Why Jones vs. Sonnen is, in the big picture, good for the sport

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There are a wide variety of fights that will take place during a year, but only a few big ones. The job of a fight company is to figure out which ones that public most wants to see, and work to deliver them.

Barring an injury, sometime early next year, Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao are going to face off for the UFC bantamweight championship.

By all rights, this should be one of the biggest and most talked about fights of the year. The fact it probably won't be is a point to ponder when talking about the decision to put on a Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen fight for the light heavyweight title in April. Because it will be one of the biggest and most talked about fights of 2013.

Cruz is 19-1, with his lone loss coming to Urijah Faber in 2007, when he was 22, and a weight class up from where he currently fights. That was before he was even part of a full-time camp. He was in his first big-time fight and facing the-then best guy in the weight class. He's since avenged that loss, and is the current UFC bantamweight champion.

If you date back to his winning the same title in the WEC, he's made four successful title defenses, a record only a handful of world champions have ever reached. He's widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. And at 27, he's in his prime, although coming off a serious knee operation. While not every Cruz fight is the most entertaining with his dodge-and-dart style, his previous two fights with Faber and Demetrious Johnson tore the house down in Las Vegas and Washington, DC.

Barao is 29-1 (with one no contest), whose only loss was via decision in early 2005, in his first pro fight when he was only 18. He's also regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. He's also in his prime, only 25, and defeated Faber even more decisively than Cruz did. With Cruz out of action, his win over Faber made him the interim champion. He's looked tremendous in every UFC fight he's had to date.

When the two fight, there is a very good chance they will main event on pay-per-view. There is also a very good chance the show won't do very big numbers. Even if put on television for free, the numbers if this fight is the main event would not likely be strong. It is very unlikely that this fight reaches the "water cooler talk" level that is the key to growing interest in the sport. And when it comes to the kind of media attention that the biggest UFC fights bring, this fight is not likely to get a whiff of it.

If you're looking at the big picture and what is good for the sport, this fight is really good for the very small percentage of fans who care about who is truly the best fighter. The vast majority, for better or worse, care far more about personalities and stars. To them, this is just a fight. It's not good for the sport, but just one of hundreds of UFC fights that will take place.

For better or worse, this is the world that we live in. We can say it's not fair, and from a purely sport standpoint, it isn't. That's why when make arguments bringing up pure sport or using the term "good for the sport," they are lost as to what UFC is, and what it needs to be over the long haul.

It is doubtful that next year we'll have even one fight between two men in their primes in the same weight class with the kind of stellar records and ability these two have. With the exception of a possible Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar fight, which also isn't likely to do huge business or garner top-tier fight attention, the only other fight next year from a pure sports standpoint that would be at that level would be if Anderson Silva was to face either Georges St-Pierre or Jon Jones. Granted, if one of those fights happen, that's the best of all worlds for everyone and it'll be the biggest fight of the year.

That's why I've been amused all week by the horror about the planned Jones vs. Chael Sonnen fight, particularly the line that it is bad for the sport. There are fans who don't like it. Fans have the prerogative to like and not like what they want. They don't even need a valid season. People will hate Cruz vs. Barao because of their size, or simply because they have no idea who Barao is and don't care. There will be people who hate that Sonnen is getting a title shot in a division he hasn't fought in for years, and coming off a loss at a lighter weight class.

Fans have a right to support whatever they want. If they aren't intrigued by the fight, they don't have to buy it. But bad for the sport?

This is an old argument, but people need to come to grips with what is bad for the sport. What is bad is when nobody cares, when the sport is not covered, and when people outside the MMA core fan base are barely aware it exists. That's bad. Bad ratings. Bad pay-per-view numbers. Television loses interest in promoting it past the fringe sport level. All bad.

Unless something changes, Cruz and Barao are not going to be all over ESPN. Joe Sixpack Monday Night Football Fan who may watch two or three UFC shows per year and make the difference when shows do more than 700,000 buys, may not even know who Cruz is, and almost surely doesn't know Barao.

Getting his friends together to chip in to watch a pay-per-view, or make a Saturday night out of it, unless there is some genius promotion that is involved with this bout, is not happening. Those people didn't care about Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard III, even after fight No. 2 was as classic a fight as you could imagine, and when UFC put together one of its best promotional campaigns ever to build it. People are going to like what they like. A promotion has to learn, adapt, roll with the punches and try and figure out what is going to click with the customers.

