UFC 117 Preview: The Kayfabe of Chael Sonnen - Putting Anderson Silva Over

Chael Sonnen has never met or spoken to the man on his right, Larry Pepe of Pro MMA Radio.

In professional wrestlingkayfabe (pronounced /ˈkeɪfeɪb/) is the portrayal of events within the industry as "real". That is, the portrayal of professional wrestling as being genuine or not worked. Referring to events or interviews as being a "chore" means that the event/interview has been "kayfabed" or staged, or is part of a wrestling angle while being passed off as legitimate.

I was discussing Chael Sonnen's Lance Armstrong remarks and his shameless denial of them to Jim Rome -- despite them being recorded -- with a gobsmacked MMA insider today and realized that unless you have an admirer's understanding of propaganda, PR, promotion and politics, you've really never seen anything like Chael in the build up to this fight.

The closest analogue to all that in combat sports is, of course, pro wrestling. In boxing, fight hyping is pretty much still limited to Muhammad Ali style braggadocio (ironically developed by a young Cassius Clay by watching pro wrestler Gorgous George) that James Toney is bringing into the UFC. 

But many MMA fans come strictly from the sporting side and aren't familiar with the hall of mirrors quality of post-kayfabe "sports entertainment" pro wrestling where the fact that the fans are in on the joke and no one bothers to pretend it's "real" except in the loosest possible sense.

Me personally I get this stuff because I read a lot of post-structuralist and deconstructionist  theory in college. But others understand this because they watched a lot of pro-wrestling in the last 15 years or worked in politics. 

Cage Side Seats gives the best summary of the state of the Chael here:

Sonnen's interviews have been snowballing into a perfect storm of attention-whoring weirdness.  He goes off on racist, xenophobic, and borderline homophobic (sometimes outright homophobic) rants.

This past week, especially with the comments about Lance Armstrong that he's denied making, it's all come to a head, as he's hit the point where he comes off as either mentally unbalanced or a ridiculous conman worthy of nobody's trust.  Sure, he'd had similar incidents in the past, but invoking Lance Armstrong in the week before a huge fight has shone the spotlight on his antics ever more than before.    

They go on to document Sonnen's many denials that what he's doing is modeled on pro wrestling, but as we've seen with Chael, just about the only things you can believe about him are the ones he's denied. According to rumors coming out of Team Quest, the team there is very proud of Sonnen's efforts to put the fight over although they have cringed at some of his comments -- not coincidentally the same ones Sonnen later denied making. 

Zack Arnold says Chael has just internalized the con man's art of the kayfabe:

Chael Sonnen says stupid things for his own enjoyment and amusement. He does it because he knows the media will react to whatever he says now. He takes pride in the 'shock value' of the impact of what he says on unknowing chattering heads (like Josh Elliott on yesterday's 8 AM SportsCenter broadcast).

However, like all good con men, Chael Sonnen does the following:

  • He starts one con, gets people focused on that, and by the time the media is done focusing on the first con he's already on the second con, and the cycle repeats.
  • He starts to believe his own con and attempts to con his own con. ("Con the Con" sounds as catchy as Suzy Quatro's "Can the Can" song.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again about Chael Sonnen - he's treating his job right now the same way veteran pro-wrestlers look at their life. Everything is a work. Everyone is a mark. Enjoy the reactions to what people have to say to what you say. Start believing your own work to make it more realistic. The more out of control, the more the media will pay attention to you.


Like all good con men, Sonnen knows that he has to stay ‘relevant' in order for people to listen, which is exactly what he did when he trashed Lance Armstrong. Armstrong has been in the news lately because the US Federal Government is going after him for doping.


Everyone's a mark and wants to get worked. That's why Chael gets away with what he does because the ‘fish' think they are getting some benefit out of it, too. And when a media member isn't your mark and playing along, just brush them off and ignore them.

Cage Side Seats points out that when you look into the abyss the abyss also looks into you:

I see Arnold's interpretation as being the most realistic. Just because Sonnen is being ridiculous on purpose to draw attention to himself doesn't mean that he's not at least a little nuts. I'd like to avoid pro wrestling examples here, but they're probably the most apropos. Hulk Hogan has turned his interviews into a can you top this game of telling the most ridiculous lie he can, from Andre the Giant dying days after their Wrestlemania III match (it was close to 6 years later), possibly from being bodyslammed (seriously?) to Andre the Giant (sense a theme?) defecating in a bathtub and nearly filling it up (not humanly possible). At times, it seems like there's no indication that he knows he's lying, and he lies when it's not necessary. On numerous occasions, Bryan Alvarez has told the story of Hulk Hogan selling a (worked) knee injury in a secluded area where he could not have had any knowledge that anyone could see him (Alvarez was a good distance away at just the right vantage point).

But ultimately the thing that matters to fans is that suddenly this fight is very compelling. Even though Chael is in many ways a poor man's Dan Henderson there is definitely more heat for this bout than there was for Silva's title defense against Dan at UFC 82.

Cage Side Seat's King Matt describes how the pre fight press conference came alive when Anderson Silva finally got intense in return. Read his description and tell me that fans aren't getting pumped up for this fight.

If you're baffled or angry at Chael Sonnen but you're planning on watching the fight now when you hadn't been initially or you were watching anyway but are no invested in the fight, you'll see his game plan has worked.

Coincidentally Chael is also a failed candidate for political office. The most blatant bald-face lying I've ever seen has come from politics in recent years. Like this classic bit from Hardball when Tom DeLay denied making statements that were in his book, while Chris Matthews held the book and read from it.

Sonnen has blended politics and pro-wrestling to create a state of the art fight hyping performance.

One just wonders if he's lost his mind in the process.


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