Why Dan Henderson and Other Quiet UFC Stars Should Go to 'Sh*t Talking School'
Fighters are a funny lot. They are willing, even excited, to step into a steel cage and put their well-being on the line. Willing to sign a waiver allowing another very dangerous man to attempt to punch and batter them into unconsciousness without fear of repercussion.
When faced with that make-or-break moment, that split-second situation in which only well-honed perfection will do, they pass the test with flying colors. Without hesitation, fighters combine techniques and strategies from a number of martial arts. Kasparovs of physical chess, years of training finally pay off with the perfect punch, snapping leg kick or an armbar that's locked in tight.
And yet in the dizzying seconds after a bout, when the camera is rolling and Joe Rogan is suddenly standing right there, microphone invading personal space, panic sets in.
It should be the easy part—but instead, many fighters cost themselves money and opportunities when, tongue tied, they say the words matchmaker Joe Silva and fans across the nation are dreading.
You know them by heart:
"I don't care who I fight next. I'll fight anyone they put in front of me."
Fighters, listen up. You're doing it all wrong.
I can't tell you how to succeed in the cage. I have no idea how to set up an omoplata or the perfect sweep. I'm not even quite sure how to spell omoplata. But I do know this—when the media comes calling, whether it's Sherdog, Fuel TV or Bleacher Report, you better have a plan for what you are going to say.
There is a reason Chael Sonnen is in Las Vegas filming The Ultimate Fighter, preparing for his third title fight in his last five bouts.
There's a reason Rashad Evans drives a luxury car and you drive a 1996 Sentra.
There's a reason "Tank" Abbott will live forever through this sport and Scott Ferrozzo has been forgotten with time.
You ply your trade with your fists, that's for sure. But in the UFC, you make your money and establish your legacy with your mouth. Mixed martial arts combines sport and spectacle like few other endeavors. No matter what your coach tells you, winning is not enough. It never has been and never will be.
To make your mark in this industry, to maximize your earning potential and build a nest egg in the few short years you can compete at a high level, you better do more than win. You need to entertain, from the pre-fight interviews all the way through a post-fight appearance with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour.
There are a lot of ways to do this. Although Sonnen's is the most famous example, not everyone is going to embrace pro wrestling schtick the way he has. And not everyone should.
Look to the late Tony Halme for a case study of the pro-wrestling method gone horribly awry. Halme, who wrestled in the WWF as Ludvig Borga, was so over the top before his lone UFC appearance that fans could do little more than roll their eyes and wait for it to be over.
"I rip his arms off the sockets," Halme said before his UFC 13 bout with Randy Couture, voice calm and steady. "My greatest strength is that I'm not afraid of anybody. I've got balls made of iron and I go there to rip the head off or I die trying."
That was a little too much bravado. Combined with no actual fighting ability, Halme's ridiculous style led to him being one and done in the UFC. The best performers don't act. They simply take their real personalities and turn the volume up to 11, Spinal Tap style.
Donald Cerrone is an enraged redneck in real life, an adrenaline junkie who loves a good scrap. In the Octagon, he just adds a cowboy hat and some extra attitude and moves smoothly from high-profile fight to high-profile fight.
The key for Cerrone isn't Sonnen-style banter. It's always having an opponent in mind. Whether it's a grudge match with Jamie Varner or a shot at one of the Diaz brothers, Cerrone doesn't wait for matchmakers to find him a bout. He goes out in search of what he wants, then uses his time in the limelight to pitch it to the world.
Even the nice guys use media opportunities to their advantage. Observe Georges St-Pierre. Yes, the welterweight champion is respectful and articulate, with his slightly broken English evoking a smile from fans, not a quizzical "what is he saying" grimace.
But when it was necessary, St-Pierre stepped into the cage and told Matt Hughes and the world how unimpressed he was with Matt's performance. St-Pierre isn't above theatrics, either, once famously dropping to his knees to beg the UFC for a title shot.
There are winning fighters and then there are legendary fighters. It's a lesson Dan Henderson, Cain Velasquez and Frankie Edgar need to internalize quickly. All excellent fighters, each lacks that extra charge that turns great athletes into drawing cards.
Henderson at least seems to understand where he's lacking. On the wrong side of 40, though, it's almost too late for the former Pride champion.
The other two, however, still have time to write their own history and change their family's lives forever. They've mastered the fight in the cage—it's now the battle outside the Octagon that looms largest.
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