As I watched the weigh-ins for tonight’s UFC 117 from Oakland, something occurred to me. It happened right as champion and challenger squared off for the “face to face” photo op, and Anderson Silva turned away from Chael Sonnen in disdain (pictured above, in reverse, from earlier press conference) while the crowd roared. Watching this scene, I began to get the feeling that I was watching something that was impossible.
Or more accurately, that what I was watching was nothing less then a PR miracle. And all thanks to one man - or is he more myth and superstition then man? Yes, folks, the Superman is real, and he’s a Republican.
Let’s flashback a couple of months to this past April, when this match-up was first announced. Silva was coming off the absolute disaster that was UFC 112, and his “fight” with Demian Maia. Man, it sucked to be Anderson Silva back then. After three straight stinkers, broken up only by his rapid destruction of fan favourite Forrest Griffin, fans had finally, terminally given up on the sport’s pound for pound king and possibly greatest ever fighter.
It’s no exaggeration to say that at the time, “The Spider” was the most hated man in the sport. There were many, many people in those days who vowed never to order an Anderson Silva headlined card again. Dana White was near desperate in his concessions and apologies, vowing to “make this one up” to the fans. His super fight with GSP was put in permanent limbo, and there was serious talk of his being suspended or even cut from the company.
And Chael Sonnen? Well he was coming off a win over top ranked Nate Marquardt, and enjoying his first blip of casual fan attention.
Sure, he earned a lot of fans with his gritty performance in that fight, and his entertaining comments to Joe Rogan afterwards. But prior to that, Sonnen had being flying under the radar at 185 lbs, the dark horse contender in the middleweight division. Worse, he had acquired a reputation as a “boring” fighter, a Greco-Roman wrestling decision machine whose unspectacular, plodding style seemed destined to make him the Jon Fitch of the 185’ers.
When this fight was announced, no one jumped out of their chairs in excitement. The Decision Machine vs. The Dancing Queen? I think I’ll pass, thanks. Fans yawned. Media yawned. Dana wept.
Chael Sonnen ( R ) cracked his knuckles in excitement. In the history of the UFC, there are few fighters who have so dramatically and decisively risen to seize a moment as Sonnen has done. The former Republican State Senate hopeful and Real Estate agent (what a perfect combo for fight selling, by the way) got to work, and he has painted his Sistine Chapel.
His months long campaign of side-splitting trash talk, bald-faced lies, and borderline psychotic rants against Silva isn’t just funny. It isn’t just irritating. It’s not just eloquent, or embarrassingly stupid, or perfectly timed, or way over the top. It’s all those things, and possibly even more.
In my opinion, it’s nothing short of brilliant, a marketing coup like nothing we’ve seen before in MMA.
When people say Sonnen has created lots of hype for his UFC 117 title shot, they really fail to capture the whole picture. Just creating “hype” is easy. Tito Ortiz has already created hype for his next, Rolling Stones-esque “comeback fight” by making fun of Matt Hamill’s deafness. Put a camera in Nick Diaz’s face, and you’ll get a stoned, F-word filled rant that would out crazy anything Sonnen has said. And don’t get Brock Lesnar started on Bud Light.
No, what Sonnen has done is far more impressive. When Sonnen took to the scale yesterday, he was booed heavily. When Silva appeared, the crowd actually cheered a little bit. When Silva turned away from Chael, that noise grew to a roar. The tension, the excitement, and the energy in that room was palpable, even through my tiny laptop screen.
It was a scene that only months ago would have been a laughable fantasy. But there it was. The most hated man in the sport is, once again, a good guy.
Chael Sonnen didn’t just successfully sell this fight. He sold this fight with himself as the “heel” (bad guy in wrestling lingo), a far better narrative as far as the UFC is concerned. Anderson Silva is the top fighter in the game today. Him being hated and despised and booed is a situation the UFC (and let’s be honest, the sport itself) could really do without.
So Sonnen went beyond the pale. Like the aforementioned Nick Diaz, the Oregon native wasn’t afraid to say and do whatever he felt like. Unlike Diaz, his madness had a method. Say what you will about him, but Sonnen is certainly clever and witty, even if in an overt, blunt way, and he has a great sense of timing. In short, he can sling BS with the best of ‘em.
And sling he did. For months and months and months. It worked cause it was funny, or cause he could deliver it with a straight face. It worked because it irritated you, and eventually you wanted him to shut up. It worked because his sense of timing was incredible, moving from one outrageous claim or story to the next with perfect fluidity.
Nothing was safe. Nothing was taboo. Race, religion, ethnicity, nationality - even Lance Armstrong's testicular cancer.
In the process, Sonnen has sold us a golden proposition. After all this talk, after all these outlandish claims and boorish insults and outright lies, we want to see somebody, anybody, shut his mouth. We want to see him eat a big slice of humble pie - preferably while lying starry eyed on top of the “Amp Energy” logo.
And who better to deliver that then the sport’s undisputed KO king? So congratulations, Mr. Sonnen. You’ve earned your big payday, and your hefty increase in fan recognition. You may have made your whole career with the lead up to this fight alone. For what it’s worth, I really do hope you find a way to take Anderson down and hold him there for all 25 minutes.
Or that you like eating your meals through a straw. Cause you’ve clearly made Anderson Silva angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
By Elton Hobson