The Chael Problem … or why Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva on TUF Brazil 3 Makes Perfect Sense

There are two truths that are self-evident in the UFC right now.

1. Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva will never be in a situation of prominence when it comes to becoming “elite” in a division.

2. Anytime Sonnen and Silva are on a card there’s a markedly higher level of interest in it.

Chael Sonnen will never contend for a UFC title again in his UFC career unless something miraculous happens. With three losses in title bouts, all three being finishes as well, Sonnen is a popular fighter (and Top 10 in two divisions) but he’s a two division Rich Franklin at this point. He’s a perfect guy to step in on two weeks’ notice, potentially, but his time to win a UFC title has come and gone. But he still wants to fight and he’s still valuable as an asset, both in the analyst’s chair as well as inside the Octagon itself. Sonnen had three chances to win a UFC title spread out over two divisions and was stopped each time; odds are he won’t see a fourth unless a miracle happens.

He also conveniently proved to be a great coach opposite Jon Jones on “The Ultimate Fighter” season 17.

Wanderlei Silva is in the same boat. A legend of the sport that made his name in Pride many years ago, Silva has fought sporadically in the past several years and seems to be only a fight or two away from being a UFC ambassador to Brazil more than being an active member of the UFC roster. Wanderlei is well past being a contender, and would only have to be a last resort to fill in a main slot in a card, but he’s still useful to some degree. Silva’s days of being a titleholder, or being mentioned in the elite of a division, probably ended the day Dan Henderson knocked him out for the Pride middleweight title.

He proved to be a great coach on the inaugural “TUF: Brazil” season opposite Vitor Belfort, too.

And it’s why both men happen to be near perfect choices to coach in the latest international season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Both Sonnen and Silva figure into the long term plans of the UFC. Silva will end his career in the Octagon, as will Sonnen, and both men figure to be involved in the UFC for a long time. Sonnen seems to be preternaturally gifted in the analyst’s chair, making the UFC on Fox Sports 1’s pre fight coverage on any event more interesting with his ability to discuss a fight or something of importance in MMA proper and the UFC in particular. Silva is the one fighter nearly universally beloved by hardcore and casual fans alike; he seems to be setting himself up to be a sort of UFC ambassador ala Chuck Liddell in the near future.

In the short term, however, both men still want to fight. But neither will be anything meaningful and title matches featuring either strain the credibility of a UFC title fight. Putting them up against potential contenders is one thing but at this point Sonnen and Silva are gatekeepers to the elite. Unlike someone like Yushin Okami or Jon Fitch, who found themselves unemployed after being in the same spot, both men still move the needle in a positive direction. People will pay to see the “Gangster from West Lynn, Oregon” and people will pay to see “The Axe Murderer.”

People will probably want to see the two fight one another, as well, and pay for the privilege of doing so. And that’s what this fight, and their appearance on the show, is ultimately about. If you can’t fight for a title in the modern UFC you won’t be staying around for much longer unless you provide value in some aspect. Call it “The Chael Problem” … when a fighter adds something to a card, and moves the needle, but isn’t going to be someone you push as the best of any particular thing or weight class.

And that’s what Sonnen/Silva in Brazil for TUF is at its heart: an answer to the Chael Problem.

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