MMA Trash Talk: Why Selling the Fight Pales in Comparison to Winning the Fight

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MMA Trash Talk: Why Selling the Fight Pales in Comparison to Winning the Fight
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

“And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.”

—Shakespeare

In the world of MMA, the use of trash talk seems to be growing, and leading the pack is one Chael P. Sonnen.

Behind him are countless others who seem to “get” the idea that hyping a fight is a very important aspect of the promotional side of the business. This is not surprising and certainly not a new discovery. Well before the likes of Sonnen, Michael Bisping, Conor McGregor and others, there was a certain Muhammad Ali, who understood the necessity of incendiary pre-fight trash talk and delivered it all with a style and swagger that has yet to be realized in MMA, Sonnen or no.

But is trash talk really just a promotional tool, or is a path to victory, with the interest it generates, merely an ancillary benefit?

In theory, trash talk is designed to give a psychological advantage to the antagonist by inflaming his opponent to the point that he (or she) loses his mental clarity and falls into error in the fight. In his book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu said: “If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him,” the ultimate resolution (end) being victory.

And make no mistake about it, it is the victory that justifies the means to that end.

If no victory is achieved, then there needs to be some other resolution, usually in the form of some kind of admittance or concession that addresses both the pre-fight banter and the outcome of the fight. If the antagonist does not achieve victory and further offers no concession of any meaningful kind, then the trash talk is nothing more than harsh words said for the sake of being harsh.

Many think it was Ali’s delivery and mirth that made him the best in the realm of trash talk, but it was much more than that. It was his understanding of the purpose of trash talk and his understanding and acceptance of the human condition of both his opponent and the fans that made him great.

On March 8, 1971, during a Wide World of Sports program, Ali and Joe Frazier, bitter rivals in every sense of the term, sat alongside moderator and sports luminary Howard Cosell watching a replay of their first ever fight the prior year. It had been a close contest that Frazier won, sealing the deal with a knockdown of Ali in the final frame.

All of this was to serve as a prequel to their rematch, with the winner moving one step closer to a title shot against then-reigning champion George Foreman.

As the viewing went deep into the bout, Frazier began to make some snide comments to Ali—particularly the fact that Ali had gone to the hospital after the fight for X-rays. Ali countered, saying that he had been in and out in 10 minutes and it was Frazier who had been in the hospital much longer (Frazier had suffered flu-like symptoms before and after the fight).

Quickly, things escalated (on national television, no less) based upon Ali asserting that Frazier was ignorant—an accusation Ali had made about Frazier many times. Suddenly, Frazier was standing up, and things quickly got physical.

After their scuffle, Frazier left and Ali and Cosell were left to finish the segment on their own. Ali didn’t act surprised or shocked, because he was neither; he had spent a long time attacking Frazier in the press and the fact that “Smokin’ Joe” had finally gotten fed up did not surprise him, nor did he act unjustly injured.

It was a bad-blood sales pitch, and the actions of Frazier had just set the hook deep in everyone’s mouth, which is what Ali had wanted all along.

Recently, the sport of MMA had a similar moment. Sonnen found himself in a brawl with a man he has been antagonizing (either directly or by proxy, for a very long time) on the set of season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil—Wanderlei Silva.

In itself, the case of Sonnen is also a tale of two Silvas: Anderson and Wanderlei. Sonnen began to implement his unique brand of trash talk as a lead-up to his first and second fights with then-champion Anderson. Along the way, Sonnen managed to insult the entire nation of Brazil.

“You know, when I was a little kid, I remember going outside, I’d sit around with my friends; we’d talk about the latest technology in medicine and gaming and American ingenuity,” said Sonnen, pre-UFC 148, “and I look outside and Anderson and the Brazilian kids are sitting outside, playing in the mud.”

The other Silva (Wanderlei) took exception to Sonnen’s words, told him so and in turn got himself caught in Sonnen’s crosshairs. Since then, both men have engaged each other via harsh comments and, in fact, they almost came to blows at Mr. Olympia Expo—an incident that was well before the decision to have Sonnen coach opposite Wanderlei in Brazil.

So, after the brawl on the set, Sonnen and those in his camp acted surprised that Silva went nuclear and things got physical, but should they have been? Of course not—but that is what they are trying to sell.

It confuses the roles, and in truth it seems to have confused Sonnen, who is now acting like the wronged party instead of the black hat, which is what he has claimed was his intent all along (h/t Dave Meltzer via MMAFighting.com). Sonnen said:

I had to explain to him, ‘I’m the bad guy, you’re supposed to be the good guy.’ But when you attempt to jump me, that’s going to turn the people against you and for me, and I don’t want to be the good guy. I had to drop the fourth curtain and explain this to him, and it didn’t register.

