Chael Sonnen has made his name in the mixed martial arts industry with his mouth. Whether he was running down icons like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or demanding Anderson Silva's wife cook him a steak, his verbal hijinks have made the journeyman wrestler must-see TV.
Nick Diaz, after mixed success in the UFC, became one of the sport's most compelling figures by being the Bizarro Sonnen. While Chael seeks out the media, a necessary tool for his act's survival, Diaz abhors the spotlight. His aura of authenticity and reputation as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, it's-still-real-to-me-dammit athlete has allowed him to stand out in a sport built on respect and sportsmanship.
Diaz doesn't want to shake hands and smile for the cameras. He wants to punch people in the face. Sonnen doesn't want to make friends either. He wants to belittle and poke the proverbial bear, to drive opponents into a red-hot rage. These two men were a big part of the reason 2013 seemed like such a promising year for the UFC.
After years of calling out welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, the corporate-safe champion who is the antithesis of everything he believes in, Diaz was finally going to get his shot at UFC gold. Sonnen was matched with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, a sensitive and prickly young fighter who was tailor-made for Sonnen's brand of mental and verbal warfare—the kind of fighter easily driven to distraction by the Chael show.
So why did Nick Diaz, with the whole sport waiting white knuckle to hear what he had to say, talk about how much he likes St-Pierre at a recent press conference? Why did Sonnen meet Jones on the set of The Ultimate Fighter with an outstretched hand to begin filming a season of reality television that insiders say is devoid of almost any trash talk and back and forth between the two men?
In short, what the heck is going on here?
No one will mistake Sonnen or Diaz for the best fighter in the world. They've been around too long and we've seen their athletic warts. Sonnen is susceptible to submissions and has broken under pressure on several occasions. Diaz struggles against rangy, disciplined fighters who chop away at his legs and has been grounded by strong wrestlers with submission defense.
Both are huge underdogs against two of the UFC's most dominant champions. Neither bout is a compelling fight that will draw people on its merits.
It was the surrounding show that promised to draw fans in. The hoopla. The promise of chaos and insanity. Two men willing to say and do things that others weren't. The most real fighter in the UFC and the most fake.
But a Nick Diaz who is on time and delivering plaudits to his opponent? A Chael Sonnen who shows respect for his foe? That's not the show I signed up for. Who wants to watch that?
That's the question of the hour. UFC bean counters might not like the answer.