By Elton "Hobbie" Hobson
When it comes to selling a fight, there is no safer bet in Mixed Martial Arts—indeed, in all of prizefighting—than the tried and true grudge match. Nothing promises fan attention and financial return like a little bad blood, whether it’s real or not.
In a little under a month’s time, Chael Sonnen will step up to face Anderson Silva in the main event of UFC 117. Just a few short months ago, and this would have been seen as another Anderson Silva squash match at 185 lbs.
Sure, Sonnen has been on a good tear of late and has earned his shot, but he didn‘t exactly command a whole lot of casual fan attention. When he got his shot, I’d wager he was probably best known for getting run over by Demian Maia and beating up Paulo Philo’s ghost in the WEC.
Of course, that was before he got a Twitter account.
You gotta hand it to Sonnen. Other than a solid Greco-Roman pedigree and lots of grit, the Oregon native knows how to sell a fight. He has the gift of gab, knows how to grab attention, and cultivates a public “persona” like few others. Armed with just a keyboard and the power of modern media, he has set about singlehandedly making himself a PPV super fight.
His months long campaign of trash talk against “The Spider” has been comical, over the top, and borderline ridiculous. From comparing Silva to Britney Spears to calling a Nogueria black belt a “happy meal toy” to threats to “crucify” Silva manager Ed Soares, Sonnen has displayed remarkable amount of creativity, if not tact.
Fans know it is all an act, designed to instigate and inflame and provoke, but they do not seem to care. Trash talk is trash talk, and it must be backed up in the cage. The more of it, the better. Sonnen’s slander campaign will make his UFC 117 clash a PPV cash cow (and not the stacked card, sadly, although it certainly won’t hurt).
Call it good timing—Silva may be the most hated man in MMA right now after his five-round showboating embarrassment against Demian Maia in Abu Dhabi. But really, it’s due to something else entirely. For whatever reason, fight fans just can’t say no to a grudge match. It’s like choosing Cruise Missile in a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Cruise Missile—a win every time.
And it isin‘t just this new, Jerry Springer, YouTube, and Twitter generation that‘s buying into grudge matches. Boxing fans turned out in droves in the 1960s for Muhammad Ali’s three fight series with Joe Frazier, and the next generation of combat sports fans did the same for the Tyson/Holyfield and Holyfeild/Lewis fights.
Floyd Mayweather has followed much the same path as Sonnen in crafting an over the top “heel” persona, becoming the biggest draw in boxing along the way.
Why does the Jerry Springer, WWE-style, bad blood angle so often work to capture fan interest? All too often, the fight itself doesn’t live up to the weeks and months of hype and trash talking that went into it.
Rampage vs. Rashad was the most anticipated grudge match of 2010, with months of hype and promotion going into it, but the fight itself was largely panned as a dud. Remember all the hype that went into the Ortiz/Shamrock feud, and its three fight series—three fights where Tito steamrolled an overmatched Ken with little drama and no surprise?
Same story for the Liddell/Ortiz feud, which saw months and months of hype go into selling two very lopsided KO’s for “The Iceman.” Remember all the back and forth that took place before Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez’s epic three-round snoozer? How about the final Arlovski vs. Sylvia fight, or Shamrock vs. Severn, or…you get my point.
Grudge matches, plain and simple, don’t live up to the hype. All too often, months of bad blood, trash taking, and over the top boasting leaves prideful fighters with an awful lot on the line. In that situation, they will fight not to lose more then they will to win—lest they be forced to eat crow in front of the entire world.
Sure, you can name some grudge matches that resulted in epic, exciting fights (the Rampage/Wanderlei Silva series, or Bisping vs. Hendo) but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Bad blood encounters sell PPV’s in spite of a track record of proven barnburners, not because of it.
This means that in the end, people will buy a PPV based more on what they feel about the fighters in the fight rather then how exciting the fight itself will be. And can we blame them? Even in MMA alone there are hundreds of fighters all toiling for a little share of your time, attention, and money.
What separates fighters from the pack is personal attachment. We want to care about them, beyond their being a guy in the ring trying to beat up the other guy.
Personal attachments and storylines sell, no matter how much you may wish they didn’t. How else can you explain Couture vs. Coleman outselling Aldo vs. Faber on PPV? Maybe we are a society raised on movies, on television, on comic books, cartoons, and simple narratives with good guys, bad guys, and epic Mortal Kombat-esque confrontations where all is resolved, one way or another.
Hate WWE all you like, but McMahon and crew understand this phenomena better then most. At the end of the day, nothing, bar none, gets a casual fan to open their wallet like a little trash talk. Not the promise of a good fight. Not the allure of athletic achievement, or world titles. Not for the purity of competition, like fighting purists may tell you. Not for any of those high minded things.
But for a little “out by the flagpole after recess” level drama—hell, it’s time to crack open the wallet. Or at least check Sonnen’s Twitter page.
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