Mind Games: Bones vs. Gangster

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I broke down the upcoming title match between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen the other day, but a match which came about in such a singular fashion, between such contrasting personalities almost demands a look into the mind games that have been played.

First, lets recap to remember how a middleweight coming off a loss got a shot at the 205lb title.

Last September, Jones was set to defend his title against Dan Henderson, when Henderson pulled out a week before the right citing a knee injury. Scrambling to save the event, the UFC offered the fight to seemingly any available light heavyweight or middleweight. Chael Sonnen, coming off a loss in his Middleweight title crack at Anderson Silva and next booked to face Forrest Griffin at 205 lbs in December, stepped up and said ‘ill do it’ – Jones said he wouldn’t fight a replacement on that short notice.

This resulted in the cancellation of UFC 152 and Jones defending his belt against Vitor Belfort later in the month.

Once the dust had settled, such a furore had built up over Jones ducking such an unlikely challenger – fuelled by Sonnen’s practised verbosity – that the UFC saw money and decided to install the pair as coaches on the Ultimate Fighter, even though Sonnen was coming off a loss and handy fought at 205lbs in seven and a half years.

Now, I vented at the time that Sonnen should in no way be receiving a properly scheduled title shot in a division where he hasn’t competed in years, coming off a loss. It’s not right, it’s not FAIR on the rest of the Light Heavyweight division. What about Alexander Gustafsson or Glover Teixeira, fighters who have actually been putting streaks together at 205lbs?

Stepping in to save a card in a Rocky-like story is fine, it has grace, narrative and is something a little out if the ordinary. I can’t help feeling that a title shot, especially one booked six months in advance and given a TV show to promote, should be EARNED.

Anyways, this is the match we have, so lets not dwell on the UFC’s affection for Chael’s talking overmuch.

Or maybe, we should because its actually quite telling.

Pay per view rates for Jones’ title matches have remained steady around the 500k mark, with a peak up to around 700k for his grudge match against former teammate Rashad Evans. Sonnen’s last pay per view headlining match was his rematch with Anderson Silva which earned almost one million buys, following two years of consistent smack talk.

In the mindset of the UFC, who endured an injury tormented 2012, with pay per views losing main events, all their featured matches and everything in between with the result that six pay previews in 2012 drew 400k buys or less (pretty much the bottom ceiling for a PPV to be considered successful) its entirely likely that the UFC saw Chael as a more ‘money’ opponent for Jones, compared to the generally respectful, underrated contenders in situ at 205lbs.

The UFC rolled the dice, placed all the bets on Chael talking up a storm and earning a huge buyrate this weekend – competitive concerns be damned.

I guess we’ll see when the figures come out…

Now, Chael has long been one of the best trash talkers in the industry. His three year long campaign against Anderson Silva was the stuff of legend, straight from the pages of pro wrestling filled with ridiculous claims, outrageous challenges and it has to be said – more than a little borderline racism when talking about Brazil.

It’s true that he started calling Jones out in similar fashion and has gone back to the well of calling Jones scared for not being willing to fight him.

It’s reasonable to assume that Chael doesn’t believe all his own hype. He knows EXACTLY what he is doing, and that is promoting a fight with a secondary line in trying to get under his opponent’s skin. He knows that an opponent who is angry at what he’s said or wants to make an example of him, isn’t going to be the most clear headed in the cage and certain things like their takedown defence might not be on point.

However, during the filming of the Ultimate Fighter, Sonnen threw a curveball. He was respectful to Jones, and proved to be an excellent, articulate coach who showed great concern for his fighters and who’s man management, matchmaking and fighter selection was vindicated in Team Darkside having both finalists.

It’s what you’d expect from someone who’s been a pro fighter for over a decade, a national champion at wrestling and a coach at both. Don’t let the size of Chael’s mouth deceive you…

By contrast, Jones looked taciturn, like he had lost control of his team to the brash personality of Josh Samman and his association with Bubba McDaniel.

It cannot have escaped Jones’ notice that he lost the coaches challenge (bowling, this year) and his actual coaching skills were roundly defeated by Sonnen.

Does that play on his mind?

Especially since once the season has wrapped, Sonnen has reverted to type and ramped up the invective, talking with great certainty (always remembering to plug the event name and timings) that he will become the light heavyweight champion on Saturday.

If we play back to how all this started, one reason cited for Jones refusal to fight Sonnen on a week’s notice was his preference for visualisation before a fight. He game plans in depth (he is a Jackson-Winklejohn fighter after all) and visualises how a fight will go. It’s hard to shift that track from one man to another in a short space of time.

Jones has now had a long, long time to visualise his match with Chael, but that process surely cannot have been helped by Sonnen’s proximity for much of that time and the fact that he has presented two almost contradictory personalities. Does Jones focus on the promotional braggart or the considered coach?

Of course, he’ll say he’s looking at nothing but Sonnen’s in ring abilities, but when someone repeatedly and loudly says that they WILL beat you, and then backs that up by showing tremendous class and coaching acumen… that’s gotta get to you.

Despite his evidently next level talents, Jones has always struck me as a rather arrogant figure. Convinced of his own superiority in a way that is not entertaining and does not seem to flow from the same place that the usual fighter gameness does, I can’t help feel that Jones is a bit fragile mentally.

His weak assertions that Sonnen lack’s ‘a championship soul’ (which he later expanded upon to be a dig at Sonnen’s TRT usage, which is a reasonable point I suppose) have been Jones’ signal contribution to the feud. It’s often seemed that he is disinterested in the match, especially when compared with Sonnen.

Of course, there’s nothing in the MMA handbook that says you have to be a natural or enthusiastic promoter, but… show that you care, just a bit?

Let me be clear, Jones is deservedly the champion and has wrecked a laundry list of long term stars. He should walk through Chael Sonnen.

However, his relative life inexperience, the fact that he’s already lost to Chael twice in other ways and the way that Chael has contrasted cartoonish confidence with quiet resolve and previously hidden depths.

Jones seems to be treating this Saturday as another walk in the park, while Sonnen is putting his heart and soul into the promotion and making the most of the cheques his mouth has written.

The most telling mind games have been played out not in Sonnen’s ever entertaining promotional rantings but with this little motivational speech from the TUF house.

“When doubt seeps in, you got two roads (and) you can take either road. You can go to the left or you can go to the right and believe me, they’ll tell you failure is not an option. That is ridiculous. Failure is always an option. Failure is the most readily available option at all times, but it’s a choice. You can choose to fail or you can choose to succeed. And if we can plant seeds and let him know, ‘Move your feet, keep your hands up, stay off the bottom.’ That is the road to victory, or self-doubt and negative talk, and that is the road to failure. But failure is always there, and it’s okay to recognize that. If I can leave you with anything today, in my long journey through this is, one, it’s okay. Two, it’s normal. And as athletes and especially as men, as male athletes we hate to admit weakness to ourselves, and when you’re dealing with something and you got some kind of a hiccup, yeah, first thing is acknowledge it.”

Was that aimed just a little at Jones?

Something that makes me think Chael has an edge on Saturday is this. He knows defeat. He knows how to come back from it and improve. Jones, simply doesn’t and doesn’t seem to acknowledge the possibility.

That’s a mistake. That’s hubris. That’s pride, and it comes before a fall.

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