Opinion: The Truth Behind Chael Sonnen – The Wrestler and the ’Rassler Take The Stage at UFC 148
By Joshua Molina
“When you are the greatest fighter in the world, they don’t call you a great fighter. They call you Chael Sonnen. Beat me, if you can.” – Chael Sonnen, Jan. 29, 2012, post-fight interview on FOX.
Chael Sonnen is not a professional wrestler. He’s a legitimate fighter and a top mixed martial artist. But when he enters the Octagon on Saturday night to fight Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight championship, he will be walking in as something else.
A fighter on the inside. And a pro ’rassler on the outside. At a time when mixed martial arts and pro wrestling – both billion-dollar enterprises – regularly slug it out for superior TV ratings, pay per view buys and mainstream acceptance, Sonnen has accomplished what no other MMA star has – a successful pro wrestling fake character in a mixed martial arts real world.
Like the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels in their primes, Sonnen’s character is that of an arrogant, cocky, egotistical “bad guy” who fans love – either to see him back up his words, or get beat up.
Sonnen pals around with WWE champion CM Punk, and steals most of his lines from legendary pro wrestling storylines and iconic figures. His “greatest fighter in the world,” promo is taken from 1970s wrester “Superstar” Billy Graham. His “Beat Me If You Can,” was first used by former wrester Taz.
In some interviews he channels Hulk Hogan, when he talks about whether the camera is big enough for “the largest arms in the world.”
After one of his recent victories, he said in a press conference, “One more for the bad guy,” which any 30-something wrestling fan can tell you was taken straight from the WWE’s “Razor Ramon” character made popular in the 1990s.
That Sonnen is able to pull off the pro wrestling character among mixed martial artists who typically stay clear of over trash talk and focus on respecting one another, is a remarkable feat. He’s a culture shock to the business.
Sonnen is the first MMA fighter to fully master the art of the over-the-top, cocky professional wrestling character at the highest level in MMA. Even Brock Lesnar, a former pro wrestler, never succeeded in combining a wrestling persona with the legitimacy of an athlete. Lesnar is boring on the microphone, and when he kept getting knocked out, his appeal, tanked.
But Sonnen has combined multiple pro wrestling characters into one dynamic MMA persona.
At times he’s a cartoon character like, Hogan and Graham. Sometimes he’s an arrogant, dismissive jerk like the 1990s version of Triple H and Shawn Michaels. Most often, he’s a fearless worker, a legitimate version of CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. And for laughs, he showcases the humor of the condescending, dismissive wrestling manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
He’s all these characters, all in one, and because of them has nearly single-handedly promoted his rematch with Silva into a one of the epic MMA fights in history.
Consider this: Going into Saturday’s UFC 148, Sonnen has the eyes of the MMA world on him, which says a lot because:
- He’s not the champion
- He’s never been the champion
- He’s lost 11 times in his career
- He tapped out in his first fight against Silva
And about that tap out. Like a true pro wrestler, Sonnen has rewritten history. In the first fight, Sonnen dominated Silva and won every round until Silva turned the tide and made Sonnen tap out from a triangle choke. It was a classic battle, like a Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Ric Flair battle, where Flair lost, or in wrestling terms, put Steamboat over.
From Sonnen’s perspective, it’s like the loss never happened.
“In what parallel universe can you punch a man 300 times, he wraps his legs around your head for eight seconds and they declare him the winner?!” Sonnen often says in interviews.
Other times he claims the loss was a misunderstanding, that his tap out was really a signal to his tag team partner to come in and break up the hold.
Speaking of that championship, Sonnen’s greatest homage to professional wrestling is his decision to carry around with him a replica championship belt. Sonnen, because he believes he won the first fight, considers himself the real world champion. He straps the gold over his shoulder and takes it with him to interviews and press conferences.
This is a storyline made famous by the likes of Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and dozens of other wrestlers over the years. When Flair left Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling in 1991, be brought with him his championship belt and declared himself the champ in the WWE, even though Hulk Hogan, at the time, was the champion.
To this day, 21 years after Ric Flair brought a fake championship belt and declared himself the real champion, wrestling fans argue over who the real “linear” champion is.
Sonnen uses the same logic and vocabulary in UFC to justify why he believes he is the world champion.
“The true belt, the people’s belt, the linear belt, belongs to the best damn middleweight there’s ever been,” Sonnen has said.
In the world of wrestling, such twisted logic makes sense to wrestling fans who understand its world, its culture and its customs. To see such truth applied to a legitimate sport is like a slap in the face to every UFC fan and kid who grew up watching ESPN, not Superstation TBS.
But Sonnen seems to have figured out what every pro wrestling fan already knows. Perception is greater than reality.
And it doesn’t matter whether Sonnen gets knocked out or taps out again in the rematch. It’s a virtual guarantee that come Sunday morning, Sonnen will still be a popular, marketable fighter who the fans will want to see and watch much more than Silva.
For many mixed martial arts fans, Saturday night’s fight between Sonnen and Silva feels special. Silva vs. Sonnen II is expected to draw more than 1 million pay-per-view buys, and be the biggest MMA fight card of the year.
One of Sonnen’s truest lines is this: “Anyone who tells you bad guys don’t win never met Chael Sonnen.”
He’s right. Because it doesn’t matter if Chael Sonnen loses. He still wins.
Joshua Molina is a college journalism instructor in California and is a journalist and mixed martial arts writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.