Chael Sonnen hasn't fought a light heavyweight mixed martial arts bout since 2006. In his most recent fight, he was defeated by UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the second time he has lost to the reigning 185-pound kingpin.
And yet, after an extraordinary series of events, Sonnen stands as the latest challenger to Jon Jones' UFC light heavyweight championship. Sonnen faces Silva on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 159 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
"Look, I don't earn title shots, title shots earn me," Sonnen (27-12-1) said. "I don't go after main events, main events come after me. And that's it."
The saga started last summer, when Jones was slated to face veteran Dan Henderson in the main event of UFC 151. Henderson had to pull out of the fight with a knee injury just nine days before the card. Sonnen offered to take the fight as a short-notice substitute, but Jones refused to fight Sonnen without the benefit of a full training camp. Without a feasible headliner, the UFC pulled the plug on a fight card for the first time in company history.
Fair or not, Jones took the brunt of the fans' heat for the cancelation. Sonnen, who is as much a showman and opportunist as he is a fighter, fanned the flames on Twitter. Jones returned the volleys. With major fan interest in the squabble, the UFC booked Jones and Sonnen in roles on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series, culminating in Saturday's bout.
While marquee fights made primarily for business reasons are a staple of boxing dating back more than a century, the Jones-Sonnen announcement led to howls of protest among MMA fight purists, since Sonnen leapfrogged an entire division of light heavyweight contenders to receive the title shot.
"Whether I earned it or not, I'm a Republican," Sonnen said. "I don't talk in those terms. I take what I want and that's it."
The 25-year-old Jones, of Endicott, N.Y., is on a historic run. He's 17-1, with his only loss a highly controversial disqualification in a bout he was dominating. Dating back to his 2011 title-clinching victory over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, he has strung together five consecutive wins over men who held the UFC light heavyweight title. A win over Sonnen would tie Jones with Tito Ortiz for most successful 205-pound title defenses with five.
While the merits of Sonnen's title shot are certainly up for debate -- he's a plus-550 underdog on the MGM Grand sports book -- he's no joke as a fighter. The former U.S. Olympic wrestling alternate is 5-2 over the past three years, with both losses to Silva, the longest-reigning champ in UFC history. In the first Silva-Sonnen bout in 2010, Sonnen dominated Silva for four rounds before making a mental error late in the final frame and losing via submission.
If Sonnen is going to have a chance, he'll have to use his elite wrestling. Jones' competitive wrestling maxed out at the junior-college level. But first he'll have to get Jones to the mat, and Jones is one of MMA's most dynamic and inventive strikers.
Either way, Jones bristled at the notion of Sonnen's wrestling superiority.
"I don't think anyone respects my grappling or my wrestling," Jones said. "I'm excited to go out there and show people what I do. I'm excited to go out there and prove my critics wrong about being this inferior wrestler."