People comparing UFC with the NFL or Major League Baseball are the delusional ones. Those are established structured team sports with billion dollar television deals and can draw 30,000 or 60,000 fans on any given afternoon. UFC is a fight promotion. They only garner really big money when they present something that appeals to Joe Sixpack Monday Night Football Fan, who may check them out a few times a year. Fight promotions most often are preludes to economic tombstones. The few, like UFC, who have been the exception, do so because they are run as businesses.

If a fight promotion isn't run as a business, guaranteed, it won't be in business for very long.

Still, we're getting Cruz vs. Barao fight because not every fight is going to capture the attention of the public. But when there is that one a few times a year, it's pretty snobbish to label it not good for the sport. If the masses care, and the mainstream media cares, and if they will treat it like it's a big deal, that's what you strive for.

The media loves Chael Sonnen. He's one of the sport's biggest stars, and with the right scenario, he's a proven major money player. More people cared about his last fight than any UFC fight in nearly two years.

Did Ali's championship reign ruin the popularity of boxing? Did Joe Louis' championship reign ruin the sport of boxing and kill the heavyweight title? Was either title reign, with the benefit of hindsight, bad for the sport? Look back at their opponents. Hell, Louis' title reign was known at the time as being the "Bum of the month club."

And let's just look at recent MMA history with people crying about "undeserved title shots" that are bad for business. Let's see, Randy Couture was knocked out as a light heavyweight, and then got a heavyweight title shot in his next fight against Tim Sylvia. That show was off to a bad advance, and now still holds the U.S. attendance record today.

Was Couture getting and winning the title that night, with the benefit of hindsight, bad for the UFC in the long-run? Don't insult people's intelligence.

Example No. 2, Brock Lesnar had a 1-1 UFC record and got a title shot at Couture. Bring that one up and it's even sillier. With the benefit of hindsight, UFC 100 and its records were really bad for business. The record setting pay-per-view year in 2010 nearly ruined the credibility of the UFC. You know, the UFC, the company that became No. 1 in the world and was able to buy up the best talent because of all the money they made promoting 1994 stars Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock in main events in 2006 against opponents that insiders knew they had no chance with, and in the case of the latter, flooded message boards by saying "Nobody wanted to see Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz," when the reality was more people wanted to see it than any fight in UFC's history up to that point in time.

And example No. 3, Ronda Rousey had only four pro fights, none at 135 pounds, and the Strikeforce promoters decided to leap frog her over Sarah Kaufman, who had earned her title shot at Miesha Tate by winning a No. 1 contenders fight. Yes, women's MMA was destroyed by that decision and now is so much worse off than it was before Rousey got granted her title shot.

Usually, this kind of matchmaking would be bad. There should be a rule of thumb when it comes to matchmaking to not do things like this regularly. But promoters and matchmakers who stick to rigid rules, when specific situations like this somehow avail themselves and they won't take advantage of it, those promoters and matchmakers are going to badly stifle the growth of their sport and their company.

What would usually be the wrong decision in every individual case I mentioned actually ended up being great for the sport, making it far more popular. That's the job of a good promotion: to make matches that grow the sport. When, as will happen from time to time, they find a match that the fans actually want to see and will intrigue people who usually aren't even fans, they go for it. In the 120-year history of the every combat sport business, every fight promotion that is going to be successful, is not turning its back on fights the public wants for some imaginary purity aspect that only a tiny percentage of its fan base cares about.

This idea that if they continue to promote in this manner, the public will turn away, well, when boxing's top drawing cards can no longer draw because No. 1 isn't always fighting No. 2 in every weight class every time on pay-per-view, alert me. Based on boxing's time line, once it no longer can draw for the big fights a year that aren't No. 1 vs. No. 2 at that exact moment in time, we'll all have about 100 or so years advanced warning on what not to do.

When Cruz and Barao are afforded the same amount of coverage by the big media as Sonnen and Jones, simply because they have stellar records, and then outdraw them, then the media and the public is sending you a message about what they want. When that happens, the promoter's job is to listen to the message. Until that happens, the promoter's job is to listen to the message the public itself tells them.

What UFC has to do to build its brand, which is a game that will always be a struggle. There are going to be plenty of Cruz vs. Barao fights over the next five years, just as there are hopefully going to be plenty of fights that do get the average sports fan or entertainment fan invested and keep them successful as a business.

