UFC 159 Star Chael Sonnen and a Pro Wrestling Act Gone Bad
Stop me if you've heard it before. Better yet, stop Chael P. Sonnen, because it's his shtick, an act that I've listened to close to a hundred times in the lead up to his UFC 159 fight with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
"We're coming to Newark on 4/27, 7 p.m., 10 in the East and only on pay-per-view."
It's a message delivered with all the authenticity of a used-car salesman, his voice shifting into gears usually reserved for the guy who reads the fine print in radio ads. Sonnen is in pure huckster mode when he drops this little gem, usually after ducking a question he doesn't feel like answering.
You'll hear it at least once in every interview he does. It's a staple of his act, right up there with his claim to have "the largest arms, the greatest charm and all the harm."
And man, is it tired.
When Chael first forced his way into the hearts and minds of hardcore UFC fans, he was doing something no one had seen before. His overt appropriation of pro wrestling memes and over-the-top bravado was perfectly distilled for a sport desperately short on irony.
It was something different, a world apart from the standard displays of respect or hatred in a pre-Sonnen world. Even though it was essentially fist fighting in a cage, he let all of us know we could take this sport as something less serious than life or death.
It was just plain fun to hear him insult MMA legends like the Nogueira brothers, saying things that made everyone in the room put their hand to their mouths, wondering if it was OK to laugh.
But that was all several years ago. His ode to "Superstar" Billy Graham has survived several pay-per-view cycles. We heard it leading into his fight with Michael Bisping last January and we're still hearing it today.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem.
Perfectly executed, Sonnen's pro wrestling gimmick is self-perpetuating. It's adaptable to almost any situation or opponent. Instead, he's taken his act, at one point so innovative and full of life, and run it directly into the ground.
What once seemed edgy now seems hokey. What was once lively and full of old-fashioned con man charm is now rote and meaningless.
There's absolutely no reason Chael couldn't have modified his material to promote his fight with former Marine Corps Captain Brian Stann. Either mocking the hero worship of the American warrior class or playing up his own opponent's bravery and honor, a verbal make-out session with a real role model, would have worked wonders if he went in the right direction.
Michael Bisping, too, was ripe for parody. Self-important, overrated and perpetually biting off more than he can chew, "The Count" is one of the UFC's least popular fighters. And yet the inspired forces behind Sonnen's rise weren't able to come up with a single clever bit to make the lead-up even a little entertaining.
Sonnen, it seems, just isn't creative enough to individualize his banter for each opponent. He has a single idea and a single target—the "other."
He's on comfortable ground making fun of foreigners who don't speak English, of mocking black fighters for their earrings and baggy pants. He intuitively understands the gulf between a young, rich gifted athlete like Jones and the middle-class viewers who secretly resent him even if they can't quite put their finger on why.
The rest of his act is all pomp and circumstance, the braggadocio of a pro wrestling star. It's familiar to fight fans, as many have pointed out, due to the persona Muhammad Ali once portrayed.
It worked for the Ali because he backed it up in the ring. He could brag and boast about how good he was because he demonstrated the truth of his words every time he competed. With Sonnen, however, it falls flat. Why, fans wonder, is this guy talking like he's the cock of the walk when he's failed over and over again at every turn?
It's sad in a way, because it doesn't have to be like this. Chael is a legitimately nice guy when he's confident the cameras aren't on. He's lucked into a way to change his life financially, gone from a journeyman fighter with a second job just to pay the bills to a superstar with a legitimate opportunity to earn seven figures if he plays his cards right.
For a fighter at the end of his career, one who has already thrown away all his retirement options in a real estate scheme that landed him in federal court, it's been a godsend. You can't blame Sonnen for going all-in with what's working. After all, it's house money at this point.
But fans got a glimpse of the real Chael Sonnen during The Ultimate Fighter 17, watched him mold and mentor a group of young fighters with no WWE gimmick in sight. Sonnen wasn't a loud-mouthed shill, capable of speaking only in rhyme—at least not all the time. He was a real person.
It was the perfect opportunity to execute what, in the world of wrestling, promoters call a "face turn." Sonnen, with a few carefully planned appearances, could have turned this fight with Jones on its head. He could have easily, in short, been the hero rather than the villain.
Sonnen, a meat-and-potatoes wrestler who gets by almost entirely on grit and determination, is completely out-gunned by Jones, one of the most gifted and creative fighters in the sport's short history. There's literally nothing Sonnen does that Jones cannot do better, faster and more accurately.
Chael Sonnen cannot win this fight. I've run it in my head a thousand times and cannot visualize a scenario in which Sonnen takes the title. Why not, instead of letting it lurk beneath the surface of every story about the bout, confront it head on and play that up in the build to this fight?
Is Chael Sonnen's act still working?
Sonnen could have positioned himself as just a regular guy, pitting his lunch-pail work ethic against the preternatural abilities of Jones, a fighter who makes everything look easy. It's a simple narrative, and one that sports writers, and fans, have been conditioned to eat up.
Not only would it have been more authentic, it would be a perfect way to exit the fight game and transition into television. Earlier this year, Sonnen signed on as a regular analyst on UFC Tonight. At age 36, with retirement likely to follow a fight even Sonnen seems resigned to lose, that's the future.
The cage, and the cartoonish super villain, will soon be the past.
The future is thoughtful analysis and clever manipulation of language, not the kind of cheese-ball word play that hasn't been en vogue since the 1970s. This was a missed opportunity for Sonnen, and it makes clear the real problem with his entire promotional approach.
It's not that he is mining the world of professional wrestling for promotional strategies and material—it's just that he's not very good at it.
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