Consider his successful bid for a title fight at UFC 117 with middleweight champ Anderson Silva. The plan called for winning some tough fights (beating Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt in the span of about four months is more than most men could do), but it also called for a campaign of verbal warfare that would make Apollo Creed blush.
Over the past half-year or so, Sonnen has called Silva everything but a gentleman and a scholar. He still insists that the Brazilian speaks perfect English, that his pink polo shirts and flashy earrings would get him run out of Sonnen's neighborhood, and that Silva might just be clinically insane and in need of psychiatric help.
Sonnen's schtick falls somewhere between pro wrestling heel and insult comic. He deadpans his way through outrageous claims (e.g. He once said the only people Silva has beaten are "a drunk Chris Leben and a one-legged Patrick Cote and every bum that could get a plane ticket to Ohio."), and refuses to let facts interfere with the story he's telling.
It makes for great theater and great pre-fight hype, but I can't help wondering, how much of this stuff does Sonnen actually believe?
For instance, when he says things that are obviously untrue – like claiming that he's never been beaten by a fellow middleweight – we have to assume that he knows he's lying. If somehow he's just forgotten his first-round submission losses to Paulo Filho and Demian Maia, I've got some links to internet videos he should see.
The same holds true when he disparages Silva's recent victories. Sonnen would have us believe that he doesn't think the champ has beaten anyone worthy. Of course, he's beaten three fighters who have wins over Sonnen (Maia, Forrest Griffin, and Jeremy Horn), as well as at least one fighter who Sonnen claims to respect (Nate Marquardt).
Obviously, Sonnen knows all about those wins. He knows that Silva can fight, just like he knows that one of the baddest men on the planet probably wouldn't be chased out of West Linn, Oregon, just for popping his color and putting some bling in his ear.
In other words, Sonnen is just saying stuff. He's saying it because he thinks fans want a little animosity with their title fights, and he's probably right.
That all makes for fun interviews and great sound bytes, and if Sonnen's trash talk makes Silva more inclined to quit dancing and return to putting ninja-like beatings on opponents, even if it's just for one night, so much the better.
But when he wakes up on the Sunday morning after the fight – whether he does so as the new UFC middleweight champ or just another guy with a pounding headache and a nose that isn't where it used to be – I have to think that Chael Sonnen the man is going to wonder whether he really wants to remembered as Chael Sonnen the character.
It's fine for a pro wrestler to stand up with a microphone and spout five different kinds of nonsense, but Sonnen is in a different business. When he disparages opponents, when he makes everything personal, and when he intentionally disconnects himself from reality in order to create a more interesting narrative, eventually fans are going to start thinking that Sonnen himself is insincere and disrespectful.
Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but I doubt that's how Sonnen sees himself. My guess is he thinks of himself as an actor playing a role. In real life, he probably tells himself, he's an upstanding, honest man who does what he says he'll do. When the cameras come on, he adopts a persona and gives us the absurdity he thinks we want.
That's fine, and so far it seems to be working out for him. It's great to be known as the guy who can sell a fight. At least, it's great in the weeks before the fight. But afterwards, I'm not sure anyone -- even Sonnen -- really wants to be known as the guy who would say absolutely anything to get attention. At that point you're not an actor -- you're a clown.