Great in the ring and great on the microphone. If one was to hear that statement, they would expect me to be talking about a professional wrestler, and not mixed martial arts legend, Chael Sonnen. In an era dominated by Conor McGregor, many people forget that before Connor, there was Chael P. Sonnen. The man who intentionally used pro-wrestling like theatrics and incorporated it into MMA, and in the process, changed the sport forever.
Pro-wrestling is about two different characters (one usually being good and the other bad) that use wild actions and a unique way of speaking to attract viewer interest. The goal is to get viewers to emotionally invest and purchase the matchup they are being sold.
Chael Sonnen did not just incorporate pro-wrestling psychology into MMA by positioning himself as the villain against Anderson Silva, or the beloved underdog against Jon Jones. Chael has also unabashedly stolen famous wrestling catchphrases from legends like ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham and Razor Ramon. However, Chael’s delivery of the “Superstar” rap, and announcing himself as the “bad guy” are so good, he has made the catchphrases his own.
The E stands for Entertainment
“I had said some things about Brazil, privately, in a media known as the Internet”. – Chael Sonnen (Bellator NYC: Grudge match (2017). Chael Sonnen is one of the most entertaining and most outlandish characters in the history of MMA. Whether it’s sarcastic comments, poems, or street fights on the Ultimate Fighter show, he understands the more outlandish his actions are, the more likely he is to sell his fights.
At the WWE’s peak, they were able to sell almost half a million pay-per-view (PPV) buys (according to Pro Wrestling History Spreadsheet) with a show headlined by Stone Cold and Mr. McMahon. Stone Cold versus McMahon clearly had limitations but was sold off of the craziness that preceded the PPV.
In 2013 – Chael Sonnen did something very similar. UFC 159 was headlined by a mismatch, as natural middleweight Chael Sonnen moved up to take on then UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. While Chael did not drive monster trucks to the ring like Stone Cold, he did create a lot of chaos prior the UFC 159 PPV. He delivered a nonstop barrage of comments attacking Jon’s character, and also his willingness to step up and face Jon Jones created a crazy atmosphere, which piqued fan interest. The fight ultimately played out as everyone expected, Jones dominating the much smaller Chael Sonnen. However, Chael once again showed the power of his character and pre-fight abilities by helping UFC surpass half a million PPV buys (according to mmafighting.com (2013).
“The Object of any performer in WWE is to create an atmosphere where the audience will emotionally invest in the persona that the individual is”. – Jim Ross (The Epic Journey of The Rock DVD (2012)
Many wrestlers today, forget the importance of connecting with the fans on an emotional level by giving them a reason to tune in and watch their matches. Chael Sonnen, on the other hand, has not forgotten.
While insults and jokes are a great way of getting the attention of the fans, pulling on the emotional heart-strings is an even greater way of selling a fight. In the build up to Chael Sonnen’s most recent fight with Tito Ortiz at Bellator 170, he used his trademark trash talk to hype the fight, but perhaps the most important moment came when Chael broke down crying in a Bellator promotional video. Chael discussing the promise he made to his dad, that he would beat Tito Ortiz and win the world championship left him in tears. Whether genuine, or just for promotion, it most certainly worked. Bellator 170 became the most watched Bellator event in 2017, drawing 1.85 million viewers (according to bloodyelbow.com (2017). Like a great professional wrestler, Chael gave the audience an extra incentive to tune in and watch his fight with Tito Ortiz.
What is truly remarkable about Chael’s ability to use pro-wrestling techniques in MMA is his ability to stay relevant, or in wrestling, terms stay “over”. In a world where outcomes are not pre-determined, Chael manages to stay on top. Even after giving, perhaps, the worst performance of his career against Tito, he finds himself headlining Bellator’s June 24th PPV at Madison Square Garden. While Chael is certainly in need of a win against Wanderlei Silva on Saturday, it is clear to see his star power has not diminished.
While Chael may never go down as the greatest MMA fighter, he should certainly go down as the greatest professional wrestler never to have stepped foot in a wrestling ring. For nearly a decade, Chael has outperformed professional wrestlers at their own game and has the numbers to prove it. On Saturday, June 24th at Bellator NYC, win or lose, Chael looks set to continue his great track record by helping Bellator achieve PPV numbers that will surpass many UFC PPV’s in 2017.