Once the artifice is stripped away from a UFC event—the media narratives, the back-and-forth banter, the UFC on FOX theme music—what's left is something simple and magnificent. It's athletic competition at its purest. Two men will stand across the cage from each other and try to impose their wills on one another.
Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping won't be able to talk each other to death Saturday night on FOX. In the end, as is the case in all sporting events from tee ball to the Super Bowl, things will be settled on the field of play.
And that's why people at Team Quest in Oregon were all smiles last week when Bisping replaced former NCAA champion Mark Munoz as Sonnen's opponent in a fight to determine the next top contender for Anderson Silva's UFC middleweight title.
"We were actually kind of happy. We weren't really concerned at all. In a way, we thought this wasn't that much different than the Brian Stann fight," Sonnen's head coach Scott McQuary said.
"Except Stann hits a hell of a lot harder...Bisping breaks easily. I think he's mentally weak. Watch how he fought Dan Henderson. I think he was totally intimidated. And I think he's going to be intimidated by Chael too...Chael is such a hard worker and he has such a fast pace. Bisping is much more lackadaisical. He likes to throw a jab, throw a kick, keep his distance. He's not going to be able to keep up the pace Chael forces. Whether on the ground or standing."
There were some legitimate questions about who would win the wrestling battle between Sonnen and Munoz. Mark had bested Sonnen in college, but that was 10 years ago. A lot can change in a decade, and Sonnen's teammates and coaches felt he could put Munoz on his back.
But all agreed it wouldn't be easy. The fight, they feared, might even devolve into a kickboxing affair between two wrestling greats—never the prettiest sight.
Bisping is another beast altogether. He's a fighter seemingly tailor-made for Sonnen to beat—a jack of all trades who's not exceptional at any one aspect of the fight game. He's the type of fighter Sonnen has traditionally made mincemeat of.
"I like this quite a bit better. I think it's a much higher-profile fight," Chael's mentor and longtime trainer Matt Lindland said. "I wasn't super excited about the Munoz matchup. Mark and Chael was much scarier, because we didn't know what was going to happen. Would Mark be able to shut down Chael's wrestling? Sometimes with two high-level wrestlers, it just comes down to who gets the first good shot in. Look at Hendricks and Fitch. I think Munoz was a much tougher fight stylistically...this isn't a knock on Michael's abilities or his skills. His skills just don't match up with Chael Sonnen's. Where Michael is weak, that's where Chael's real strengths are."
A win over Bisping in Chicago will land Sonnen a second title shot at Anderson Silva. The Brazilian is probably the greatest fighter ever to step into the UFC Octagon, but that didn't stop Sonnen from giving him a drubbing in their first meeting. Only a last-ditch, final-round submission saved Silva's title.
It's perhaps the most valuable loss on any fighter's resume. Sonnen didn't take the title, but he earned everyone's respect. Another strong showing against Silva would immediately propel Sonnen up another notch in the fans' esteem. It's a rare second shot at greatness.
Leading this charge towards MMA immortality is Scott McQuarry. The head trainer at Team Quest Tualatin, McQuary is a 50-year-old Judo black belt who's taken control of Sonnen's ground game. In the past, Sonnen's impeccable wrestling has been a blessing and a bane.
When he's won, it's been with his wrestling—attacking non-stop, implacably, unstoppably. But his inability to make the most of this strength, and his inclination to score the takedown and then bide his time, has cost him.
Too often—eight times, in fact—he's tossed an opponent down, only to be submitted from the bottom.
But what others count as a weakness, McQuary saw as a potential strength. Sonnen, he thought, was able to put himself in great positions with ease—positions most grapplers would kill to be in. What if, McQuary pondered, Sonnen used his wrestling skill, not just to plant people on the mat, but to finish them there as well?
"We just needed to tweak a few things," McQuarry said. "I told him, 'We need to work on your defense and I want to work on just a couple of submissions.' It's worked really well. We have a number of things in the bag that we haven't even let out yet. The Brian Stann fight, we were so glad he got that submission we'd been working on. But trust me—he's got a bunch of stuff he hasn't even showcased yet.
"I looked at the positions he was most frequently in. A lot of times he was trying to ground-and-pound people with fairly good success. But I told him, 'We can make this a lot easier. Let's work for a submission.' He's so damn good at keeping his position or transitioning to a new position if things go awry, it was kind of a no-brainer."
Of course, with Sonnen, the public is less interested in the nuances of his game and more curious about what he said, about whom, and whether or not he meant it. Sonnen has a gift for gab, one he's used in the latter years of his career to become a superstar.
"Coming from a wrestling background, he tried to take a more humble approach. Over the last couple of years he's taken a little different approach... Whether they hate him or they love him, they know who he is," Lindland said. "They want to see him fight either way. I think it's important that he learned how to do that. This is what it takes in this industry. It's an entertainment industry. The promoters decide which fights are going to sell more tickets and those are the fights they put together. It's about building hype and putting on a show. There's no athletic architecture that says 'If you beat this guy, your next fight is for a world title.'"
Without trash talk, Sonnen is a middleweight Jon Fitch, a ground specialist who lingers on the undercard despite his perennial contender status. With it, Sonnen is the UFC's fastest-rising star.
"If you look at Muhammad Ali, he started to get the same type of notoriety when he started believing and selling the same kind of fairy tale. Everyone else says 'What?' But he just goes with it," McQuarry said. "Do I sit back and ask, 'What are you doing calling yourself the (real) world middleweight champion?' I don't question that. I see it, believe it, achieve it. If he has to go that route to it and it sells the fight in the meantime, more power to him."
No one is beyond Sonnen's reach. He's taken heavyweights like Brock Lesnar down a peg, lambasted the entire nation of Brazil and taken special care to eviscerate Silva whenever possible. He isn't afraid to center the media in his sites either, as witnessed by an ugly exchange with broadcaster Michael Landsberg late last year.
The Landsberg incident is consummate Sonnen. No one can be entirely sure just how serious he is. Those closest to him believe it's all an act, but a multifaceted one. Sonnen's trash talk isn't just to get fans riled up. Angering opponents and getting in their heads is also a pleasant side effect.
The real target of Sonnen's trash talk is Sonnen himself.
"For Chael, him talking is not as much for the fans as for himself," Lindland said. "If he's saying it enough, loud enough, long enough and often enough, I think he starts believing he's the best guy. He's going to believe he can beat Anderson. He's not just trying to sell the fight to fans. He's selling it to himself. So he can be the hype he's created."
Sonnen refuses to let anyone behind the curtain. His is an act every bit as calculated as Stephen Colbert's. But while Colbert does out-of-character interviews, the real Chael Sonnen is not for public display.
I asked him about the contention that his trash talk is motivational, that he needs it to thrive and continue to push himself. As usual, he deflected with humor.
"Wow that's deep. No way you got that from 'someone close to me.' I surround myself with 'yes' men," Sonnen said.
What about his wild statements. How calculated are his wrestling-style promos? Are they off the cuff, or carefully crafted?
"I'm not sure what 'promo' means. I looked it up, and found no definition. If I'm asked a question, I answer it. That's all."
In the end, we aren't any closer to knowing the real Chael Sonnen. We only know the face he's shown us: smart, cutting and caustic. Chael Sonnen wears a mask. But that's the beautiful thing about his sport.
In the cage, there's no escaping who you really are. When the time for talking is done, when it's time to start backing it up, that's when a man shows who he is. Fear, pride, strength, resolve: All those things are magnified in the confines of a cage.
Who is Chael Sonnen? We'll find out Saturday night.
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