Lefko on UFC: Sonnen, Silva bankable commodities

At a time when the UFC is analyzing its roster and paring it to a workable number, the decision of who stays and who goes really comes down to value. (AP Photo)
May 2, 2013, 10:58 PM

You can shake your head in disdain and disgust wondering why Chael Sonnen has decided to continue his fight career when it seemed so obvious after his last bout that he should retire.

Furthermore, you can wonder with absolute amazement why the UFC would support and encourage his desire to fight Wanderlei Silva just because they have some ancient history that was never resolved in the cage.

At a time when the UFC is analyzing its roster and paring it to a workable number, the decision of who stays and who goes really comes down to value.

It isn’t even so much wins or losses, or even the adage "you’re only as good as your last fight" that determines these decisions. It seems to be rather subjective, but primarily it appears that it all comes down to what constitutes business, both for the company paying the fighters and the partnership with broadcast networks televising the bouts and the public’s interest.

Sonnen and Silva are bankable commodities to the UFC.

Cheick Kongo is not, hence his release this week following a loss at UFC 159 to the Round Mound of Pound, Roy Nelson, who, by the way, has never been embraced by the UFC because of his look, which doesn’t fit the mould of what a fighter should resemble. At this point in time there doesn’t appear to be any reason by the UFC to give him a big push. He will have to earn his way the hard way to get a title fight.

Sonnen and Silva are huge names in the sport, both for different reasons, but collectively they make quite a duo: the ‘American Gangster’ and the ‘Axe Murderer.’

Can you image the hype that will be attached to their fight? Both are good at selling themselves, so this one has guaranteed appeal. But what are the consequences? If Sonnen wins, where does his career go? Is he matched up against another light heavyweight of some renown, even though there is no logical reason to give him another title shot?

And if Sonnen loses, will he finally come to the conclusion that enough is enough? If he is far more competitive than in his last two fights but still loses, does he decide to hang around the sport?

One thing is certain, his future with the UFC and Fox has already been determined. The value he brings to both have allowed him to elongate his fighting career even if it seems he should retire. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that the fight with Silva becomes the main event of a UFC on Fox card or an FX card.

It has all the makings of a spectacular TV spectacle, the perfect way to continue to showcase Sonnen and his relationship with both companies, while also making use of a bout in which there is no belt on the line. That’s just my opinion.

And what of Silva’s career?

If he wins, does he move up for a chance at a title fight or would he be pitted against Vitor Belfort, whom he lost to in 1998 when both were in the infancy of their pro careers in Brazil? They were supposed to meet in a long-awaited rematch at UFC 139 in Nov. 2011, but Belfort had to withdraw because of an injury.

Following a hard-fought, five-round loss to Rich Franklin at UFC 147 last June, it appeared Silva was done or should retire. Many were suggesting that. But his stunning win over Brian Stann back in March showed the old Pride warrior still had fighting spirit. Their bout is, at this point, the fight of the year in professional MMA.

Sonnen has created a new breed of fight fan that enjoys trash talking, but history shows Silva will be able to hand it and give back what he gets in terms of verbal warfare.

Michael Bisping tried to intimidate Silva by talking smack leading up to their main-event fight at UFC 110 in Feb. 2010 in Australia. Bisping had the temerity to suggest Silva may be forced into retirement if he didn’t win the bout, which caused the proud Brazilian to say, "He’s funny."

When Bisping continued with his jowl-jousting, saying Silva had to win fights to stay in the business, the Brazilian twice told the Brit to shut up. Silva won the fight via unanimous decision, answering the call to continue his career.

Silva made a statement against Stann, whom Bisping beat at UFC 152. Stann has lost two fights in a row, but no one is saying his career is in jeopardy if he loses another. Maybe it will. The three-loss rule is not grounds for being dumped by the UFC or immediate retirement. Stann has value as a good company man who has been employed on Fox broadcasts as he presents a good image.

Bisping has value as a guy who likes to talk a good game and has come through on occasion, but he has also lost several times against quality opponents, which has forced him to routinely climb back up the middleweight ladder after falling a few pegs.

The UFC can always count on ‘The Count’ to create interest in his fights, if only because he’s a quote machine, albeit he will admit he psychologically tries to beat his opponents with mind games. It does have a certain amount of appeal as long as he wins. Similar to Sonnen, all the bravado rings hollow with a loss. It certainly did in a loss against Belfort in Jan. 2013.

There is value in winning fights and doing it routinely. Ronda Rousey is one of four professional athletes on the latest cover of ESPN The Magazine, which celebrates its 15th anniversary. Last fall, she appeared on the cover of the annual issue of ESPN The Body.

It speaks highly of just how much she represents to the UFC, which at one time turned its back on creating a women’s division. It has now become quite marketable, and even though it may only be at the bantamweight level, there appears to be tremendous depth.

It also goes back to the simple fact that every fighter has value, even more so if they win, although that is not a prerequisite for getting a huge push from the company. Frankie Edgar has lost back-to-back title fights in separate weight classes in his last two fights, not unlike Sonnen, but he is not judged or perceived in the same way because he is the ultimate blue-collar fighter who also happens to be extremely humble.

Edgar’s value, even in his last three fights, which have all come in defeat, is his public appeal and impression of integrity. He gives all he’s got and in some cases continues to come back for more punishment. That has made him an endearing figure.

Perhaps Sonnen is an isolated example. Maybe he has simply grown apart from everyone because he seems to have currency far beyond the cage. He’s the future of the UFC in many ways, so his decision to continue fighting is merely turned into another opportunity to make money for himself and the company. Maybe he really isn’t ready to retire, a decision which truly is difficult for athletes, some of whom can’t handle it.

Silva is certainly not ready to retire, so maybe this is the rationale behind the decision to bring him and Sonnen together. Sonnen certainly has a thing with fighters whose last name is Silva.

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