Chael Sonnen holds up his replica UFC championship belt and plays to the crowd at the UFC on FOX 2 pre-fight press conference on Jan. 26, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois.
It wasn't long ago that I was touting Chael Sonnen for his "pro wrestling genius." And at the time I wrote that piece, I had a good reason to feel that way. He was at the height of his game, having just delivered a promo that became an instant classic.
Now? Not so much.
It's not that he's all that different than he was before. Quite the opposite, in fact. He's just as wily and eager to please as ever. But it would seem that he's gotten a little too into his own character. In pro wrestling speak, since that's the parallel we're drawing here (because it's the one that applies best), he's become a bit of a mark for himself.
At the UFC on Fox 2 pre-fight press conference, as well as in interviews with various members of the mixed martial arts (MMA) media, Sonnen would go off on tangents, seemingly out of nowhere. It's not even that he was answering questions with quick-witted responses that made fans chuckle. He carefully scripted spots that he was going to deliver come hell or high water, even if that meant cutting people off to shout his message into the microphone.
As my esteemed colleague Jesse Holland noted here yesterday, Sonnen jumped the shark. He became a parody of himself in one press conference.
On top of his usual schtick (which badly needs to be updated with some new material, by the way), Chael literally turned into a rapper. This man sat at the podium and spit rhymes like they were hot fire in an attempt to ... well ... I'm not sure why he did it.
And that's the problem. I'm as big a fan of a good promo as any but if you don't have a good reason to say what you're saying, then you shouldn't open your mouth. Sonnen seems to have lost touch with that. Essentially, he stopped promoting the fight and made himself a spectacle.
Let's break down what a good promo should be and how Sonnen has gone away from that.
(I'm going to add a disclaimer here just because this subject matter seems to piss off a great deal of MMA fans. Here's the thing: When Sonnen is cutting pro wrestling style promos and he's admitting to doing as much -- and even trying to walk out to the cage with a famous pro wrestler -- I'm going to analyze him through that lens.)
Pro wrestling is built on the premise that two guys are going to have a match at a show and you should pay to watch it. Simple enough, right? That's no different than MMA, really. Chael Sonnen is going to fight Michael Bisping and you should pay to see it.
But why should you pay for it? What reason do you have?
That's where pro wrestling got creative and eventually developed into what most of you have seen at some time or another throughout your lives. Someone comes out to the ring, picks up a microphone and cuts a promo designed to get you to care about his match against so-and-so, who also gets his chance to cut a promo to accomplish the same goal.
When it works, everyone makes a lot of money and everybody wins.
So what constitutes a good promo?
The best will find a way to work in the four W's -- the who, what, when and the where, while also giving you, the fan, a reason to care about why the match is taking place. I'll give you a recent example in video form.
Here's Triple H cutting a great promo on CM Punk (there's some fluff before and after it but the part I'm referring to starts at 11:34 and ends at 12:13):
Here's the text from the vid that I'm referring to:
"This isn't business, it's personal. You made it personal. I tried to keep it business, you made it into a personal issue. That's why this Sunday, you are going to step into the ring -- no disqualification, anything goes -- with me. Not the business man, not the COO, not the multiple time world champion, not 'The Game;' quite frankly and quite simply, just a man. A man you insulted and a man that is going to kick your ass."
Those lines, delivered with the necessary passion and emphasis, really drove home why the ensuing match was something we should care about. Triple H tried to keep things business but CM Punk made it personal and insulted him. Because of this, Triple H is going to kick Punk's ass this Sunday.
The message was built to and delivered in a manner so as to make it nearly impossible not to have an emotional reaction and attachment to it. That's why it works. That's why it makes money.
Sonnen on the other hand, while making sure at times to let folks know when the fight is, would simply hijack the microphone and deliver some terribly cheesy lines that were scripted to sound a lot better than they did:
"You're looking at the reflection of perfection, the one that gets all your attention.
You're looking at the man with the biggest arms, the man with the greatest charm,
And the man who came to Chicago to do a lot of harm to the guy three doors down."
"Maybe I can ask a question, maybe I can ask three of Michael Bisping,
First, what are going to do when you know who?
How are you gonna deal with the man of steel?
And how will you react to Sonnen's attack?"
He did this while screaming into the microphone like he was Hulk Hogan circa 1987. It wasn't a coherent promo designed to get us to care about the fight this Saturday night. It was Sonnen trying to figure out the best way to play to the crowd. And they reacted like marks, too, cheering on the ridiculous drivel that was spewing from his mouth.
To make matters worse, he did all this after bringing a replica UFC championship belt with him to the press conference and propped it up in front of him.
In pro wrestling, they can get away with all the theatrics and goofy storylines. Because you're already being asked to accept a match for it is -- an athletic exhibition between two guys who are putting on a show -- they can stretch the boundaries of what's acceptable. It's not rooted in reality.
With MMA, however, that's where it draws its larger adult audience from. The folks who grew out of the campy storylines pro wrestling offered and graduated to the visceral world of MMA, where you can watch two men climb inside a cage and spend 15 to 25 minutes doing their best to physically harm the other.
The fights themselves, though, are not enough to draw significant interest. Just like the wrestling matches aren't. Just like anything isn't, really. We, as human beings, have to always have a reason to feel invested in something, or it will never catch and keep our attention. The fights are great, sure, but we still need a reason to feel connected to a fight one way or the other. Watching two strangers fight is a lot different than watching your friend fight your enemy.
When I was touting Sonnen's pro wrestling style genius, I was doing so because he was manipulating the masses with a message they either did or did not approve of but one that was rooted in reality. He relentlessly called out Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva for being phony and harped on actual issues that many fans were already having, like the fact that Silva rarely does interviews in English, despite the fact that he can speak the language. To hear Sonnen riff on that is to connect with something real.
To watch him trot out to a press conference with a fake title belt calling himself the real champion and randomly busting out raps about how he has the biggest arms and the most charm is to watch him turn into a parody of himself. Somewhere down the line, it stopped being about Chael's quest to be both the middleweight champion and the "People's Champion." He first came to fame by trash-talking, yeah, but he did so with a clear message that had a purpose and was rooted in the truth.
Now he's talking just to talk. He's either trying to outdo himself or he likes the attention it brings him.
Are his antics ultimately promoting the fight? At this point, the answer has to be no. There are still quite a few folks who think he's brilliant and will hang on his every word like it's gospel. Hell, there are members of the MMA media who do that. But there is also a growing legion of folks who see and hear him do and say these things and simply shake their heads before finding something better to do with their time.
I liked it when Sonnen was calling out fighters for their faults. I liked when he was the no-nonsense guy who would say what no one else would because they didn't want to rock the boat.
I don't like the Sonnen who busts out silly raps and tries to be a modern day Hulk Hogan screaming into the microphone about how big his arms are and how charming he is. Why? Because it doesn't make me want to watch him fight, which is the point of all this in the first place.
If you want to cut pro wrestling style promos, at least do it right.