyone of these guys that are bitching about a title show now, were offered the fight and turned it down. They refused to fight Jon Jones. Now they're bummed out because Chael stepped up on eight days notice and he's going to coach The Ultimate Fighter and fight him? I mean, it's pretty simple.
"[Jones and Sonnen] will do this," White continued. "They'll fight, and then we can continue to have the light heavyweight division rolling and have an absolute No. 1 contender when Jones comes back [from injury]."
For his part, Sonnen did his best to sell the announcement, referring to the tournament format of TUF as, "tougher than the Olympic games, tougher than the NFL playoffs, tougher than any tournament in sports." His salesmen act even drew a few laughs from his new rival, as Jones chuckled to himself after a one-liner that declared, "The only thing that delegitimizes the title is the brat holding it," and once more after Sonnen quipped, "Chael Sonnen is going to take half of the young men and teach them to be fighters, and Jon Jones is going to take half of these young men and teach them to be selfish."
Though the most intriguing back-and-forth of the afternoon arose when Sonnen was asked what qualities he brings to the table that separates him from Jones' past opponents.
"First off, I've been on both sides of an ass-whooping, and that's something that Jon hasn't," he answered. "Jon's been very dominant, but he's also fought a lot of guys who're timid and they're afraid to get into a fight. I'm going to walk out there and I'm going to get into a fist fight. And above everything, I'm in a lot better shape than Jon or anybody else he's fought. As much as I'll admit, Jon is better -- skill for skill he's fantastic -- Jon will admit, I'm in better shape than anybody he's fought."
"In good shape on TRT, or off TRT?" Jones quickly shot back.
"On TRT, Jon. You tell everybody, you let the media know," Sonnen retorted, his voice raising as if he was about to drop a bombshell, before lowering back down. "Eh, let's move on."
But wasn't the end of the discussion. With Pandora's box already opened, Jones was later asked for his thoughts on Sonnen's use of TRT, and he didn't mince words.
"I think it's terrible," Jones declared. "I think it's professionally terrible if your going to consider yourself an athlete. I mean, TRT would be perfect for Chael Sonnen if he wasn't competing in one of the toughest sports in the world. I think Chael Sonnen made tons of money when he was a young guy, and now he's an older guy. Now just to be able to take a drug and super-enhance yourself back to where you were in your twenties is bull. Right now I'm 25. I'm sure I'm not as giddy and happy-go-lucky as I was when I was 20, so if I take a drug at my 25-year-old age and have the energy of a 20-year-old, it just wouldn't be fair. Everyone would hate me if I did it. But Chael Sonnen gets to do it? I think it's bullcrap."
In the early stages of what will be six inevitable months of mud slinging, it seems as if Jones has already pinpointed his trump card. As once again, the only response Sonnen could muster up was, "I don't have any comment on the topic."