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Chael Sonnen, and the valuable entertainment lesson every UFC fighter should heed

Talk is not cheap when it comes to building mixed martial arts (MMA) stars, who these days, appear few and far between.


Anyone who has been a mixed martial arts (MMA) fan for any length of time probably remembers those TapOut "My Fight Matters" commercials that used to air incessantly during Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) programming.

As a narrator read an inspirational poem over a driving piano riff, footage of Gilbert Melendez shadow boxing was shown juxtaposed with a clip of a young mother jogging while pushing a stroller. The message was simple: Even if you're not a fighter, we all have struggles in life, so why not buy some TapOut merchandise to wear while you fight your personal battles?

It was a rather pithy slogan for an MMA apparel company attempting to market itself to a customer base beyond professional fighters, hardcore fans and posturing dudebros suffering from Imaginary Lat Syndrome.

Obviously there's a world of difference between struggling to maintain your figure after childbirth and locking yourself in a cage with a highly trained opponent who wants nothing more than to knock you unconscious. So it's only natural a professional fighter would tend to think he or she faces more serious adversity than those of us who don't get punched in the face for a living.

Which might be the reason many fighters tend to overestimate the general public's interest in their upcoming fights.

If you're a professional fighter, the cruel truth of the matter is this: Unless you're one of the rare handful of stars currently active in the sport, chances are your fight doesn't matter all that much as far as fans are concerned.

And why should it? After all, so far UFC has already put on somewhere around 270 fights this year. By the time 2013 is out the grand total for the year will likely be more than 400 bouts under the Zuffa umbrella. That's not to mention weekly fights during two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), approximately 25 free Bellator fight cards and countless small-time regional shows that take place every year.

Now, I may be so mathematically impaired I can't figure out how to leave a 20 percent tip without the aid of my iPhone, but even I can tell you that's a lot of fights. This isn't 2006 anymore, back when MMA was still a novel concept to the public at large and being featured on a Spike TV card was enough turn someone into a star.

Nowadays there is such an overabundance of MMA that fighters need to give fans a reason to care each time they step in the cage. Otherwise, they run the risk of being seen as just another person on the card.

That may be fine for the stoic types who plan to, "let their actions in the cage do the talking," but the fact of the matter is those silent but violent messages all too often fall upon deaf ears.

If you're a fighter who wants to make the most of your limited window of opportunity as a professional athlete, then it behooves you to figure out a way to convince fans to open up their wallets when you fight.

There is perhaps no better example in recent history of a fighter taking his destiny into his own hands and turning himself into a top draw than that of Chael Sonnen. Love him or hate him, there's a lot to be learned from how the self-proclaimed Gangster from West Linn, Ore., transformed himself from career mid-carder to top box office attraction thanks in large part to his gift of gab.

Sonnen offers the following thoughts (via on what it takes for a fighter to break through to the next level and become a legitimate star:

"I'm not a fight fan. If two guys walked outside right now and got into a fight, I'm not going to go out and watch. However, I'm a UFC fan, because I know who's fighting. I know why it's important to them, I know a little about each guy. And the UFC can't do all that on their own. We depend on fighters to tell the story. Why should I want you to win? Or, why should I want you to lose? Most importantly, why should I care about this match? And that's what the UFC does so well, they tell that story. Help them. They'll give you a medium. They'll give you interviews. Help them. When they do that, don't miss a chance."

This doesn't mean you have to go out there like Sonnen and start reciting old Superstar Billy Graham promos from the 1970s. There are many other ways to get fans emotionally invested in your fights.

Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche drew an impressive 450,000 pay-per-view (PPV) buys at UFC 157 (according to Blue Book) in their promotional debut thanks to both women doing an excellent job building up the fight over three weeks of UFC "Primetime" specials and a hectic schedule of media appearances in the weeks before their historic fight.

Rousey was already something of a name to hardcore fans who watched Strikeforce, but she became a superstar to a larger audience after they saw the gripping interview where she talked about her father's tragic death and her promise to him that she would one day become the best in the world at something. Couple that with her good looks and charming personality -- this was before the world saw her coach on TUF 18 keep in mind -- and she became an instant superstar.

Carmouche held her end of the promotional bargain, too, giving a series of sincere, upbeat interviews about how she wanted to win the incipient UFC women's Bantamweight title and use the money to bring her mother to America. The former Marine came across as a likable underdog who was finally getting her much deserved shot at the big time.

Fighters need not be fan favorites to establish an emotional connection with fans. Josh Koscheck did it back on the first season of TUF when he sprayed Chris Leben with a garden hose and gloated about it later. Koscheck embraced his heel persona and rode it into a successful stint as a coach on TUF opposite Georges St. Pierre. The dynamic between the two led to a huge number, with their match at UFC 124 doing 785,000 PPV buys.

Obviously the best mic skills in the world aren't going to help a fighter who loses all of his fights become the next transcendent star like Brock Lesnar, but winning alone isn't enough to excite the casual fan's imagination.

If it that were the case, the 23-1 and undefeated since 2005 Jose Aldo would be one of UFC's biggest attractions. That's simply not the case, though, as the dominant Featherweight champ drew a near basement-level 170,000 PPV buys against "Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163 back in August.

When it comes to MMA, the action that takes place once the cage door shuts may be, as the old UFC tag line used to go, "As Real As It Gets," but fighters would be well advised to remember that first and foremost they are in the entertainment business.

Fans are waiting to be entertained each time they watch a fighter give an interview. Those who deliver sometimes become breakthrough stars and in the process earn enough money to ensure their financial independence for life.

Those who don't? They often end up forgotten by history and forced into real jobs after retirement.

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