At Bellator NYC, Chael Sonnen will be facing the one guy in the room not in on the joke. Or, at least, the one guy in the room who doesn’t find the joke funny.
The cat was out of the bag long ago on Chael Sonnen’s heel act. It’s no big secret. Over the years, he has carried a fake belt, gone off on talk show hosts, trash talked the best fighters in the sport, all to keep himself relevant — and frankly, for longer than he should have been, in the title picture. In the UFC, it earned him shots against Anderson Silva and Jon Jones (though it was after the first Silva fight that Chael the Heel really blossomed).
In Bellator MMA, it has earned him fights against Tito Ortiz and Wanderlei Silva, two fighters long in the tooth but still some of the biggest draws in the promotion.
Plenty of Sonnen’s opponents over the years have gotten his act. Oh, they acted predictably annoyed when he was going through the motions, but even the most serious of them understood that what Sonnen does simply lines their pocket books. After all, MMA is as much P.T. Barnum as it is a sporting contest, to use a comparison that for once doesn’t invoke pro wrestling.
We don’t call it “selling a fight” for nothing. In order to sell a fight, there has to be something the sell, and performance alone doesn’t always cut it.
Does Sonnen sometimes go too far? Sure, but most fighters and fans are capable of forgiving him for it. Now it’s time for the inevitable wrestling comparison: in the pro wrestling world, the easiest way to get some cheap “heat” is to trash talk whatever city you happen to be performing in that night. Fans might heckle and boo, because it’s fun, and a communal experience, but htey get it. They’re in on the joke, they know it’s cheap heat.
Sonnen essentially began to take the cheap heat route with the nation of Brazil a few years ago, and ruffled some feathers. Most fans eventually got it, but to Wanderlei Silva, it crossed a line.
So here we are, years after Sonnen referred to Silva as a pile of crap, with the most interesting of freakshow fights. Because one of the participants is legitimately furious with the antics of his opponent, who is playing (an albeit clownish) role.
It may not have much effect on the outcome — a fight is a fight, after all. He may go out of his way to promote bouts pro wrestling style before hand, but he’s still willing to get in the cage with anyone, and that’s one thing you have to admire.
Yet the dynamic between Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva has been extremely interesting to study, as far as the minute details go, in the build up to Bellator NYC. Sonnen has been as vocal as ever, but has been much gentler on the subject of Brazil. He was more than willing to flirt with a Brazilian reporter at today’s press conference, but when the inevitable scuffle came at the press conference, you could see him anticipating it, and holding back — no doubt aware that things could really get out of hand. There’s no wink and a nudge here, no work leading into the real fight. Chael Sonnen seems all too aware that the fight itself could be in danger, should The Axe Murderer lose his cool.
It’s maybe the one aspect of Bellator NYC’s main event that makes it genuinely compelling. Despite featuring two fighters who are over the hill, there’s a real sense that anything could happen Saturday. And the allure of the unknown — well, that’s everything P.T. Barnum could hope for and more.