You could tell who were the writers and who were the fighters during an intimate media luncheon put together by the UFC at Carmine's in NYC's Theater District on Wednesday. As pound-for-pound ace Jon Jones, the 25-year-old Ithaca, N.Y., resident and 35-year-old Chael Sonnen, the wrestling and trash-talking and hype-building wiz, turned their nose up at platter after platter of penne a la vodka, and glistening garlic bread, as the media shoveled in forkfuls of eats. The fighters talked about their April 27 scrap, which will unfold at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., and the six weeks they spent as coaches on the FX reality show "The Ultimate Fighter."
For regular readers of this space who may not be that familiar with the product, Jones is one of the top handful of MMA fighters on the planet. He burst out on radars everywhere when he beat light heavyweight champ Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in August 2011, becoming the youngest UFC champ ever. He downed Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, and then Lyoto Machida, and then former pal Rashad Evans at UFC 145. His basically unblemished run hit a slight bump, though, when he got busted for driving while intoxicated after he drove his Bentley into a pole in Binghamton, N.Y., and then turned down a bout with a replacement, Chael Sonnen, who would have subbed in for injured Dan Henderson, eight days before fight night.
Jones sparred with UFC chief Dana White, who said the refusal to fight Sonnen was a "disgusting decision" when he pulled the plug on the whole card.
Some of those who sided against Jones got back on board when he showed a mile-wide heart to shrug off a Vitor Belfort arm-bar in round one of their UFC 152 faceoff on Sept. 22, and came back to win via an Americana.
Sonnen first appeared in UFC in 2005, and has stayed with the company since 2009. His magnetism came to the force before he took on Anderson Silva at UFC 117 in August 2010; who was this guy with a pile of losses on his ledger saying he was going to retire the best mixed martial artist on the planet? He actually led going in to the final round, before the Brazilian finished him with a Triangle choke. The goodwill evaporated when Sonnen's system showed excessive testosterone, and he was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission for almost a year. This came after a vague reference to a "legal issue" he cited for pulling out as a candidate for an Oregon House seat a few weeks before the Silva fight. The "legal issue" turned out to be his involvement in a real estate mortgage scam; a part-time realtor at the time, Sonnen pled guilty to one count of money laundering and received two years probation in early 2011. Things smoothed out, and he came back to the Octagon.
A rematch with Silva started well at UFC 147, but "The Spider" stopped Sonnen in Round 2. Critics, some of them fellow fighters under the UFC umbrella, accuse him of being a better talker than fighter, and squawked when White picked Sonnen to be a coach on "TUF" and to fight Jones. He'd been campaigning at middleweight (185 or less) and light heavies like Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson felt passed over by someone who didn't have a track record at light heavy (205 or less). "I guess I should just quit training to win fights and to be exciting for the fans and just go to s--- talking school," Henderson Tweeted after getting the news.
All due respect to Henderson, a marvel at 42, a real John Wayne-y throwback in the Randy Couture mold, but Sonnen gets it that athletes today get extra points -- and money, and media exposure -- if they are entertainers as well as sportsmen. That side of Sonnen was on display less than expected at Carmine's, and I saw charisma from Jones as well, though not the same variety. Check back for part 2, and hear what Jones had to say about his brush with Johnny Law and get Sonnen's picks in the Super Bowl.