What a lot of people miss is this: MMA's popularity to the public is based on how big UFC, the premier league, is at that time. UFC is a dog. UFC's championships are the tail. They aren't the dog. Of course you want a healthy tail, but the healthiest tail is useless if the dog is sick. In the end, if you don't feed the dog, the tail isn't saving him. Fans don't necessarily comprehend that, and don't have to.

But people who are thinking about what is good for the sport have to realize that championships are a very valuable tool to help achieve a goal.Yet, the goal is to grow the sport and the brand, not satisfy a small percentage of fans who think everything should be something that it just isn't and that championship purity is more important than sport popularity and company survival. The goal is to create fights people want to see, draw the most fans possible, make your TV partners happy, make your sponsors happy, and have entertaining shows. I guarantee you, the majority of fans, the TV partners, and the sponsors want more Jones vs. Sonnen fights, not less.

If you're down to nothing but monthly Cruz vs. Barao fights, the network TV will be gone, the Ultimate Fighter will be gone, multimillion dollar live gates will be gone and the record pay-per-view numbers will be a thing of the past.
But that's not going to happen any time soon. Decisions like this showed why.

Keep in mind this. When the announcement of this fight was made, my immediate reaction was negative. Not negative as in this is bad for the sport, because that's silly. Negative as this isn't fair. Of course, when your survival is based on catering to the public, fair becomes a weird term. If I was involved in the decision making, I'd have argued against it. But I also know, and knew within a few hours, that I'd be wrong, because my gut instinct now is colored by following the sport far closer than most fans.

When Ultimate Fighter's ratings sputtered, UFC, run the way it is, was considered a valuable enough property that they are getting a better time slot. How often does that happen to an aging show with badly declining numbers? That shows it has broadcast partners who have confidence that in the long run, this is still a valuable business to be part of. But as part of that, moving Ultimate Fighter to a weeknight, the pressure is on to improve numbers.

Almost every year (the only exception was the year they had Kimbo Slice), the key to ratings of Ultimate Fighter is the coaches. And almost every year, there ends up being great interest in the coach's fight.

So Dana White had to make decisions. What coaching dynamic is the best for ratings, and the best to save the show which has been historically a valuable promotional tool? And with that time invested on television, what fight will the public want to see?

Jon Jones is the company's biggest under-30 star, and as things have worked out, was injured and won't be able to fight until a few months into next year. So the time line fits perfectly for him to be able to coach a show that starts filming this coming Monday.

Who should he face?

Dan Henderson coached before. The Henderson vs. Michael Bisping dynamic was successful. But that was due to Bisping being a certain type of character where, by the end of the show, people wanted, and got to see the silent killer knock his block off. Will Jones be like Bisping and be able to carry a season with Dan Henderson? Possible, but it's a big risk. Bisping completely understands his role. Jones, we don't know.

Lyoto Machida? Jones already beat him. His English is limited. He was an outstanding fighter but never really broke through to be a top drawing card. A lot of people on the inside think of all the light heavyweights, even after his loss, he has the best shot at actually beating Jones. But the public doesn't. Jones vs. Machida would be a huge risk for a show that needs to deliver now.

Glover Teixeira? Too new to the scene. Nobody knows him. Far too big a risk.

Rampage Jackson? Jones also beat him. He did well on the show before as a coach. He has been a significant drawing card in the past. The coaching dynamic would be there. But there was nothing that happened in the first fight that would make a fan want to see a second fight. And Jackson also doesn't want to do the show.

Anderson Silva? Best possible scenario. If they could put it together, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Chael Sonnen? He's the most likely to understand his role on the show. Nothing is guaranteed, but if you're the guy having to make the decision between all these names who are available to start on Monday when it comes to picking up a declining television show, he's seems the best, and even, the obvious pick.

At that point, you have to do the fight. There are few coaching rivals in the history of TUF that after three months of television, people didn't want to see them fight.

Bad for the sport? If all fighters looked at this and thought, why is Chael Sonnen getting this shot and figured it out, nothing would be better for the sport. A promotion with 340 fighters who understands how the public reacts and 10 who don't is far superior to one with 10 who do and 340 who don't.

And at the end of the day, that's individual combat sports. Creating situations where the public wants to see two certain guys fight. Sometimes it's No. 1 and No. 2. It's easier when it is. But sometimes it isn't. Those with the right exposure who come closest to figuring out the public are the most successful. And when they are, the sport is successful. When they aren't good at figuring out the public, well, that's what's, in the long run, bad for the sport.

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