Of course, it didn’t register. Like Frazier, Wanderlei isn’t playing a role or reading off a script. Sonnen knew this would be the way it was, as did Dana White and everyone else involved; they knew that if Sonnen accepted the chance to coach opposite Wanderlei in Brazil that he was basically sticking his head in the lion’s mouth and daring it to bite, knowing that it probably would.

So why claim he wanted to be the bad guy when now he is acting the role of injured party? This isn’t espionage and Wanderlei is no deep philosopher; it was all about as simple as possible. Sonnen could have maintained his heel role easily, but instead he spun it around and is looking to fly the sympathy card.

Obviously, the art of trash talk is a fluid mechanism. Perhaps Sonnen thought he saw some new opportunity and decided to change roles then and there. After all, it’s not like American fight fans aren’t a bit biased. Thus far, they seem to have all but forgotten all the harsh things Sonnen said about Brazil and its people, waiving it all away while Sonnen flies the American-in-harms-way-for-the-good-of-MMA flag.

An interesting case of this double standard is one “Prince” Naseem Hamed.

Hamed, an English boxer of Yemeni decent, made a big splash in America by inferring that he was going to come to the land of stars and stripes and teach the Americans how to box. Before the first blow in anger had been thrown against Kevin Kelly, Americans were more than eager to see him fall, and the harder the better.

I shudder to imagine how we would have reacted or what kind of actions we would have condoned against his person had Hamed actually demeaned our culture or people as a whole.

Hamed fought the fight against Kelly (his first bout in America) and overcame some early knockdowns, eventually scoring a knockout of Kelly in Round 4 of a terribly exciting and back-and-forth brawl.

After the fight, Hamed stated to Kelly: “You’re the best I’ve ever fought, and I’m the best you’ve ever fought.” It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it was a concession that showed Hamed understood the importance of balance over post-fight belligerence, or even ignorance.

It’s easy to forget that trash talk is really a kind of dialogue that requires two; if only one person is playing the game, so to speak, it becomes somewhat hollow and loses any true impact, especially promotionally. While one fighter may do enough talking for two (see Dan Hardy in the buildup to his fight with Marcus Davis), trash talk is still an action that really requires a reaction in order to be realized in the realm of the tactical as well as the realm of the promotional.

Of course, in today’s age of social media, trash talk is shared with the public, and it interacts as an audience, which could lead one to believe the only true relationship needed is that between the antagonist and the fans, who either cheer or boo.

But that is far from the case. It all leads up to a fight between two people, and it is the fight that matters above all else. It is, by its design, intended to be the resolution of all. If it is nothing more than an interaction by a single fighter and the fans, then it’s nothing more than bad stand-up comedy, minus the punch line that matters most in combative sport.

They say that might makes right, and in the fight game, that means winning empowers and verifies. From that stage, pre-fight trash talk begins to become appreciated as a kind of art form, but it is only as artistic as the fighter is successful; had Ali not been winning his fights, he would have appeared as nothing but a snake oil salesman.

But he did win the big fights, and after, he was more often than not complimentary of his opposition, delivering the resolution the event needed in order to be framed and hung upon the wall.

So far, Sonnen has not won a single big fight, and after his defeats he looks and carries himself like an educated, yet petulant man who will not admit he was wrong when it really matters most. After Sonnen lost the rematch with Anderson at UFC 148, he acted somewhat sullen, never apologized and went on as if he had never said a negative word.

Normally, this could be seen as a simple desire to empower further campaigns against future fighters that could be set off balance by the talk of yesterday. It’s not like you can honestly get all the toothpaste back in the tube, so why apologize for something that you might use in the future against a new opponent?

The difference is not just in the words, but the reality, post-fight. If you coupled harsh commentary with predictions of physical domination, failure to deliver one does not mean you cling to the other in a stubborn mimicry of victory.

You have to live up to the whole of the talk, as often as possible, bottom line.

Also, you need to be realistic about it all; Ali knew Frazier might decide to stand up and take physical exception to his words in front of Cosell (and the nation), which is why he was not only ready at the time, but also paid honest compliment to his adversary after their fights.

If that is digging too far into history, you can also look at Floyd Mayweather Jr. He gets it like no MMA fighter ever. During his first true “stepping out” onto the trash-talking stage, he attacked a certain Arturo Gatti like no one had ever done before, calling him a “paper champion” and a “C+ fighter” who he was going to “crush.”

After their fight, which Mayweather dominated so totally and utterly that Gatti fans were shocked and stunned, Mayweather was honestly complimentary to his felled opponent, and you suddenly knew what the promotional side of boxing was all about.

