Seven months after turning down short-notice replacement opponent Chael Sonnen at UFC 151, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will defend his title against the 15-year pro after coaching opposite Sonnen on “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17.
Jones had initially been slated to face Dan Henderson at the Sept. 1 event before a last-minute injury to “Hendo” left the UFC searching for an opponent to meet Jones on just eight days’ notice. After Jones declined Sonnen as a potential foe, UFC 151 was canceled, and Jones was rebooked three weeks later in the UFC 152 headliner, where he would submit Vitor Belfort to retain his title.
Jones, who previously expressed his dissatisfaction with Sonnen as a potential title challenger, appears to have undergone a change of heart. On Tuesday, the champion explained the rationale behind his decision to accept both a challenge from Sonnen and a slot on the UFC’s long-running reality show.
“It honestly didn’t have anything to do with finances. It had to do with getting over this chapter of our careers. I’m trying to move forward and do a lot of amazing things,” said Jones during a media conference call. “[Turning Sonnen down was not about] whether I thought I could beat Chael. It was about fighting and handling my career in the most professional manner. Taking a last minute fight for a world championship is not fair to me, and it’s hopefully something I’ll never have to do. I just wanted to fight Chael with the appropriate time to prepare. I absolutely know I can beat Chael, and I’m really confident going into this fight [because of my] skill and my versatility. I’m a championship [level] fighter, and I don’t think Chael is really a guy who knows how to win championships.”
Jones, 25, also asserted that timing played a factor in his decision to coach against Sonnen on “TUF 17.” Though dominant through the majority of his Sept. 22 title defense, Jones had his elbow injured by an early armbar attempt from Belfort. “Bones” recently visited specialists in Los Angeles who recommended that the champion refrain from training for the next several months while he rehabs his injury. Nevertheless, Jones says he will do his best to be as involved as he can be in developing his team during the show’s filming.
As for whether Jones believes Sonnen has earned the opportunity to challenge him for the belt, the Jackson’s MMA representative says he is conflicted on the matter.
“I’m in the middle. I think a lot of what the belt should be about is [giving the shot to] the legit No. 1 contender, but without the fans, what does this sport mean?” Jones asked. “Just two months ago, I had the whole world calling me a sissy and a wuss and saying I was afraid of Chael Sonnen. Even fans in my own hometown questioned why I wouldn’t fight him. It seems like a lot of people have jumped on this train of Chael not deserving a title shot. They jumped on that train a little too late. I think I’m over whether he deserves it, and I’m getting more realistic that the fans really want it. Does it [devalue] the belt? In some ways, but in some ways it doesn’t, because this has nothing to do with the belt to me. Chael’s not getting close to the belt.”
Sonnen, 35, has contended for a major title on three separate occasions as a middleweight but has faltered in all three attempts, first submitting to WEC champion Paulo Filho in 2007 and then stumbling twice against UFC pacesetter Anderson Silva in 2010 and 2012. Known primarily for his grinding style in the cage during his early years in the sport, Sonnen has more recently made himself one of the UFC’s top pay-per-view draws by verbally engaging his foes outside of the Octagon.
“I respect some things about [Sonnen], like the way he goes out there and gets what he wants -- everything except championships. He’s a good talker, and he’s definitely good for the sport in some ways, but he’s extremely disrespectful,” said Jones. “He’s not much of a championship-level athlete, but he has his qualities, [most of which] are going to come to light when he retires and he’s able to do his TV shows and his commentary. I’m doing a lot of people in the sport a favor, and I’m doing Chael a favor by showing him what his true calling is, and that’s using that gift of gab.”
Aside from his noted eloquence with a microphone in his hand, Sonnen is also one of the UFC’s best wrestlers. A former Olympic team alternate in addition to being a two-time Pac-10 champion and NCAA Division I All-American, Sonnen has bested many quality opponents with his suffocating grappling attack over the course of his pro career. Despite Sonnen’s considerable accolades on the mat, however, Jones believes that the Oregonian’s wrestling ability will not play much of a factor when they meet down the road.
“Chael Sonnen is a pretty good wrestler, but the guy was an Olympic alternate. He wasn’t actually on the team. No disrespect to any other alternates, but I don’t really consider Chael to be a Cael Sanderson or a legit wrestler,” said Jones. “Maybe he will get me down, and if he does, so what? His ground-and-pound is very weak, and he gets submitted from the top position all the time. I think I have a very solid jiu-jitsu game off my back, and I’m never able to display it. I freaking love wrestling, so I’ll be preparing to use my takedowns against him, but if he does get me down I won’t feel any threat off my back against Chael.”
Conversely, Jones says that if he is able to put Sonnen on his back, the veteran could find himself in trouble.
“I know for a fact that if I get him down, his face is probably going to open up. I just think that when it comes to wrestling, I have nothing to worry about,” said Jones. “I really don’t see any way for Chael to win this fight, but I’m still going to train like a madman, because losing to Chael is not an option. I’m going to treat him like he’s the biggest opponent I’ve ever had.”