The cornerstone of any wrestling promotion is a strong babyface. From the WWWF's Bruno Sammartino in the 60's and early 70's to the WWF's Hulk Hogan and NWA's Dusty Rhodes in the 80's to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Sting in the 90's all the way up to today's John Cena, pro wrestling's lifeblood is built on how strong your babyface is and how much can he draw. The key to a strong babyface is compelling the audience night in and night out to shell out money to see you "fight". A weak babyface can't accomplish that which leads to less money coming in for all parties.
A big difference between pro wrestling and MMA is that one is pre-determined and one is real. Shocking revelation, I know, however that refers to the in-ring part of the respective "sports". Funny thing is, as much as MMA and MMA fans want to distance themselves from "wrasslin'", both entities are cut from the same cloth. As I've stated on numerous occasions, MMA is not in the "pure sport" business, they are in what I have coined the "entertaining sport" business. This is the exact opposite of pro wrestling which puts on entertainment and presents it as a sport; MMA puts on a sport and presents it as entertainment. Both businesses depend just as much on the entertainment outside of the ring as they do on the in-ring product.
Anderson Silva is a babyface; however he doesn't draw the numbers a dominant champion like he should. There are many theories as to why that happens; some blame language, some blame race. My theory is that Anderson isn't as strong a face needed to get fans to by his shows. One of the tenets of a good babyface, in fact the biggest one, is pathos; getting the paying crowd to emotionally connect with you as a fighter. Fans of pro wrestling remember seeing King Kong Bundy break Hulk Hogan's ribs before Wrestlemania 2. Most logical fans knew that Hogan would win because it was the biggest PPV of the year and the babyface always goes over, however Hogan was able to give glimmers of doubt as to if he would actually win in his moments of weakness. That draws fans into purchasing PPVs.
Anderson Silva, by all accounts, is a cold methodic assassin in the UFC cage. While he has been hurt, and beaten, outside the UFC, most fans of today don't recall those moments. His UFC career is full of the dissection of greats such as Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson. The problem is after beating Rich; most fans didn't give anyone a chance to beat him in those fights. So why tune in? Why pay to see a man destroy his opponents? It got so bad that Silva resorted to dancing around the ring, avoiding contact just to make his fights longer. Bill Goldberg faced similar problems as a juggernaut during his WCW days, however most of his matches were on free TV and he was never really pushed as the main event as champion.
Anderson, outside of fighting, isn't much help either. While he does have a goofy and fun-loving personality, he hasn't really shown that in the UFC. He has a physical charisma, but he's hindered by his inability to speak to the highly English-speaking crowd. Again, this is very much in tow with Bill Goldberg who, by many accounts, was a terrible "promo". Anderson's face appeal has relapsed to the point where he is getting "heel heat" (boos) from the crowd making him a "tweener" (person in between face and heel). Tweeners have not drawn well in the history of wrestling and the only solution is to "turn" Silva heel (much like Frank Mir has done). Problem with that is Silva's personality is not that of a great heel, despite his perception as "arrogant". So what do you do with an ineffective babyface champion in MMA? You match him up against a strong heel.
Enter Chael Sonnen. The relative unknown to casual fans is a heel Vince McMahon would be proud to have under his wing. For every Hulk Hogan, there was Andre the Giant, for every Sting, there was Ric Flair. A strong heel is just as important, some say more, as a strong face. The main tenet of a strong heel is working the fans into such a frenzy that they get behind the babyface and will pay money to see the face whip up on the heel. This is exactly what Sonnen did in the buildup to this fight. He attacked Silva from the moment he won the number one contender match. Sonnen went on a rampage, attacking Silva, his training partners the Nogueira brothers, his manager Ed Soares, Silva's past opponents in Rich Franklin and Patrick Cote and even went, in the minds of the rational, past the line of promotion in his culturally insensitive and xenophobic remarks about Brazil, its culture and Portuguese.
Many, including yours truly, grew annoyed and repulsed by Sonnen's words while he was embraced by others. Silva, to his part, remained cool and did not lash out and respond simply saying "We'll see at the fight." Weeks and weeks of this passed; Sonnen kept talking and Silva kept genuflecting. And then a funny thing happened. A fight that most had written off as "passable" and a "non-buy" had suddenly started to garner interest in the press. As it moved into the final week, the talk for many moved from "How bad is Anderson going to kick Sonnen's ass?" to "How bad do I want Anderson to kick Sonnen's ass?" Chael appeared on ESPN and Jim Rome's radio show to sell the fight with increasingly over-the-top antics. In his last attempt to sell the fight, Chael attempted the MMA equivalent of attacking the old lady in the crowd by saying Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer by taking PEDs and then blatantly denied it. That was the final straw. Now Chael Sonnen must die.
Sonnen had done his part as the heel; there was a buzz about the fight. However, if Anderson were to have gone into the cage and destroyed Sonnen, it would've proved a momentary increase in face status (similar to the post-Griffin bump). No, for this to work, Chael was going to have to back up his words and bring the fight to Silva. If Hogan goes in and beat on King Kong Bundy for four minutes and beats him 1-2-3, it means the whole build was for nothing, Hogan did what we thought he would. Same with Silva, he goes back to the world-beater we already knew him to be. What Silva needed to do was show major weakness, show the fans he had an Achilles heel, he had Kryptonite. A similar occurrence happened at UFC 116 with Lesnar and it needed to happen here. And it did.
In a fight that couldn't have been better scripted by Dusty Rhodes himself, we saw exactly what needed to happen; Anderson was shown in a weak spot. For 24 minutes, Sonnen beat on Anderson. Starting with an opening punch that stumbled Silva to takedown after takedown, Sonnen dominated the 1st round. That wouldn't be enough as Lutter and Henderson had already done similar to Silva before losing. Sonnen came out and took him down again and again for the next 3 rounds. Anderson, in between takedowns, showed some "hope spots" (moves to show the fans he's not completely out of it) when he rocked Sonnen and cut him with an elbow from the bottom. It kept building and building until the fans were at a fever pitch, the champion was seconds away from losing. Then the unthinkable happened.
As if it were straight out of a movie, the battered champion rose to the occasion and pulled off a submission against the man who dominated him for the entire fight and retained his title. And the fans roared. Sonnen had done his job. He didn't win the title, but he put Anderson over. He put a chink in Anderson's armor and that endears you to the fans more than anything. Fans don't want a perfect hero, an infallible superman; if so, what would be the point in watching? Immediately after, fans voiced their desires for a rematch, when was the last time you heard anybody clamoring for an Anderson Silva title defense at 185?
Anderson Silva still has barriers keeping him from becoming a Lesnar/GSP type megastar (lack of English being a big one), but after the heart and perseverance he showed on Saturday, there's no doubt that the UFC fan is a fan of Silva. Where he goes from here is uncertain, what is certain is that despite not winning the title, Chael Sonnen did his job.
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