Despite beatdown, Chael Sonnen was 27 seconds away from the title
NEWARK -- A few minutes after the stroke of midnight, the octagon lifted off the floor of the Prudential Center and began spinning like a UFC UFO.
Dressed in a spiffy red suit and tie, Brittney Palmer stood at the center of the whirling cage and bellowed the main event result into her microphone. Bikini-clad Bruce Buffer strode around holding up a big cardboard sign with the number "8" printed on it. Except the "8" was sideways, so it really was the infinity symbol.
Fans seated everywhere from cageside to the upper balcony to the dress circle ripped off their forbidding black T-shirts to reveal tuxedos and evening gowns. They applauded politely as basso buffo Chael Sonnen had his hand raised in triumph, the UFC light heavyweight belt around his waist gleaming in the spotlight. Or in his halo's glow.
Even the medical professionals attending to Jon Jones, who was slumped on a blue stool in a state of shock from the pain and the circumstance, couldn't help but look up from what they were doing in order to soak in this surreal scene.
Surreal, indeed. Yet shockingly close to being real, at least some of it.
What you see above is a close approximation -- with a few fanciful liberties taken -- of what you might have read late on Saturday night at the conclusion of UFC 159. Or perhaps you wouldn't have seen it until you woke up Sunday morning following a night's sleep made restful by the self-assurance that you'd be missing nothing earth shattering if you skipped this pay-per-view, the main event being as gaudy a mismatch as title fights get.
As it turned out, Jones vs. Sonnen was every bit as one-sided as you and pretty much every other mixed martial arts fan thought it would be. But mere moments after "Bones" was pulled away from a cowering Chael and declared a TKO winner at 4 minutes 33 seconds of the first round, we learned that the champ had sustained a compound fracture of the big toe on his left foot. The toe was so mangled, with bone having pierced skin, that if the injury had been discovered before the fight was stopped, Jones would not have been allowed to continue. So if referee Keith Peterson hadn't jumped in and instead had allowed the beatdown to persist for the 27 seconds that remained in the round ...
Chael Sonnen would be champion of the world.
Now, that's a big "if." Twenty-seven seconds is an eternity when you're on your back with nothing but two battered arms trying to protect your head and body from an octagon octopus, which is what long-limbed Jones must have felt like to Sonnen as knees, fists and elbows rained down on him from every angle. Twenty-seven seconds is about as much time as it would have taken a stretcher to roll a ravaged Chael out of the arena to an ambulance.
Still, Sonnen taking possession of the 205-pound championship belt -- the real one, not the pleather facsimile he used to bodaciously carry around during his on-again, off-again courtship with middleweight king Anderson Silva -- would have been the most bizarrely consequential moment in UFC history. First off, Chael had no place in this title fight. He came in on a zero-fight win streak and had not fought at 205 pounds in six years. And lack of deservingness aside, Sonnen was nearly universally viewed as no threat to a champ who'd brutalized all 18 of his previous opponents. Even UFC president Dana White, the carnival barker who'd spent months trying to entice us into the circus tent to watch this sideshow, acknowledged in the final days before fight night that a Sonnen victory would be the biggest upset his promotion had ever seen.
The tiny glimmer of hope for Sonnen was his wrestling acumen, which is what had enabled him to spend most of his two fights with Silva smothering the 185-pound champ on the canvas. Would he put Jones on his back, too? "Bones" had never been taken down, not even once in a dozen UFC bouts, but if anyone could do it, the 2000 Olympic alternate for the US team in Greco-Roman wrestling seemed up to the task. If Chael could get close enough, that is. Conventional wisdom held that Jones would use his 747 wingspan to keep the unworthy challenger at a distance.
Well, there's conventional wisdom and there's unconventional willfulness. "I really wanted to 'Chael Sonnen' Chael Sonnen," Jones said after the fight, explaining why he went for takedowns -- getting his first one barely 10 seconds in -- rather than rely on his reach advantage to pick apart the smaller man. "Bones" didn't go the Georges St-Pierre route and exploit his opponent's weaknesses. He went right at the best part of Chael's game, an area in which Jones apparently was not willing to play second fiddle. "My coach teaches me to have a 'screw that' attitude," said Jones, who in 2006 showed he's no slouch on the mat by winning a junior college national championship. "So if people are saying you're going to get outwrestled, you've got to say, 'Screw that, I'm going to outwrestle him.' Don't accept being lesser than other people."
