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Saturday Night's Mania Event: The pro wrestling style genius of Chael Sonnen

By now you've probably heard quite a few fans -- and just as many pundits -- tell you that UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen models himself after pro wrestlers. With his over the top interviews and larger than life personality, which is mostly fabricated, it's difficult to disagree with such a statement.

But how many truly know the extent of his pro wrestling genius?

I can imagine how many of you are checking out now, surely shaking your head at this subject matter. It's the old pro wrestling vs. MMA debate and whether or not the two actually have any discernible similarities. I'm not here to argue that, although it's important to note a few things.

Pro wrestling, while those that participate in it are athletes in the sense that they perform feats that require great athleticism, is not a sport. It's a form of entertainment, an art that few truly bother to ever really understand, even folks that call themselves fans.

MMA, on the other hand, is the pinnacle of sport. It represents the purest form of competition. One man's blood, sweat and tears against another man's blood, sweat and tears. It's violently romantic, a beautiful blend of carnage and fluid motion.

When putting it like that, how could the two possibly share a common bond?

The answer is in the promotion. The loose tie is tightened only when considering the nature of creating hype via savvy marketing. UFC President Dana White will admit to you that he borrowed heavily from the business model WWE head honcho Vince McMahon used to make his entertainment conglomerate a smashing pay-per-view success.

McMahon did so by eschewing pro wrestlers who knew how to work a match inside the ring for specialists with the gift of gab. Hulk Hogan, a name nearly all of you should know, certainly didn't rise to prominence because of his big boot and ensuing leg drop. In fact, his matches are widely regarded as the worst in main event level history.

But he had an aura about him and knew exactly how to turn a microphone into a tool to control the crowd that paid to see him. He made you want to spend your hard earned money to watch him wrestle even if you had never actually seen him wrestle. That's how charismatic he was when cutting his promos. His timing and delivery was -- and still is -- unmatchable. 

Chael Sonnen, who never would have been a star otherwise, used these principles to not only talk himself into a title shot against one of the greatest fighters that ever lived, but he turned himself into one of the biggest stars in the entire industry.

Rewind back to Feb. 21, 2009, and UFC 95 in London, England. Sonnen fought at that event, the second act on the main card of a free show on Spike TV. He was making his re-debut inside the Octagon for his second tour of duty and while he had grown since his initial stint with the promotion, it didn't show in that first fight back.

He was taken down and submitted just a few minutes into the contest.

This wasn't the same Sonnen, though. Sure, his Achilles heel had reared its ugly head once again to cost him a bout against a future title challenger. But his wrestling was as good as it had ever been and his mouth was as potent as it would ever be.

He quickly rebounded by accepting a short notice match-up against Dan Miller, gaining favor in the process, and outworking the New Jersey native en route to a decision victory.

It was around this time that Sonnen's tongue began working almost as hard as his takedowns.

Ensuing victories over Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, both dominant decision wins, lacked the excitement typical fight fans usually crave. But, again, he made up for this by selling his fights not with his abilities inside the cage but with his speaking skills outside of it.

Sounds familiar, no?

After his victory over Marquardt, Sonnen began unleashing verbal bombs on Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva. He did what no other 185-pound fighter in the UFC was willing to and he called "The Spider" out at every turn. He learned from notable pro wrestling promo artists like Rowdy Roddy Piper how to turn himself into a hot commodity. 

He did so by turning himself into a character.

The sporting enthusiasts among the MMA audience loathed him for his less than honest method of shameless self promotion. Sonnen utilized what's known as "kayfabe" -- the act of creating -- and never breaking -- character in order to better market himself to sell pay-per-views.

His game plan was carefully crafted. Silva, you see, had a reputation of his own as a supremely talented fighter that had no real respect for the fans. His abilities were otherworldly but if he felt unchallenged, he had a tendency to mail in performances.

When I say mail in, I mean openly mock his opponent, his employers, and all the fans in attendance and watching at home. He was loved for how unbelievably talented he is but hated for his perceived attitude as a bit of a diva. Silva can speak English, but rarely does so when conducting interviews. Instead, he uses a translator, his manager Ed Soares, who has a tendency to conveniently forget a word or two when relaying back what his fighter says. 

Sonnen saw and heard this and used it to his advantage. Chael, the man, may or may not have felt the same as fans but Chael, the character, lambasted Silva for his shortcomings in the media. He did so to endear himself to the wider audience, who had previously refused to accept him as an elite fighter. It's not that he wasn't but his style of fighting, which relies largely on a grappling heavy top control game, is the least aesthetically pleasing mixed martial art. So instead of making himself famous by spectacularly knocking out a band of elite middleweights like Silva did, he used timing, a microphone and marketing savvy to become the antihero that fans had been waiting for as a foil to the seemingly untouchable 185-pound king.

There were those that were terribly turned off by Sonnen's blatant insincerity. This group of people generally leaned toward hating his guts for even bringing this sort of behavior into the usually classy world of mixed martial arts. They wished nothing more than for Silva to give him his comeuppance.

And that, my friends, is the genius.

