Is this bout between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen in any way rational if our consideration is sporting criteria? No. In fact, it's one of the more cynical bouts the UFC has ever booked as a main event. Nick Diaz didn't deserve a shot at Georges St-Pierre, but at least he's a welterweight with a record of achievement. Sonnen is a light heavyweight only as a technicality and even if he disregard that, there's no 205-pound resume to even possibly put him on the shortlist of title fight contenders.
This is a bout made solely for monetary gain and promotional reward. And if you're keeping score, the UFC has already won. Ratings for The Ultimate Fighter rebounded nicely. Media interest and coverage is almost ubiquitous. Ticket sales for the event are strong. Web traffic is very high. All indications point to strong pay-per-view returns. The UFC is getting everything they wanted. And hey, it's their business. They can run it how they see fit.
Insofar as I can tell, the only risk is how often the UFC can go to cynical matchmaking well. For now, the answer is very often. This year's bouts made more for promotional gain than resolving sporting dispute have done far, far better financially and commercially. There's an open question of how frequently they can do this and perhaps will discover that at some point in the future. But not tonight. Tonight is a justification of the strategy.
At stake: nothing and everything. Because this bout was created under the most bizarre circumstances, the stakes here are comical. Sonnen has a chance to defeat arguably the world's best fighter, win a major title and all the fame and glory his career has mostly lacked up to this point. A loss would certainly not be good for his career, but he's not even supposed to be here in the first place. It's hard to say a lot can go wrong when this is reward for nothing relating to sporting achievement. I suppose three losses in three title fights would render him to the Rich Franklin tour of the UFC, but that's exactly where he was after losing to Silva the second time. Sonnen has the world in his hands tonight and in terms of being a light heavyweight, he didn't have to do anything to get here.
It's hard to inventory everything Jones could lose tonight. His belt, money, stature, reputation are just the beginning. I don't really need to belabor the point. It's almost amusing how little Jones has to gain. I will say this, however. Jones does have the ability to enhance his reputation and grow his stature. There is casual interest in this bout by many who know Sonnen is the underdog, but are curious to see this Jones guy work his magic. A strong, impressive performance punctuated by a stoppage can quiet some of Jones' doubters while adding to his mystique and hype. While what Jones risks is enormous, there is something to salvage in this comically unnecessary bout.
At stake: not being the bigger disappointment. Bisping and Belcher are two of the UFC's most praised fighters for their talents and most heckled for their career shortcomings, although Bisping's career is more distinguished. Still, in key fights, both have come up short when they were on the precipice of something extraordinary.
Bisping's a little older than Belcher, but in some important respects, they're basically in the same position. In fact, this bout is a referendum on who is going to ultimately be the bigger failure of the two. I hate to put it in those terms given all they've done and how good we all know they are, but if Bisping can't beat Belcher or Belcher can't beat Bisping, it will tell us for sure the loser will likely never be a title contender. There's not much upside on the positive end. A win is good and well, but it doesn't really tell us how far they can go. All we know is the loser has very far to fall.
At stake: brain cells and maybe a few goodies. Some are suggesting a win tonight for Nelson could result in a title shot. I'm not so sure. Heavyweight is thin, but beating a known but unranked (as far as the top ten is concerned) competitor is probably not the catalyst he'll need. Still, it does matter. Kongo is still a talent and Nelson's position in the top 10 has been hard earned. Surrendering that at his age could be very, very hard to reverse. Nelson is still in a coveted position. He's fighting on main cards where there's more attention, bigger opponents and the chance for bigger paydays. Now is not the time to lose that.
For Kongo, he's also at an advanced age. If he wants to keep competing against the bigger named opponents on bigger stages, he needs to make a strong account of himself. He'll probably never earn a title shot and that's fine. Not everyone can be Cain Velasquez. But his priority needs to be holding onto what's left of his commendable UFC run.
At stake: mattering at 205. A win for Davis isn't necessarily the most transformative experience. More realistically, it'd be part of his rebuilding after the loss to Rashad Evans evidenced the need for more skill development. But it could still be revelatory. If he can either show respectable striking skills or submission defense with ground and pound, he can prove he's still a real possibility as a contender at some point in the moderately near future.
For Magalhaes, this is a chance to get a win in the UFC over someone who, despite probably being overvalued as a prospect, is still a divisional threat. In fact, a win tonight would be the biggest of his career. This is his chance to defeat an opponent that could rocket his stock, relatively speaking. He'll probably have to show more than submission wizardry to do it and there's an open question if he can, but if he does, look out.
At stake: serious contendership. The UFC lightweight division is arguably thicker than it's ever been, especially with the matriculation of Strikeforce's roster. Healy was at or near the top of the heap in Strikeforce and while Miller isn't quite at the summit of the UFC's, a win tonight represents the possibility to alter that. Champion Benson Henderson hasn't cleaned out the division by any stretch, but there's an interesting dynamic going on: some contenders are moving up or down in weight while the UFC isn't overly keen on awarding rematches. There are a few contenders higher than either Miller or Healy, but this is a fight to move from the long to the short list of title contenders. A title shot is highly unlikely after tonight, but the victor could feasibly find themselves in a number-one contender's bout within the year. It's time to get busy.