While Jones did not have to accept being lesser than Sonnen at any aspect of the fight, he almost had to accept Chael walking away from it in possession of the championship belt. But asked about that possibility at the postfight press conference, Jones downplayed his injury by talking about the grave harm that members of the military face. "So I can't sit here and allow myself to sit out because of a twisted toe," he said. "My coaches wouldn't allow that, either. I'm sure one of them would have straightened it out and sent me back out there." Noble words, but they'd barely escaped the champ's lips when Dana White set the record straight. "He wouldn't have been able to go back out there," said the UFC boss, "because the doctor would have stopped the fight. His bone was sticking out." As White spoke from the podium beside him, Jones sat staring blankly ahead and uttered, "Aw." Dana stood there wearing the bewildered grin of someone who'd just missed stepping in something he hadn't seen coming.
We should have expected no less on a night in Jersey that was as twisted as Jones's toe. We saw two fights ended because of eye pokes go to technical decisions, and one TKO come about because a fighter hurt his thumb. We heard the name of a guy who'd just been choked out erroneously announced as the winner. And then, of course, came Jones's interview in the cage in the immediate aftermath of the fight -- after he'd done a celebratory cartwheel, pranced around the canvas hugging cornermen and had his hand raised. When pay-per-view analyst Joe Rogan grabbed him for the interview, both men looked down at the same moment and saw the bloodied toe broken at a right angle. It looked like Rogan might faint, but he gathered his wits and found a stool for the champ. As they spoke, Jones sat with his arms wrapped tightly around his stiffened upper torso, his face in distress. "We went through a lot of drama," he acknowledged.
And now what?
Sonnen might have come to the end of the road. "I'm not going to be one of the guys that hang around," he told Rogan when it was his turn at the microphone. "If there's not a road to the title, then this sport isn't for me. I believe that was probably my last opportunity." That's too oblique to be a formal retirement announcement, and perhaps Chael, ever the hustler, will try to capitalize on the 27-seconds-to-the-belt-angle to wring from this sport one last grab at the golden ring. Then again, he already has the golden ring in hand. It's called a Fuel TV microphone. He's a smart guy and a natural on television, and the guess here is that he's self-aware enough to know which way the current is drifting.
As for Jones, his future has a big question mark -- that's roughly the shape his mangled big toe took on. If his injury is a quick fix, he would appear to be headed to a rematch with former champion Lyoto Machida, whom White promised the next shot at the belt for defeating Dan Henderson a couple of months ago. However, that's a been-there-done-that challenge for Jones, who choked the Brazilian unconscious in the second round of their December 2011 title fight. Jones would prefer to take on a different fighter ... and at the same time, any lingering critics. "I fight for the love of the sport, I fight for those who support me, but I also fight to prove critics wrong," Jones said at the press conference. "So a lot of people believe I've been successful because I appear to be larger than my opponents, and with Alexander Gustaffson that would be no more."
The 16-1 Swede stands 6-foot-5, an inch taller than Jones, and has a reach that's at least in the same ballpark.
Perhaps the toe will settle the matter. If it requires that Jones sit out for a lengthy recovery, both Machida and Gustaffson have indicated a willingness to fight the other, with the winner to take on the champ. Chael Sonnen would suggest both potential challengers be careful of what they wish for. Sure, he almost walked away from a meeting with Jones in possession of the belt, a turn of events that surely would have sent the octagon and the entire MMA universe into a surreal spin. But Chael has no pretense about the most harrowing few minutes of his career -- a career that includes two goes with the great Anderson Silva. "I whipped [Silva] for 30 minutes; he whipped me for less than 30 seconds," Sonnen said. "I whipped Jon for zero seconds, and he whipped me for the entire fight. If you're asking me my opinion, Jon's better."