Sonnen managed to use pro wrestling influence to do what most modern day pro wrestlers can't even do -- he played both sides of the fence and made the largest audience possible want to pay to see him fight. He worked one group into thinking he was the perfect foil for Silva and his wrestling style would finally bring an end to the middleweight champions five year reign of terror. He worked the other group into enough of a frenzy that they simply wanted to watch "The Spider" destroy him once they finally stepped inside the cage and the talking stopped.

It was utterly brilliant.

The result of the fight, at that point and to his larger purpose, was immaterial. If he won, hey, he backed up his big talk. If he lost, whatever, he got a huge payday out of it and made himself into a media darling that will have a sustained career afterwards as a main event level draw. 

Sonnen would go on to lose that night at UFC 117 but not until he pounded away at Silva for four and a half rounds. He backed up every bit of his big talk by using the same game plan he flat out told the champion he would. Takedown, ground and pound, rinse and repeat.

But, in the fifth and final round, with the title within his grasp, Sonnen choked ... literally. He allowed himself to be snared up in a triangle and tapped to award his opponent the victory. Silva went home the champion, Sonnen went home having made himself a star and the UFC basked in the glow of a highly successful pay-per-view event.

Sonnen became even more like a pro wrestler when word came about that he failed a drug test for elevated levels of testosterone after the fight. It marred what was otherwise an unbelievable all around performance.

Controversy would follow, including Sonnen being busted for money laundering and lying in front of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). He would emerge relatively unscathed, though, as the reputation he had built beforehand was one of a liar, anyway. He broke kayfabe only every now and again and only long enough to earn himself the proper points to get back to where he needed to go.

Throughout the entire process, he never stopped calling out Silva. Despite losing to him by way of definitive submission, he maintained he would earn himself a rematch and finish the job he came so close to doing last year.

But how?

Silva and his management team played their cards smart by simply stating that other worthy contenders were available and fresh talent was emerging every day. Sonnen losing by way of submission, instead of say, controversial decision, didn't exactly give him much of a case for a rematch, even if he came closer than anyone to defeating the dominant champion.

Sonnen, though, a cerebral tactician with the ultimate goal always in mind, positioned himself perfectly once again to challenge his arch nemesis and earn a big payday in the process.

Here's how he did it.

He accepted a bout against Brian Stann at UFC 136 on Oct. 8 in Houston, Texas. This accomplished many things. For starters, Stann had been on an absolute tear leading into the fight and was widely considered a potential title challenger ... if he could win one or two more fights. Just as soon as he was paired up against Sonnen, the bout was announced as a number one contender match.

The bout was also booked to take place in the state of Texas, which has a notoriously lax athletic commission who wouldn't hesitate to clear Sonnen to fight by granting him his license. And they didn't.

The UFC was also holding a Fan Expo during the weekend, meaning all the big stars on the roster would make their way down and most of them would be in attendance for the fights.

Including Anderson Silva.

Finally, Sonnen was simply a style nightmare for Stann. His strong wrestling and relentless pressure would prove too much to overcome, as the Republican former realtor absolutely destroyed "All American" en route to a second round submission finish, about as good a result as Sonnen could have possibly hoped for.

And then color commentator Joe Rogan entered the cage for the usual post-fight interview and Sonnen became even more pro wrestling than pro wrestling. This was his moment to sell the masses on a second fight against Silva. This was his time to explain to everyone why he should be given a second shot at the title despite losing definitively the first time around. This was his time to shine.

And shine he did.

He kicked things off like any great promo artist by delivering a line that would grab the attention of the entire arena while also letting them know he means business.

"Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!"

The crowd exploded with glee, the same crowd that booed him during his entrance before his fight against Stann. This was made even more incredible because, again, Silva was sitting in his seat not far from the cage with Sonnen looking directly at him while he said this.

It's a brilliant move, really, to use this forum to say such a thing. Silva is essentially a hapless victim, trapped like a sitting duck to sustain the oncoming verbal assault while the live crowd cheers it on.

Even if he wanted to, he couldn't do a damn thing about it.

Then came the bait:

"Super Bowl weekend will be the biggest rematch in the history of this business. I'm calling you out, but we're upping the stakes."

Now the crowd, which was already on its feet, is on pins and needles awaiting what Sonnen will say next. This is his mastery of manipulation. He had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, heavily intrigued by what will come next.

Then the hook:

"I beat you, you leave the division. You beat me, I will leave the UFC ... forever."

That's pro wrestling at its finest.

Sonnen has now done two things: He's established a solid reason to hold the rematch that extends beyond his coming close to winning the first time. If he loses, he'll bail on MMA (which is entirely possible considering his age and other factors) and if he wins, Silva will hardly be able to show his face inside UFC arenas. The Brazilian has no reason to follow the "leave the division" stipulation but again, that's not even the point. What happens after the bout is immaterial, as noted previously.

The other, more important, thing Sonnen accomplished with this was he got the fans right back on his side. Maybe not in the sense that they'll cheer him but they'll most definitely be ready and willing to drop another $60 on a pay-per-view headlined by Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen part deux.

And that's it in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen.

That's Sonnen using pro wrestling influence to manipulate his way to the top of the food chain using a combination of skilled fighting with stellar marketing to make a boatload of money for all involved.

And hell, we fans might even be treated to another classic finish.

Nothing wrong with that.

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