All the UFC 159 promos can't do away with the most basic question: How did we get here?
The first time Chael Sonnen fought Anderson Silva, the original novelty was his utter disregard for Silva's legacy. To that point people had only been reverent of the middleweight champion -- even if Dana White was still fuming that Abu Dhabi had been turned into a stage for bad performance art by him and Demian Maia.
Along came the stock contender Sonnen, a journeyman who was proud of his singlet, the flag and his real estate license. He'd just taken the pestle to top contenders Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, so he had the credentials. And what a platform it was. Within days of that last victory, he became the game's most infatuating wisenheimer. It was hard to gauge his sincerity, though; did he truly believe he would walk through Silva, the mythological Brazilian who, in Sonnen's active imagination, could speak the King's English?
Turns out he did. And turns out he backed it up for nine-tenths of a five-round fight in Oakland. The other one-tenth, as you now know, is the marker that defines his career.
After the loss, the asterisks piled up as the rematch lolled on the horizon. By the time he made his way back from his suspension for elevated testosterone levels, and made it through mobile obstacles (Brian Stann and Michael Bisping), we were talking about Sonnen-Silva II as the biggest fight in MMA history. It was Ali-Frazier there for a minute. It was Silva's first real rival. It was all kinds of bandstands, bunting and pageantry.
Yet Sonnen lost the rematch, too, this time less spectacularly. He lost his footing throwing a spinning backfist.
But losing your footing is nothing when you've mastered the art of falling forward. Sonnen now faces Jon Jones for the light heavyweight belt on Saturday night. For six months we've debated the matchmaking, with pro wrestling fans calling the protectors of pecking orders anything from "naïve" to "idiots." Either way, the moment has arrived to see what's what.
And unlike in either of the Silva bouts, this time Sonnen feels like a formality between Jones and bright new ventures, things like "heavyweight" and "superfights." Jones just wants to break Tito Ortiz's record for most title defenses at light heavyweight. That number is five; Jones' magic number to tie him is one.
Sonnen is the one.
And so here we are. Sonnen gets the "third time's the charm" treatment for UFC gold. Jones gets a chance to make Sonnen a footnote in history.
Bisping in vulnerable spot
In his five-year quest to fight Anderson Silva, Bisping has gotten close three times. Yet in three eliminators, he's ended up being the one eliminated three times. Should he lose to Alan Belcher to make it three losses in four fights, his middleweight title shot may go away for good. It's not a must-win for Bisping in the roster sense, but it is in the gold-plated accessory sense.
Resurgence of Roy Nelson
As one of the more popular heavyweights, Roy Nelson's mullet beefs with Dana White won't keep him from contention. A win over thunder-fisted Frenchman Cheick Kongo would make it three in a row. If he knocks out Kongo in the first round? That would be three emphatic wins in a row. At that point the jokes about Nelson's belt size will be off the hook.
Jones and history
Everything Jones does in this young sport seems to stack neatly into something historic. Now he can pad his legacy by tying Ortiz's record for 205-pound title defenses against Sonnen. He makes it all seem so perfunctory that you forget the guy is only 25 years old.
Careful what you wish for
That Vinny Magalhaes called out Phil Davis is shrouded in mystery for those of us in the fight trade. Yes he's strong and has mad grappling skills, but isn't "Mr. Wonderful" an uber-athlete whose "wrestle first" attitude is meant to nullify limb hunters? (Reading between the lines: Vinny's sense of susceptibility is stronger than our sense of conventional wisdom).
Eye on Sara McMann
Before Cat Zingano came barging into the women's bantamweight title picture from left field (read: the flatirons of Colorado), the big up-and-coming prospect to watch was Sara McMann. Why not? McMann was a silver medalist in wrestling at the 2004 summer Olympics, and is 6-0 as a pro mixed martial artist. She makes her debut against Germany's Sheila Gaff, and a win keeps the contender cupboard stocked for the winner of Rousey-Zingano.
How does Sonnen compete?
Sonnen is giving up 11 inches in reach. Sure, he can wrestle, but in 16 takedown attempts, Jones has been taken down exactly zero times. There might be an existential crisis awaiting for Sonnen in Newark. How does he compete? Can Sonnen be the maelstrom that overpowers Jones? Or, the "Chaelstrom?" Hey, you know what? The gangster from West Lynn will take off his shoes and give it a go.
Last time we see Jones at 205?
Should Jones defeat Sonnen, the question will become: What now? There aren't a lot of desirable title fights to make at 205 right now (given that a Lyoto Machida redux is the best option, and Daniel Cormier underwhelmed last weekend). Could Jones sit back and watch the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva bout in July, with designs on a "superfight" to commemorate the UFC's 20th anniversary? Or might he bolt for the heavyweight division?
What becomes of Bisping and Belcher?
Between Belcher (12 UFC fights) and Bisping (13), that's a lot of experience in the Octagon. The winner of this bout will again cycle back towards title contention, but will either ever get over the hump? Career stakes are on the line here.
Can Davis break through?
When Davis was charging up the 205-pound ranks, he looked so raw that we kept imagining him with a couple of more years of experience. But after he got worked by Rashad Evans, our minds were no longer as blown. Of course, he spent the last year in the forgettable Wagner Prado series, but here we are a couple of years removed from those halcyon days of catching Tim Boetsch in a "Philmura." Will the Davis we see Saturday night be the one we projected we'd see a couple of years ago at this point?
Is Kongo showing his 37 years?
The answer is, no, not really. Kongo keeps chipping away, and aside from getting knocked out by Mark Hunt he hasn't lost a fight since 2009 (though it still feels like Pat Barry knocked him out before that Hail Mary heave in Pittsburgh). How good would a knockout of Nelson look? Probably enough to get him into the cage with a guy like Alistair Overeem.
WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT
Steven Siler – Losing to Darren Elkins is one thing, but following that up with a loss to UFC newcomer Kurt Holobaugh is another. It's the way things are during a roster trim -- all deep prelimists have to get used to life on the bubble.
Nick Catone – Tough draw for Catone against James Head in a must-win fight. Yes he's back on his native Jersey soil, but his last big win was against Costa Philippou back in spring 2011. Should he lose his third in a row? Close the drapes.
Cody McKenzie – When he lets his hair down, he looks like he should be shouting "Figaro!" When he lets his hands down, he turns into a punching back (refer to the Chad Mendes fight). A loss against Leonard Garcia would make it four of five, which is short for being "made redundant."
Leonard Garcia – If you were to lift up the cushions to Garcia's couch, you'd find a lot of loose game plans that have fallen through the cracks over the years. We expect him to jettison all that hooey he learned in training when the bell rings, but problem is he keeps getting his bell rung because of it. Dana White loves himself some Garcia, but it's hard to keep around a fun-loving brawler on a five-fight losing streak.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because "Bones" Jones has out-landed his opponents 330-99 in significant strikes in title fights … because Sonnen is the latest contestant to familiarize himself with the discrepancy … because Bones throws elbows from the pitcher's mound … because Sonnen will move forward until he can't … because Bisping might feel the tattoo of Johnny Cash's face squeezing his trachea ... because it'll be a drinking game challenge to tell Jim Miller and Pat Healy apart…because Magalhaes doesn't see a muscular athlete in Davis, but a dozen miles of workable limbs and neck ... because Garcia's neck is on the line against McKenzie (and in general) ... because Nelson and Kongo have no need for judges' scorecards ... because Jones is "Angry Johnny" capable of animal's grace ... yet he can do it with precision, or he can do it with gourmet taste.