Free agency is a confounding phenomenon for any sports fan, but particularly so in mixed martial arts. In other sports, free agency disorients fans' emotional stability, but it leaves their grasp on the world intact. LeBron James may leave Cleveland for the greener pastures of Miami, say, but there's never any question that he will leave the NBA entirely, which means even if fans in Cleveland get their hearts broken in two and all their hopes dashed, their belief in the integrity of the world at large isn't shaken.
Not so in MMA. Though we fans pay a much smaller emotional price when a favorite fighter takes advantage of free agency (does it really matter to our souls which promoter signs a fighter's check?) the price we pay in internal stability is incalculable. The first time we saw Fedor Emelianenko fighting for Affliction after a decade as the king of PRIDE almost made no sense. What was he doing on American soil? And in that ring? It caused the same kind of cognitive dissonance as when Rampage Jackson walked into the UFC Octagon for the first time, or when he walked out of the Octagon seven years later to join someone else. When a baseball player leaves a team he leaves a town. When a fighter leaves an MMA league he blows up our worldview.
And none more so than Chael Sonnen. The longtime UFC middleweight and light-heavyweight contender shocked the MMA world last month when he signed with the UFC's chief competitor, Bellator, after serving a two-year suspension for failed drug tests. At the time the news seemed fantastical: Chael Sonnen, the face, and mouth, of the UFC, the proudest self-proclaimed "company man" the UFC had ever known, the good but not great fighter who had spun his success in the cage into a legend outside it, and who had laid the self-promotional groundwork for current UFC mega-star, and fellow loudmouth, Conor McGregor to build on—the idea that that Chael Sonnen would fight for anyone but the UFC was unthinkable, incomprehensible, unreasonable. Fellow UFCers like Benson Henderson and Matt Mitrione and Phil Davis and even Rory MacDonald leaving the fold for Bellator felt strange, sure, but Chael Sonnen? The disconnect was almost too great to wrap our heads around. So we dismissed it as pure myth.
But sure enough, yesterday it was announced that Sonnen will be fighting in the main event of Bellator's January 21 card at the Forum in Los Angeles. And thus the ground had officially shifted and collapsed beneath our feet.
To make matters even more disorienting, Sonnen's opponent will be Tito Ortiz, who, was the UFC's loudest voice and, arguably, most recognizable face before Sonnen, a kind of proto-Sonnen, the man who helped drag the sport of MMA out of the dark ages and into the light of cultural recognition—one of the first mixed martial artists to recognize the promotional value of the spoken word, the first in the line that has led us directly (and inevitably) to Conor McGregor's new "money fight" era.
The fact that Ortiz left the UFC for Bellator three years ago means that he laid the path once more for Sonnen to turn into a street paved with gold. And while Ortiz's move didn't have the same kind of cultural and emotional impact Sonnen's did, we would do ourselves a favor by remembering how we felt that summer day in 2013 when the news was announced that Ortiz would be fighting Rampage Jackson in Bellator, how disorienting and wrong and yet strangely liberating the whole thing felt, like the world was opening up to new, potentially terrifying possibilities. Sonnen's decision feels like one more huge step in a great and healthy restructuring of the MMA landscape. This is America after all, and our markets thrive on competition, right? So why shouldn't we all benefit from the door opening into a world where Chael P. Sonnen, UFC Company Man, can change companies? Loyalty is just a matter of perspective in the capitalist economic model, and what could be more American that taking advantage of options in a free market? Just ask Conor McGregor, MMA's greatest capitalist yet and the current king of the UFC, who may one day follow in his mentors' footsteps again and join them in Bellator. Nothing would surprise me after yesterday's news.