“That’s Arturo Thunder Gatti,” said Mayweather, post-fight, “he’s a tough guy, strong guy, he always comes to fight, he never lays down and tonight I was just the best man,” and “He’s still tough and could become world champion again.” When pressed further by Larry Merchant to address the pre-fight trash talking he did of Gatti, Mayweather said: “We just talk, that’s what fighters do.”

Mayweather has proven to be so good at the game of trash talk that he doesn’t have to win the way he says he will. Often, he has talked as if he were going to annihilate his opponents, only to come out and fight a safe, tactical bout that ensures his victory. His fans tune in to see his reign continue and his detractors tune in to see him lose, but he fights the way he wants to rather than the way his post-fight talk inferred.

This kind of bait-and-switch has seen his ability to sell a fight bolstered by the most important aspect of combative sports: winning.

A prime example of this was his fight against media darling Oscar De La Hoya.

Prior to the fight, Mayweather fully admitted he was wearing the black hat and did not back down for a second. “There can’t be two good guys; I chose to be the bad guy. F--k it.”

But no two fighters are alike; Sonnen has a way about him that is unique and honestly refreshing when he is of a mind to be so. Sonnen is brilliant when he offers up self-deprecating answers to hard questions, such as the one posed to him after his first tap-out loss to Silva at UFC 117.

Sonnen said, in response: “Well, I gotta plead ignorance on that first fight, and you’re [the reporter] right; I thought that if you tapped, it ended the round. I did not know that the content as a whole would come to a conclusion.”

Laughter erupted, and the joke was well received in typical Sonnen style.

Playing the role of villain is not as easy as most would believe; to try and transition from villain to victim in midstream is even harder. Prior to his convenient (or perhaps desperate) need of a suitable foe, Sonnen was more than happy to wear the black hat and keep selling his fights; then the losses started piling up.

He said he would defeat Anderson Silva twice; he lost both times.

He said he would defeat Jon Jones; he was defeated in Round 1.

Thus, he turned his attention elsewhere, and why shouldn’t he? Just because he lost all of his title attempts does not mean he should retire and he's no longer a fighter in demand.

A fighter can talk as much trash as he likes, but sooner or later he has to deliver; Sonnen was not able to do this on the championship level, and thus he decided to poke fun at a few fighters well past their prime, specifically Wanderlei.

The problem now is we often don’t know when Sonnen is being serious or when he is just trying to hype the fight. I, for one, have a hard time accepting that a fighter as experienced, well-spoken and intelligent as Sonnen didn’t expect a fighter like Wanderlei to act like he did. If anything, it seems as if Sonnen would have been banking on such a reaction. How often have we heard him refer to himself as “the bad guy?”

More importantly, it’s shocking he didn’t take the ammunition Wanderlei gave him in order to keep promoting himself as the bad guy, coming to Brazil to take the lunch money of one of Brazil’s favorite sons. By all accounts and his own admission, that was his mission in taking the coaching role and the fight to follow. Now suddenly, Wanderlei derails it all by acting in the exact same way he had proven he would throughout his career?

Odds are Sonnen will achieve victory over Wanderlei in their fight. He has the style needed to take the Brazilian down time and again and keep him there for the duration of the fight. But a victory over Wanderlei is not the verification needed to balance out his losses to Anderson, which is where the whole thing began.

Those were title fights and fights Sonnen wanted badly to win. Occasionally, Sonnen drops his guard and speaks from the heart; he did so when talking about his rematch with Anderson during the countdown show for UFC 148.

“And I would give everything I’ve got, everything; I’d give it all back to be world champion for one night,” Sonnen said.

Without the victories that meant the most to him, trash talk now seems like just one of the things he does—one of his duties. As Hemingway was a writer who boxed, Sonnen is a fighter who talks. Without a title on the line, victory or defeat in the actual fight is almost academic by now.

There are others, of course. Conor McGregor, a fighter with just two fights in the UFC, has used trash talk to keep his name in circulation while he mended an injury. While this is to be expected to a certain degree, in the case of McGregor, it is almost anticlimactic.

Many of the fighters he has spoken of are perhaps years away from seeing him earn the chance to face them, especially those in the top five, including the reigning champion, Jose Aldo. As the only true resolution to all the talk is the fights themselves, which could be years away, our reward is to wait, perhaps indefinitely given how often injuries prevent certain fights from being made.

In a situation like McGregor’s, he would have been better served by singling out but one or two names—men within a realistic striking distance—and then gone from there, building it all up, event by event.

In the end, trash talk is, at its center, a bold and vocal prediction of victory that assumes a significant authority over an opponent. But without the victory, trash talk is just talk, and talk alone is not why we watch, or more importantly, why we believe.

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