UFC Power Rankings: Chael Sonnen and the 7 Biggest Showmen in UFC History
Despite his recent setback against current pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen remains one of the UFC’s most valuable assets.
His ability to sell fights and entertain fans outside of the cage is, perhaps, even more impressive than his considerable gifts as a mixed martial artist. He is the consummate showman. Sonnen may be a rarity in an often charmless business, but he is certainly not alone.
As the UFC has grown, so have the number of fighters who are vying for the spotlight. But given the increasingly mainstream appeal of mixed martial arts, how does one stand out from the rest?
More and more fighters are employing the art of showmanship as a means of separating themselves from the herd. But just what do we mean when we refer to a fuzzy concept such as "showmanship"?
In the context of the sport of mixed martial arts, it can be defined as the ability to deliberately and effectively market oneself to an audience by creating something that transcends athletic competition.
And that is precisely what this list seeks to celebrate. Let's look at the seven greatest showmen in UFC history.
7. "Filthy" Tom Lawlor
"Filthy" Tom Lawlor is an interesting case of a fighter who appears to hang onto his spot within the UFC as a result of his pre-fight shenanigans.
Sure, he collects a win just regularly enough to stop people from asking too many questions of Dana White, but there is no doubt that his likeability is a significant factor in his continued employment.
Lawlor has created a reputation for himself as someone who will conceive of unfailingly funny weigh-in outfits and fight entrances.
Highlights include dressing up as Harold Howard at the UFC Fight Night 20 weigh-ins before performing Howard’s infamous cartwheel kick. He has also parodied Dan Severn, Hulk Hogan and the "Just Bleed" guy, among others.
Not everyone can be GSP or Anderson Silva. The UFC needs its share of Tom Lawlors, too. He goes out of his way to entertain us, so we root for him when he steps inside the cage.
6. Jon "Bones" Jones
Jones is a peculiar case, and his inclusion will doubtless be debated, particularly considering his carefully crafted "good guy" image outside of the cage. However, few can deny that the 24-year-old is utterly compelling when he competes.
The UFC Light Heavyweight Champion conceives moves that would likely appear out of place in even the most far-fetched of 80s martial arts movies. Rumor has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Jon Jones who does the special effects for his fights.
Okay, that last part may not be true, but I think you get the picture. Jones not only creates moves out of thin air, but he is also in the business of creating memories for those who are privileged enough to watch him fight. That makes him one of the UFC’s greatest showmen.
5. Jason "Mayhem" Miller
Say what you will about the Bully Beatdown star’s recent lamentable displays inside the octagon. The 31-year-old Miller has carved out a lucrative career for himself based largely on his magnetic personality.
The boundlessly energetic "Mayhem" is rarely boring, even when one of his fights could conceivably be marketed as a sedative. His most recent performance against CB Dollaway aptly demonstrates this.
With his UFC career on the line, Miller danced, posed and at one point even gave his opponent a "noogie," much to the crowd's and Joe Rogan’s amusement.
He may have been cut from the UFC after the fight, but he still managed to briefly entertain us during a coma-inducing lay-and-pray by Dollaway. In many ways, that has been the story of Miller’s career: entertain at all costs.
4. Tito Ortiz
The fact that the former "Huntington Beach Badboy" continued to draw audiences, despite his competitive results taking a dramatic nosedive, suggests that he has built a particularly robust brand name.
Tito Ortiz was not only one of the UFC’s earliest PPV stars, but he was also one of the sport’s only recognisable faces within the mainstream's consciousness. Like Jon Jones, Ortiz took pains to cultivate an image that would leave an indelible impression on the minds of sports fans, both hard-core and casual.
Unlike Jones, the "Huntington Beach Badboy"—I utterly refuse to refer to him by the comically oblivious moniker "The People’s Champ"—regularly embraced the role of heel. Ortiz would delight in taunting his opponent both before and after he had dragged them to the canvas and tenderized his face.
His penchant for controversy outside of the cage similarly ensured that his name was never far from the headlines, even as his relevance dissipated. The second half of his career illustrates the profitability of showmanship, even in the face of competitive obscurity.
3. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
"Rampage" Jackson’s UFC career has had more ups and downs than the most vomit-inducing Six Flags ride. Despite his see-sawing fortunes, Jackson was a bigger star in the States than he ever was in Japan—and he was BIG in Japan.
Many of Quinton’s most vociferously enthusiastic supporters parrot the clichéd claim that this is because he "always comes to fight." Any fair-minded fan would doubtless dispute this notion that "Rampage" always entertains when he steps inside the cage.
The reality is that Jackson has competed in his fair share of stinkers, especially over the last couple of years. His mass appeal has much to do with his Pride legacy, but it also owes a lot to his affable personality.
Even when he’s dry-humping or motor-boating female reporters, there is an undeniable charm to Jackson' refusal to take himself too seriously—though this has changed somewhat in recent times.
His star power has diminished slightly recently, but there is no doubt that "Rampage"Jackson was one of the UFC’s most bankable stars, someone who could hype a fight while simultaneously delivering lines like a seasoned comedian.
2. Brock Lesnar
The former National Champion wrestler from Minnesota entered the UFC and immediately generated heat as an outsider, having walked away from a lucrative career in pro wrestling. His ability to attract eyeballs to the UFC’s product remains peerless.
What is most interesting is that Brock never had to try hard in order to become a star. In fact, he did all the things you would do if your intention was to avoid the spotlight—declining interviews, living in the middle of nowhere, etc. One might say that he is simply naturally magnetic.
It could be argued that he took a less-is-more approach to fashioning his star, giving us just enough to leave us wanting more. When he did agree to interviews, he rarely disappointed; his prickly personality was sufficient enough to engineer some of the most awkward moments you are ever likely to see outside of a Nick Diaz-Ariel Helwani encounter.
Lesnar’s cartoonishly muscular figure and misanthropic persona combined to create PPV gold, most notably during the aftermath of his destruction of Frank Mir at UFC 100. It is fair to say that it may be some time before the UFC uncovers a star who can generate viewing figures to match Brock Lesnar.
1. Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen may not be able to match Brock Lesnar’s PPV power, but he comes mighty close. And he didn’t have the advantage of a WWE profile when he entered the UFC.
The self-proclaimed "Gangster" from West Linn, Oregon built his brand from scratch. Realising that repeating stock answers in response to reporters’ questions was getting him nowhere in this business, he made a decision to simply be more interesting.
It is a deceptively novel concept, merely making an effort not to be bland. From mocking Brazil to claiming co-ownership of the UFC, Chael’s outlandish, and often hilarious, claims have led to the most meteoric of rises.
His gifts not only in promoting a fight but also in broadcasting have been an absolute revelation. Sonnen’s ability to mine almost any subject for pure comedy gold has led the media to seek him out almost to the exclusion of other fighters who are scheduled to appear on the same card.
He has built a fanatical following, despite having a style that is based almost entirely on grinding. In order to illustrate how improbable such a feat is, consider what it would take for Jon Fitch to become one of the UFC’s top draws. That is what Chael has essentially achieved.
And that makes him the greatest showman the UFC has ever witnessed.