Oh to be a fly on the wall in the war room at the UFC headquarters upon reading the newest Chael Sonnen headline.
The headlines of a newspaper can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on why you are there. Chael Sonnen recently, has taken more punishment in the media than any MMA fight could ever provide.
But sadly, the UFC is the Doctor Frankenstein in this case, imbuing life upon the inanimate.
You can imagine The Fertitta brothers staring across the board room at Dana White, silently, drinking his very presence in.
There is a tension around the room, and in the center of the table sits several copies of the largest and most influential newspapers, with different headlines across them. Every one has the same name...the name of the fighter gone AWOL...Chael Sonnen.
You can almost see Dana wiping the sweat from his brow. We all have a boss of some description in this world, and despite the fact that he promised to and subsequently made the Fertittas multi billionaires, they do not like looking bad.
Neither of the primary owners particularly like that in every headline it clearly says "UFC Fighter" at the beginning of each one.
More than that, they do not like seeing the acronym for the money making empire that they have created, and invested so heavily in: "The UFC." The very name is synonymous with Mixed Martial Arts, and of course, currently the sexiest professional sport in the world.
The Oregonian, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens more. These papers basically take the UFC news in most cases, and bury it on page 17 of the sports section.
But this is bigger than that. Sonnen has tackled bigger horizons than any of them ever thought he would, and has bitten off significantly more than he can chew. This has exceeded hyping a fight by leaps and bounds.
This is a horizon that no one in the room, and most fans, did not even conceive, way back when it was announced the Chael would meet the current middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva.
Although the stacks of papers, Internet pages printed off, and press releases are heavy, one can still see several of the bold print headlines:
"UFC suspends superstar fighter Chael Sonnen."
"UFC's Chael Sonnen pleads guilty to money laundering."
"UFC Fighter Sonnens say Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer."
"Kizer denies knowing UFC fighter Chael Sonnen!"
This is the type of pub that money cannot buy, and when they say that any publicity, is good publicity, well,they do not run "Zuffa" (the parent company of the UFC). I think the men in the room would respectfully disagree.
In my mind, I imagine that they are miffed at what has transpired, and unable, like you and I, to predict what the future will hold. There is a deadly silence. In the background hangs something none of us may ever see...
The UFC roster ratings tree.
You see, nowadays, in the UFC, pay-per-view buy potential is what "gets you over," to steal an old professional wrestling term to describe one's fate in the grand scheme.
At some point and time, the ability to captivate the viewing public into wanting to see you fight, became the guideline for moving up the rankings.
At some point and time, the UFC began using the popularity and/or the villainy of fighters, and the amount of personality that the fighters have, to decide who ultimately would fight in the main events of pay per views, and of course, get the majority of the exposure in the meantime.
For a fighter, exposure, mainstream appeal, fan base level, and "Main Event" status is critical to get what it is that all professional athletes go after...Cash. Fame. Historical Credit.
But it was created in this very room, by these very people. The people who bought this company, when MMA was in the dark ages, and highly misunderstood by the masses, and made it a household name, and a cultural shift.
It was created using the very rating ladder that hangs on the back wall behind the powers that be, sitting, quietly, in deep thought. Quite possibly by accident.
It may have been Tito Ortiz, it also may have been Brock Lesnar. It started somewhere along the way.
But at some point certain individuals on the UFC roster began to understand that if the entire fan base want to see you get "shut up," they would be a powerful tool in your attempt to get a high-profile fight.
Someone behind the scenes noticed that fighters with abrasive personalities were dis-appreciated by the crowd, and that a natural villain character, really goes great on the other side of a poster from a white-hat-wearing hero of the people.
In Professional Wrestling, they have of course known this for years. They call a good guy a "babyface," and a bad guy a "heel." Years ago, these were terms that the general public did not know at all.
They have come to light more over the years with the release of the great secret, and the admission that it was scripted endings, and choreography and stunts all along.
(It was more a confirmation, than a discovery. People knew it was hard on the body, but not real all along, but it had never been made public knowledge.)
The UFC, whether we all want to admit it or not, borrows a lot of the things that made pro wrestling and boxing famous, and a smooth television, and pay per view phenomenon.
The walk to the ring to music, while showing off ones originality, is a great example. The fighters pick a music selection, and once it starts, the crowd goes wild. The crowd identifies who will be coming down by this music. Hmmm...sound familiar?
What about the long winded introduction from the announcer? The stare down at the weigh ins? Back and forth barbs between the fighters in the media? These were all promotional tools of the trade long before Mixed Martial Arts had a name.
But what actually makes it different is that in the UFC it is real. Probably too real for regular folks, in fact.
The dieting, the training, the grueling schedule, the life in the spotlight, the money, the temptations, the competitive divisions, and the fights against the best in the world take a constant emotional, physical and mental toll.
It also requires the work toward perfection in many disciplines, rather than just having to box.
This is not a scripted world. The endings, and more so, the beatings are real. The man standing across from you, is genuinely trying to take your head off.
The commentators are actually reporting to the world. The reporters are legitimately recording history. The tape does not lie. This is reality on a grand scale.
It is becoming bigger than boxing ever was, and of course it is not scripted or predetermined as is pro wrestling (which, like it or not, was hugely popular in its day).
