As the dust settles on UFC 117 its difficult to decide what was more remarkable, the fact that Chael Sonnen was able to give Anderson Silva a real fight or that he was able to get so many people interested in it. With Sonnen having impressed everybody, the UFC is now under intense pressure to sign an immediate rematch, with UFC President Dana White refusing to rule out the possibility in the post-fight press conference. However to do so would be to turn the organization’s tried and tested booking philosophy on its head and would be a mistake in the long-term.
Under Zuffa, the UFC has differed from both pro-boxing and pro-wrestling in that it has largely avoided immediate rematches. The idea behind an immediate rematch is simple; if you have a match that has grabbed the attention of fight fans then the best way to capitalize is to go straight to a blockbuster sequel. The UFC has usually reserved this tactic for when there was an element of controversy in the original decision i.e. Hughes-Trigg, Machida-Shogun and (supposedly) Penn-Edgar.
This approach imposes a discipline on the organization in that encourages it to constantly create new stars. Whereas boxing and pro-wrestling are addicted to regurgitating the same old matchups, the UFC is always striving to develop new contenders to face its champions. This often sees the UFC take gambles on untried main eventers rather than go down the route of protecting an established star, a gamble that often pays off. Look at the heavyweight division; it would have been easy to protect Frank Mir by feeding him Antonio Nogueria or even Kimbo Slice so creating a surer path to Mir-Lesnar III. Instead the UFC made him fight a real contender in Shane Carwin who promptly beat him. But that was okay because with the momentum Carwin got from defeating Mir they were able to sell him as a serious threat to Brock Lesnar’s title reign and do the second biggest buyrate in the organization’s history. There are numerous other such examples of the UFC creating new stars because they weren’t afraid to make an established star earn their keep by facing a young contender.
Just as it would have been easier to say that as Mir-Lesnar III was the biggest fight in the heavyweight division so Mir should be protected, it would be easy to say that Sonnen-Silva II is the biggest fight in the middleweight division so the rematch should be hotshotted. But let’s just stop and remember that as recently as April only hardcore UFC fans knew who Chael Sonnen was. Sonnen is a superstar today because he made the most of the opportunity presented in fighting Anderson Silva. As we have seen this year with Dan Hardy, Shane Carwin and now Chael Sonnen if you impress in a world title fight en route to losing that helps make you a bigger star. There’s no telling what fighters such as Vitor Belfort, Chris Leben or Michael Bisping are capable of if given the same opportunity. But we won’t find out if they’re not given that chance.
Not doing immediate rematches also gives the UFC the opportunity to develop both fighters when they’re coming off a hot fight instead of forcing the issue and only having the decisive winner to develop into a star. Again look at Frank Mir-Brock Lesnar, with the controversy and interest in their first match there would be a perfectly reasonable argument for booking an immediate rematch between the two. Had they done so then one of two things would have happened – either Brock Lesnar destroys Mir in the semi-main of a pay per view that would have done about 700,000 buys or Mir catches Lesnar again and ‘The Next Big Thing’ gets cut before he can learn the fundamentals of submission defense. Allowing the issue to rest meant that both fighters could develop into bigger stars and when the stars aligned for a rematch the following year, it had became a far bigger fight. The same could be true with Silva vs. Sonnen; if Silva was to successfully defend his title against other top contenders then you add to groundswell for the man who pushed him the hardest to be given his rematch. For Sonnen having a couple of matches before again facing Silva would give him the chance to develop a grappling game that would not only stop him getting caught in submissions but give him more options offensively on the ground. Of course there’s always the risk with such matchmaking that if one fighter loses you’ve missed out on the chance to book the biggest match. However, as we’ve seen with the likes of Griffin-Shogun, Evans-Liddell and Carwin-Mir the UFC is adept at making matches that will create a marketable contender whoever wins.
There is also a broader point about what message you send out to fans if you start rewarding fighters for impressing en route to losing in main events over allowing those who have won on the undercard to move forward. The UFC has trained fans to care about supporting fights because that’s where tomorrow’s superstars and title contenders come from. Whereas in boxing, this year has already seen Joshua Clottey, Andre Dirrell, Miguel Cotto and Juan Diaz all receive world title fights despite clearly losing their last fights the UFC has seen the likes of Shane Carwin, Frankie Edgar and Chael Sonnen earn world title shots by putting together a run of victories.
This also has the positive consequence of emphasizing how the UFC is a dynamic organization where fighters move into and out of contention based on what they do in the Octagon, not on their reputation. This has caused them to make previously dominant champions such as Matt Hughes, George St. Pierre and Chuck Liddell return to the undercard in an attempt to earn their rematch. In doing so they take the risk that a superstar may not get the necessary win(s) to move back into title contention but it helps reassure fans that the promotion doesn’t play favorites and shows that a title fight is something that always has to earn. Given that most world champions now only defend twice a year, doing an immediate rematch of a great world title fight basically freezes the title for a year. This causes the division to stagnate, denying other contenders to chance to move to the next level and ultimately challenge for the title.
There is no question that Chael Sonnen has made a name for himself with his trash talking over the past few months and his performance in the Octagon at UFC 117. Today he is a bona fide superstar and fully deserves to fight in the big matches at the top end of the card. And yes I can see the argument that as an immediate rematch seems such a bigger match than anything else at 185Ibs the UFC should strike while the iron is hot. But the UFC has refused to protect challengers much more marketable than Chael Sonnen, has refused to reward defeats much more glorious than Sonnen’s and waited to book bigger rematches than Silva-Sonnen II. No one could begrudge Chael Sonnen if he does get a second opportunity at the world title; I just hope that he is made to earn it like everyone else.
Tags: anderson silva, Chael Sonnen, Mixed Martial Arts, UFC 117, ufc middleweight division