When Chael Sonnen submitted Mauricio "Shogun" Rua Saturday night in Boston, it seemed he became a target for a number of leading contenders in both the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions.
Even before Saturday, Sonnen's talking ability had made every fight he's been in for the past few years a spotlight fight that garners as much interest as just about any non-championship fight in those divisions. And his reputation for garnering interest was bolstered by ratings that shocked almost everyone in the television industry, as the UFC show led Fox Sports 1 on its first night in existence to not only beat ESPN, but beat all four major networks in the key demos.
It's mind blowing that the 1.38 rating on Saturday for the show on an unfamiliar station was only slightly down from the 1.5 that UFC pulled three weeks earlier on FOX.
But the big question is: Where do you go next with Sonnen?
In this case, I'm going to take Sonnen at his word, which can admittedly be dangerous at times. We'll go with the idea he's moving back to middleweight. The reality of Sonnen is, like a lot of fighters, kind of a tweener. He looked physically small next to Rua, and cuts so much to make 185 that his optimum weight may be somewhere in the middle. His size on Saturday didn't prove to be any kind of an obstacle once he got his rhythm. Still, he didn't do much with Jon Jones in his title match, but in fairness, nobody else has either.
Sonnen's two most talked about potential opponents are Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva. Sonnen, always thinking of the future, seemed to be gearing his focus the week of the Rua fight on building up a Silva fight. It was a good insurance policy in case he lost, because talking up that fight so big would make it more likely to happen, and just from name value, it would have been a big fight had he lost. Obviously, with a strong win, that fight becomes significantly bigger.
It's the right fight for now, provided Silva agrees. Silva hasn't fought since February. But if you're only as good as your last fight, Silva, it could be argued, is the most exciting fighter in the sport. He knocked out Brian Stann in the second round, and it may have been this year's best brawl.
The problem with Belfort as Sonnen's next foe is that right now Belfort has legitimately earned a title shot against the Dec. 28 Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva middleweight title bout winner. If he was to face anyone, he would be risking the title shot. That would sound good in a sense for Sonnen, because beating Belfort would be the best way to get another title shot. And Sonnen in the title picture has proven to be good for Zuffa's bank account.
But the problem is, what if Anderson Silva beats Weidman and gets the title back? Sonnen was finished twice by Silva and once by Jon Jones in title matches. It's tough to go back to Silva this early for Sonnen even though the pay-per-view numbers were an estimated 925,000 buys for their second fight. Granted, Silva beat Belfort with a memorable front kick in the first round, and Belfort also lost to the same Jones when moving up. But he's only lost one fight to Silva, which was a few years ago, and within the division, he's been on a legitimate tear since with knockouts of Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold.
The Anderson Silva situation also affects talk of a Belfort vs. Lyoto Machida bout at 185. That is a grudge match with plenty of positives in the Brazilian market, as Machida is upset at a perceived slight by Belfort. But the question is whether or not Machida would fight Anderson Silva. If Silva and Machida wouldn't agree to a fight, then Belfort vs. Machida makes sense. If not, it's risking eliminating a top contender and ending up with no opponent should Silva wins back the title on Dec. 28.
Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva at this point would be a strong television main event, and a solid No. 2 fight on a pay-per-view. It could be No. 3 on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas, a show Sonnen had already cut interviews talking about wanting to be on, and being added to Weidman vs. Silva and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate, that could become the UFC's most successful event since UFC 100.
After that night, the Silva vs. Weidman situation will have worked its way out, and if Sonnen wins, his next move should be a lot clearer.
For Travis Browne at heavyweight, coming off his win over Alistair Overeem, there are plenty of options. The current top contender for the winner of Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos now looks to be Fabricio Werdum.
Werdum wants to sit and wait for the shot, so if we take him out of the picture, the strongest possibilities look to be Stipe Miocic, Roy Nelson (if Nelson upsets Daniel Cormier on Oct. 19 in Houston) or the winner of the UFC 164 co-main event between Frank Mir and Josh Barnett.
Fighting the winner of the latter bout looks to be the best match-up for him, unless Werdum decides he wants to stay busy. The problem is Browne beat Overeem by surviving an early onslaught and having him fade. That style isn't nearly as likely to work against either Velasquez or Dos Santos.
Right now, the public isn't ready for Browne to get a title match, but beating two more strong contenders and that may change.
The question becomes— if Mir wins, will Browne agree to face him since both have been training out of the same Greg Jackson camp? With the Mir/Barnett fight only a few weeks away, the UFC can wait before booking Browne until things clear up.
Bantamweights Urijah Faber (29-6) and Michael McDonald (16-2) came out of the show scoring impressive wins over top 10 opponents Iuri Alcantara and Brad Pickett, respectively. This left them ranked right behind champion Dominick Cruz and interim champion Renan Barao as the No. 2 and No. 3 contenders for Cruz in the newest UFC Rankings.
There was talk immediately after the fight of matching them up, which is the most logical direction. The fly in the ointment is that Barao beat both in convincing fashion. Barao next faces Eddie Wineland on Sept. 21 for the interim belt. It's still undetermined when Cruz, coming up on two years since last fighting after a pair of knee reconstruction surgeries, can return.
The two don't live far away from each other—Faber in Sacramento, Calif., and McDonald in Modesto—and Faber has followed McDonald's career since its inception.
"I was at his first fight when he was 16," Faber noted after Saturday's show. "We've always had a good relationship. I think it's a fight that'll happen. It definitely will be a battle if it happens."
"This sport isn't about hating people," said McDonald. "He's a good friend of mine, a good guy. He's been a friend a long time, since my first fight I've known him. It's like me and Brad Pickett, we touched gloves, hopefully we'll make some money whenever the time calls for it."
After Matt Brown steamrolled through Mike Pyle in 29 seconds, he immediately called for welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, stating that Pyle, who he just beat, was better than the current welterweight champ. Brown has garnered increased popularity as the journeyman fighter who suddenly fired off six wins in a row, including the last three by knockout on major televised events.
But the reaction to Brown's challenge from the audience seemed to indicate they didn't see him at that level. In the case of Brown, there are endless options in matchmaking. The best thing for him is a name fighter in a division filled with them.
No matter what Pyle's gym reputation is, Pyle has never performed at that level in the cage in front of the fans. It's time for Brown to get a stepping stone win. Brown vs. Nick Diaz could headline a television show, and odds are great they could tear the house down with the fight. A win for Brown there would greatly change the public's perception of him from a fun guy to open a television show to a legitimate title threat.
Brown would likely force Ellenberger to fight him as opposed to the Ellenberger vs. Rory MacDonald fight which was the kind of battle you don't want on live television. And a fight with the Condit/Kampmann winner would give Brown the opportunity for a win where, if he called out GSP again, people would likely be more enthusiastic in their response.
The other fighter, talked about heavily coming in was Ireland's Conor McGregor. McGregor said his knee went out in the second round of his win over Max Holloway. The injury makes it unfair to make sweeping statements about what level he is off Saturday or whether or not he's at the level of his hype. But it's also unclear at this point the severity of the injury and when he can fight again.
Manvel Gamburyan and Chan Sung Jung are the biggest names outside of that group. Jung is coming off a loss in a title match, and he and McGregor look good as a stylistic challenge. But I'd go with Gamburyan first, and hope Jung wins his next fight and McGregor comes through. If so, I'd go there next.
At that point, the top of the division will have worked its way out and McGregor will be established as either a bona fide star or not.