At some point and time, in the lead up to the fight with Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen, who is a well spoken and educated man, began to realize that he could take a turn in the spotlight, by simply showing his own personality and going out on a limb by presenting himself as a force to be reckoned with, and a no nonsense, all around tough guy.
And at first, the UFC loved it. I believe that they encouraged it. The ratings numbers were coming in hot, and the MMA community was in the limelight.
People everywhere were talking about the brash, cocky, confident young man, who was taking on a legend in Anderson Silva.
The Brazilian, Silva, is our era's Sugar Ray Robinson. So good, that he seems unbeatable at times.
So unorthodox and ahead of his time, he almost makes fighting look easy. Quiet. Mysterious. Successful. Rich. Appreciated. Talented. Visionary. A true one of a kind.
Chael began to use his own command of the English language to call out Silva at every turn. He claimed Silva spoke perfect English. He claimed that Silva was bored with being the Champion of the Division.
He stoked the fire further by continuously mentioning that Silva fought Demian Maia, and disrespected the fan base, the world, and the UFC, in his previous fight. I mean, there are villains and heroes out there, but this was cerebral attack.
It was a personal attack on someone who had taken a bit of criticism before, but had never been challenged like this.
But people tuned in, and kept jamming the mic in Chael's face. He was a quote like the scribes had never seen before. Confident. Legit. Intelligent. He talked a game like no other.
But the Monster began to take out his aggression and motive, in an attempt to draw in even the most casual fan. People believed, in part due to the fact that he was planning on running for political office in his home state of Oregon.
People found themselves listening to it. People began to enjoy it, and clamor for more.
He did not leave the attacks to just his upcoming opponent. He then attacked Brock Lesnar. He attacked Lance Armstrong, and made remarks about him giving himself Cancer using steroids. I mean, if there was ever a line, he crossed it, in a simple attempt to draw attention to his name.
Then as it blew up, the eccentric in him came out. He denied it, despite it being on record. He began to go too far. He began simply spitting out venom at every one he was asked about.
As he put out one fire of controversy, another began. And another. And more yet.
I know what you are thinking at this point. Did the UFC cause Chael to do anything?
The answer is no. Not really. Not exactly.
But the current system is a popularity contest, with different nuances. The ability to sell pay per views, and $3,500 seats in arenas, in not something every fighter has, whether he is good or bad.
You have heard the expression "15 minutes of fame."
In the UFC, not only do you have to get noticed in your 15 minutes, you have to win a fight, stay away from negative press, and try to sell the fight in doing so, train, diet, and stay on the straight and narrow, despite your newfound fame.
It is not easy, and some do it brilliantly. Chael failed miserably.
If the rankings in each division were to be published they would reveal a lot of things that the UFC does not want you to know. I call it the "Jon Fitch" clause.
Jon Fitch is a fighter that has lost one fight in his UFC career, to Georges St. Pierre. Jon is monumentally respected and talented. His style is low key, and so is his approach. He is quiet, humble, and hard working.
You probably could not find an approach more opposite to Sonnen than Fitch. (other than the great base discipline of Wrestling, of course)
And therein lies the problem. Nobody wants to see Jon get beat again by Georges. Worse yet, given his wrestling and body control style, they really do not want to see him as the champ.
The vast majority of his fights are won, by engaging his opponents in a war of attrition, and attacking them using a great cardio and endurance base.
When you couple the lack of personality with the style you get a fighter that is great that suffers from a lack of appeal in the mainstream. Most of his fights are quiet decision wins, sometimes on the undercard.
There are dozens of guys like this on the roster, and several were recently passed by so that Josh Koscheck could take a second shot at Georges St Pierre, in the place where a villain is truly reviled, and St Pierre is a Saint.
Montreal, Quebec. The home of the white hat wearing, French Canadian hero.
It is not exclusive to that division. It is in all of them.
Without sanctioned and endorsed rankings the fans do not know who "should" be fighting whom. Nor do we always know for what.
We do get great match ups. That is not what I am indicating. The match ups are fan friendly, and of course they are there to sell pay-per-view matches. We, as the fans ultimately get the matches we want to see. Is it legit?
No. It has nothing to do with legitimacy. Even boxing, with all of its problems, corruption, and alphabet of organizations, publishes it rankings.
When you watch a boxing match, you know that if the number 5 ranked fighter loses to the number 6, he should take that spot in the rankings.
Chael saw this opening, and jumped on it. But at some point and time it got away from him. He fought the match and after winning every round for the first four, tried to take a shortcut, and was submitted in the final round.
He was shortly afterward caught, tested positive for PEDs, and was immediately suspended. (a suspension he later had reduced). Still, it was a shortcut nonetheless.
Recently, he has been in the headlines for a real estate deal gone bad, and has been suspended. There is actually a never ending stream of Chael Sonnen press out there.
The facts seem to indicate that Chael is someone who seems to constantly be looking for a shortcut. That is of course not the fault of the UFC.
But the system...ahh yes...the system. Chael was not the first, and he certainly will not be the last.
The men in this room have inadvertently created a monster. Its a heck of a lot bigger and nastier than Chael Sonnen.
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