Mixed martial arts exists in a grey area, not quite sport, surely not mere spectacle. If Vince McMahon hadn't already stolen the phrase "sports entertainment" for his WWE wrestling promotion, it would be the perfect description of MMA. In MMA, there are no real top ten lists. Fighters are chosen for title shots at the promoter's whim, suffering the vagaries of fame and popularity, not able to rely on their own excellence to assure their advancement. And the most popular fighters are not always the best fighters, giving a promotion like the UFC the financial incentive to stifle a fighter for years if they don't think his style is entertaining or crowd pleasing.
As savvy fighters catch on to the marketing necessities that come with being a celebrity athlete in 2010, we've seen more and more creative fight promotion by the fighters themselves, independent of the UFC or Strikeforce. Look at Roy Nelson trying to insert himself into WWE storylines or Rashad Evans keeping his name in the headlines in the months between his last fight and his next one. But no one fighter has mastered fight marketing quite as well as Chael Sonnen. His epic build up to UFC 117 was so great, even a professional wrestling legend like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was left in awe of his work, telling Live Audio Wrestling that Sonnen sucked him in like no one had before:
When you look at what Chael Sonnen did going into that Anderson Silva fight, I love to watch Anderson Silva fight and always considered Sonnen such a grinder and great wrestler – he talked me into buying that fight because I wasn’t going to get that fight and that guys promos were just top notch, they couldn’t have been even better. A friend of mine, DDP, came to my house to watch that fight and we watched him kick Silva’s ass for four a half rounds and I kept saying to Dallas 'he's going to catch him with the arm and tap him out' and sure enough after getting throttled for four and a half rounds, he tapped Chael out and I was so emotionally invested in that fight it made me sick. But to go back to your promos, yes I love the way Chael did those promos, a shoot style promo when you’re trying to do business and sell tickets is the best approach.
There's danger in the Sonnen approach. Just like Stone Cold himself ushered in an era of "Stone Cold" anti-hero clones, each copycat leading to diminishing returns, there can only be one effective Chael Sonnen. Fighters need to find their own inner character and unleash him. It's not about being the "next" Chael Sonnen. It's about taking your own personality, amplifying it to ten, and letting loose a little. If a fighter is good enough, being able to let loose in interviews will be the difference between the main event on PPV and a match on the middle of the card on SPIKE television. The UFC will always promote the brand ahead of the fighter. But Chael Sonnen has shown fighters the road - it will be interesting to see how many follow it.
UPDATED: Jon Fitch tells the LA Times he has had a revelation:
...My only thinking is that if I’m not overwhelmingly, in the fans’ opinion, the guy who deserves it, then I have to win them over.”
“It kind of was a little bit of a recent revelation. There wasn’t an overwhelming rush of support after the Alves fight. That was kind of eye-opening. I handily beat the No. 3 in the world, and people are still not willing to thrust me into competition with GSP. Something’s missing.”
“It comes down to making money. If they don’t think they can make money off you, then they’re not going to give you those fights.”
The entire interview with Stone Cold can be heard in this week's edition of The LAW at http://www.thefightnetwork.