The gimmick. It's been a part of professional wrestling since its incarnation into what it is today, an entertainment driven industry that revolves around dramatic storylines and feuds between differing groups of characters. Many mixed martial arts fans liken the entertainment aspect of their sport to professional wrestling, but make it clear that the combat aspect of the sport is what has caused its explosion of growth. In a nutshell, it's professional wrestling on steroids, or testosterone replacement therapy if we want to be more accurate with the times.
Gimmicks are somewhat of a newer concept to mixed martial arts. While we've had the Phil Baroni's, Ikuhisa Minowa's, and Jason 'Mayhem' Miller's of the sport, nobody has achieved the over-the-top charm of professional wrestling's greatest stars. Former UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen may be the first to prove that gimmicks do have a place in the sport however. He was able to build huge interest around a title fight with Anderson Silva with cunning trash talking skills, and his return to the sport this month has been highlighted by a return of his trash talking ways, throwing PRIDE legend Wanderlei Silva under the bus while making fun of the Nogueira brothers.
There have been few fighters who have proclaimed that the game of creating false hype is for losers. But in reality, it's for those who have smartly realized that creating false hype fuels viewership and pay-per-view buys. Chael Sonnen's campaign against Anderson Silva in the lead-up to UFC 117 accompanied by his dominant win over Nate Marquardt previously helped trend buys between 600,000 and 1,000,000. There was some help on the main card, but Sonnen's sudden rise to relevance along with his mouth has been a pleasant surprise for the UFC's brass, especially since Sonnen wasn't impressively putting away guys during his stint in the WEC two years prior.
Sonnen's recent interview with Ariel Helwani shied some fans away from the lure of the gimmick, mainly because it's the first time we've truly seen Sonnen talk in length about various aspects of his future while in full gimmick mode. Veins popping from his neck, the loud tone of his voice, and the constant criticism of his fellow fighters, pound-for-pound rankings, and commissions. I wouldn't fault him for the pound-for-pound argument, I hate those rankings as well, but there is a fine line with combat sports fans that was crossed in the interview.
What do fans want in the lead-up to a fight? Obviously, animosity fuels interest, but in Sonnen's case -- he's embraced the pro-wrestling mantra of pre-fight hype to epic proportions. Some analysts believe the sport needs that type of hype to draw interest and maintain growth, others believe it's a drag on the sport's legitimacy. In my mind, it's so over-the-top that it takes away from the reality of the sport. The reality is what draws fans.
I've heard the likeness to Brock Lesnar's antics as a comparison to what Sonnen is trying to achieve. It doesn't add up. Lesnar never put on his best Ultimate Warrior impression. He was simply disliked from the start, mainly because he was a convert from pro wrestling with a vaunted amateur wrestling background who many felt didn't run parallel with the motto that technique beats brute force. His in-your-face finger pointing and foaming at the mouth after defeating Frank Mir at UFC 100 wasn't a staged spectacle. It was a real hatred for his opponent, a showing of the arrogance that Lesnar truly possesses, not a fake facade. Hate Lesnar if you want, but he created a real emotional response to the criticism from fans and his opponents.
UFC 132 also featured a feud between Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz, although it wasn't on public display in the form of a shoving match at the weigh-ins. It was much less subdued and controlled within the environment of interviews and Youtube! videos. An eventual showdown between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans should be the type of storyline that fans want to see. A mutual dislike for one another that was once a friendship stemming from training. While they weren't best friends, it's obvious that their previous sessions together has helped stir the kettle. It's a real story with real characters who want to hurt each other.
I suppose the question is whether the sport needs the pro wrestling style hype to truly grow. I could do without it, but I'm also not blind to the realities of what the UFC is trying to achieve along with its fighters. They want to get paid the big bucks, the cut in the pay-per-view profits, and working a gimmick seems to make those dreams come true. But are fans going to be turned off by interviews featuring an over-the-top gimmick that is similar to Chael Sonnen? Is that where the sport is heading?
The debate revolves around the idea that it's difficult to create stars. Perhaps it is simply difficult to create stars in general. Why is there such a hard press to create a star out of a fighter who may not actually ever become a huge star? Maybe there is a ceiling that only a select few, maybe only a couple of fighters can ever break through. I doubt we'll ever see an era where 7 to 10 guys achieve such greatness, drawing massive pay-per-view numbers despite the problem that fans just don't have the money to buy 2 or 3 pay-per-views a month.
Boxing has the same problems. Trash talk and entertainment value certainly help, but I think the real entertainment value is the showmanship inside the ring. Mike Tyson's ability to knock guys out inside one round created fans out of thin air. People who didn't even watch boxing tuned in for his fights. The UFC doesn't have that type of talent in their ranks at this point. Jon Jones may be a fighter who can achieve that greatness.
I hope, however, that it isn't achieved by gimmicky antics, but by his real personality. Perhaps I'm overstating the intelligence of the fanbase, but I think fans realize when they are being dragged through the proverbial gutter. Will it have an adverse effect on the sport? Probably not, and it will likely add to the viewership because who doesn't want to see the most hated fighters in MMA get trounced by a more technically skilled fighter. Unfortunately, we'll have to endure the ridiculous fluff of over-the-top pre-fight hype to see it. And I'm willing to bet that fans will get sick of it, sick of the fabricated hate that was created to help us enjoy the fights.