The announcement of the impending TUF season being coached by Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen and their subsequent fight for the UFC Light Heavyweight title has sent shock waves through the MMA fanbase. There are those who are decrying the match-up, scribbling furiously from their laptops that Sonnen is undeserving of a shot at the title, describing the UFC title with words like “legitimacy” and “sanctity”. Then there are those who feel like they are leveling the ultimate insult at Zuffa, saying “it’s all about money”.
Well to paraphrase The Simpsons resident alien Kang (or is it Kodos? I can never tell them apart): No flurking shnit.
MMA is a combat sport. Along with boxing, they make the majority of their revenue through a pay-per-view business model. That means that the more people willing to pay to see a fight, the more money the UFC makes, the more money they can filter through to their fighters in performance bonuses, off the record locker room bonuses and so forth.
Prize fighting rewards those who the public want to see compete. Look no further than boxing’s heavyweight PPV king “Iron” Mike Tyson. Tyson was by and large a shell of himself after he got out of prison in 1995. Yet his first fight out against career scrub Peter McNeeley set PPV gross and viewership records for the time. Tyson continued to be a big-dollar fighter, although losing to anyone good, right up until the end of his career against unheralded Irishman Kevin McBride. It wasn’t because he was the best, it wasn’t because he was even close to his former form, it was because people wanted to see Mike Tyson fight and would pay to do so. It’s really as simple as that.
Chael Sonnen is a polarizing figure at the best of times. While sometimes his antics veer too far into pro rasslin’ carny territory, there is no doubt that he is an entertaining and captivating personality. Giving a guy like Sonnen a weekly national TV spot for three months to build to a title fight against Jones will draw the eyes of the all-important casual fanbase, the same people viewed with scorn by the so-called “hardcores”. While it seems to be the cool thing to do among MMA nerds to slag fans who buy PPV’s based on the personalities involved or don’t appreciate the sport on a technical enough level for their liking, the casual fanbase are the ones that turn the 500,000 PPV buys into the 1,000,000 buys range.
The same members of the MMA fanbase and media that are shocked and horrified by the idea of a Jones-Sonnen showdown are by and large the same people who criticize UFC for their stalled PPV business and failure to put on compelling fights. Yet when UFC does something that is sure to be a PPV destination event, they are the first ones to complain.
It’s not like Sonnen is a scrub like Peter McNeeley was. The betting odds opened with Jones as a heavy favourite and they should, being that Jones is the champion and Sonnen is moving up in weight. But Sonnen’s last fight was against the man who is bar none the best fighter on the planet, Anderson Silva. Anyone even remotely familiar with the sport is familiar with Silva’s accomplishments, yet Sonnen was able to dominate him for four and a half rounds in their first encounter and dictated the first round of their rematch before trying an ill-advised spinning backfist in the second.
Jones’ last title defence was against middleweight Vitor Belfort, another man who had moved down from 205 to 185. While in the lead-up to the fight there were complaints about Belfort’s suitability as an opponent, in the aftermath there was nothing but kudos to both men; Belfort for his ability to put Jones in the most precarious position of his career, and Jones for gritting it out and showing courage under fire.
Therein lies the rub. For everyone complaining about the Jones-Sonnen fight, for all the posturing about “legitimacy” and “sanctity” and other words that are better applied to the actual important things in life and not combat sports, not one person has said that they won’t watch it. Not one has said that come April when the two collide, they will not give UFC their money out of protest. Not one.
It’s about money.