Stats, Skills and Smack-Talk: The Controversy of Contenders

Chael Sonnen Smack Talk

The word "deserve" gets thrown around a lot in the MMA forums. For example, there were some critics who thought that Chris Weidman didn't deserve his title shot and wasn't ready for Anderson Silva when they fought at UFC 162.

Weidman's statistics were brought under scutiny. His most impressive win was Mark Munoz, and neither of their standings in the rankings should have qualified them for a title shot, even if they did win. So, how could Weidman even deserve this opportunity, let alone beat the purported greatest fighter ever? Naysayers said "nay."

But Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva in every aspect of the fight. He even knocked him out standing up which was the area that Silva was supposed to have a significant advantage. And perhaps Silva would have, had he not decided to flaut danger and make a mockery of the oncoming assault.

But that's always what Silva does. He taunts and dances. And this time, he fought arguably the best fighter he'd ever faced and got knocked out mid-step. Silva had also been handled on the ground earlier in the fight and it was a decisive victory for the underdog Weidman.  

That's the problem with stats. To only look at the statistics, a fighter's record, is a flawed way to determine his chances of winning. Logical analysis of skill-sets and styles and imagining each possible scenario with these in mind can render an educated prediction of how two combatants will match up. In this case, Weidman's superior grappling ability, tight stand-up and no-fear attitude led him to victory over Silva's flashy, goading, primarily striking style.

But that still doesn't quite debunk the bit about whether Weidman deserved the chance to fight for the title or not. Because it's true, he hadn't fought that many people. Maybe he didn't earn the spot.

The same could have been said about Cain Velasquez when he first fought for the Heavyweight title. He was only 8-0 and had just beaten Ben Rothwell and Big Nog to become the number one contender. He won the belt from Brock Lesnar, who never won another UFC fight and retired soon after, and then lost it in about 60 seconds in his first title defense against Junior Dos Santos. 

Of any contender for a belt, it's Dos Santos who ought to be considered one who "earned" his title shot because he defeated a whole list of guys in the division, with brutal style, before getting the chance.

Velasquez would be given a rematch with Dos Santos after only one fight against Bigfoot Silva, who was entering the UFC from Strikeforce and coming off a loss to one of Velasquez's training partners. This time around, Velasquz defeated Dos Santos for the championship, pushing a hard pace on him and beating him up to win a five round decision.  

To simply look at the names on Cain Velaquez's record, it could be said that he hasn't fought that many people and arguably didn't deserve title shots. But Velasquez got a push and this is probably because his skill set posed very different challenges than a lot of heavyweight fighters. He is known for being a super-athlete. He has unparalleled conditioning for a heavyweight, strong wrestling ability and ever improving stand up.  

Despite the few names on his record, he is a unique challenge in that division. This is a notion which appears to have been acknowledged by the matchmakers, accounting for the availability of his championship opportunities.

It appears that there is not always a clear, linear entitlement to being a title contender in the UFC. It's an arbitrary decision that gets made by the high ups. Nothing demonstrates this better than the trifecta of title shots awarded to Chael Sonnen. The first time Sonnen fought Anderson Silva for the belt, he won a title eliminator fight against Nate Marquardt to earn the shot.

This is sort of when Sonnen became a huge star. During the build-up and hype of the title fight, he talked more trash perhaps than any other fighter had before. He reinvented smack-talking, cutting WWE style promos and generally being witty, funny and outrageous. And he almost won the fight, too, losing by sudden and shocking submission in the final round.

But the emergence of this personality carried on. Sonnen has talked smack about many UFC fighters including Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson. He jested about the Noguiera Brothers, declaring he'd witnessed the brothers petting a bus and trying to feed it a carrot when they arrived in America. He even got into some hot water speaking outside of his own sport, when he had choice words to say about Former World Champion Cyclist Lance Armstrong.  

The point is, he did a lot of talking and demonstrated a very entertaining personality. Nobody ever knew what he was going to say and it was usually very funny or shocking. And due to the near-success of his first outing against Silva, his ability to hype fights and two decent wins, the rematch for the middleweight title was made and was a very high profile match up. 

Sonnen would lose the rematch decisively to Silva and there was really nothing on the horizon and no reason for dreaming golden dreams ever again. But Chael Sonnen continued to be Chael Sonnen, and when Dan Henderson had to pull out of his Light-Heavyweight title fight with Jon Jones due to injury, Sonnen stepped up and said he'd take the fight on eight days notice. Jon Jones and his camp declined the fight and an entire UFC event was cancelled for lack of a main event.  

Fans were furious and Sonnen had the stage to launch a verbal assault, convicting the Jones camp, and Jones himself, of cowardice. Sonnen remained sidelined for a time, but eventually, due to perpetuated online verbal warfare, and fan outcry, a fight between Jones and Sonnen was made. 

Sonnen had created and built a feud off of Jones' actions. He used the angle of Jones' ducking the short notice fight as a way to suggest fear, create tension, animosity, and hype up a clash between them.  

Sonnen didn't fight anyone to earn this championship title shot. The title shot was in a different weight division altogether, but he was able to talk his way into it. He showed that MMA is a business and has had the phrase coined in his honor. Now, whenever a fighter talks smack, it often gets referred to as Sonnenesque and is a strategy that is intentionally adopted by some fighters, due to its effectiveness at creating opportunities, if done right.

So, the point is moot about whether or not someone deserves a shot. There is no clear lineage or systematic ranking. It's the UFC and there are a bunch of characters to choose from. Any critic that wants to discuss who deserves what is running right into the rabbit-hole.

As we've seen, even if the fighter arguably doesn't deserve it, he can win. He can also lose. To expect a title challenger to undisputedly deserve the shot every time would require a detailed mathematical breakdown of all fighter stats. Numbers would have to be crunched and everyone put in their proper place. And that doesn't seem to be a priority for the UFC.  

In a logical world, statistics would determine the contender. Skills would determine a fighter's chance to win, and smack-talk would make for fun fight hype. 

But, in the UFC, the stats don't always matter: sometimes people get a push because of their skills and sometimes people get there because they made enough noise to sell a fight. Anything goes. The only thing for certain is that there are other contenders coming down the pike to face the critics, whether they deserve to or not.

By: David Dengis
Twitter: @DavidJDengis

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