I'm not sure if Sonnen's mind is as keen in the cage as it appears to be outside of it. It's a strange paradox; a fighter so limited in ability yet a voice so collectively unfettered. Perhaps that's why his words have to be so dynamic. Because without them, his presence would fade from our consciousness. Kind of like in his prizefights.
A lot of observers took issue with Sonnen's presence for UFC 159. He was coming off a loss at a lower weight to Anderson Silva in a fight that wasn't even redeeming. Chael famously checked out with a spinning back elbow attempt that Pierre de Fermat would find more baffling than his 'Last Theorem'. And somehow, after a late notice fight with Jon Jones for UFC 151 that slipped away, he not only got the fight back, but was rewarded with coaching the Ultimate Fighter to further promote the bout.
It was hard to take the outrage seriously by observers who consider themselves 'high brow'. As Dana White likes to say, as if the motto has a Latin translation only philosophers and scientists understand how to use, "this is the fight business". It's a way of addressing the critics, of explaining to them how business and entertainment don't always mix with merit. You sell the fights fans want to see. And if the fans want to see "WWE pageantry" (as Rogan called it during Loud Noises), then that's what they'll get.
That's not my problem with Chael. The problem with Sonnen is much deeper. I don't want to spend a lot of time writing about Chael's perceived 'racism'. A much better article has been written about it, and I don't specialize in social commentary.
But it's worth emphasizing because the UFC still has a culture problem. And Chael has been a contributing force. It's not just that he'd use words like "piglet tribe of savages" directed at a Brazillian, it's that he routinely straddles the line. Some fans seem to think it's harmless, or that critics like Tomas Rios and Tim Marchman are just playing the race card. A claim that simply reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates' words in response, "If you don't think racism is an actual force in the country, then you can only understand it's invocation as a tactic."
And that seems to be the word of the day; rhetoric. It amazes me how Sonnen's supporters will laud, and praise his skilled use of language, yet deny that any connotation, either insidious or suggestive, could exist within. Coming from a Sociology major, this is substantially doubtful.
The broader point for the sport itself is that fans feel like these cheap theatrics are necessary. That somehow your prizefight is only as good as the heat underlining its promotion.
True, sure, but at what cost? if the message sent to fighters is that promotion trumps performance, what incentive does a fighter have to perform, when he/she can promote instead? And if the philosophy you project to fighters is that drama, and conflict can only be vindictive, and hateful, then you will foster vindictive, hateful behavior. Such a message is bound to bring out the worst in people, prejudices and all.
Buried on the undercard with little fanfare was Sara McMann. Though she got off to a rocky start, she sealed the victory in impressive fashion with a mounted crucifix. McMann's an interesting inverse of Sonnen's presence (her dignified bow at the end even more symobolic). For a division so nascent, it's very easy to envision a parallel world where the first American woman to win Olympic Silver talked her way into a title shot against Ronda Rousey before Liz Carmouche. She's been vocal in her own way, not about promoting herself, but about staying true to herself.
Cynics will roll their eyes in response, but rather than being trite, it's pragmatic. Perhaps McMann understands what Sonnen doesn't. That the louder your words, the more weight you give them, and with every vindictive term, another expectation to burden you until the weight of your language becomes just another opposing force in the cage. Maybe this is what explains Sonnen's failures on the big stage (and off). And maybe this is why we may have seen the last of Chael Sonnen in the octagon.