Kinder, gentler Chael Sonnen leads to a lackluster build for UFC 159

If you listened to this past Monday's pre-UFC 159 media conference call, you likely learned a couple things about UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and challenger Chael Sonnen.

It turns out Sonnen is actually Jones' biggest fan. In fact, the erstwhile master of trash talk from West Linn, Oregon believes the champ is so great he could "beat up Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in the same day."

As for Jones, he's already talking like the victory over Sonnen is in the bag. His biggest concern appears to be a master plan that will take him through the next couple years of his career. After what Jones apparently believes is the mere formality of defeating Sonnen he wants to defend his belt once more in order to break Tito Ortiz's record for most UFC light heavyweight title defenses. From there he's contemplating moving on to "superfights and heavyweight fights."

All that is fine and good, but if you're anything like me you were left waiting for either Jones or Sonnen to tell you something a little more immediately pressing with just a few days to go until UFC 159.

What I never heard during the conference call was a reason why fans should open their wallets and shell out $50 to see Jones and Sonnen fight.

That's kind of a problem, considering the obvious elephant grazing in the Octagon right now: Chael Sonnen is a blown up middleweight coming off a decisive loss to Anderson Silva in his last match. How do you sell a title fight between a challenger with a 6-5 all time UFC record and a phenomenally talented champion who has looked all but invincible so far?

The answer is with promos. This may be where MMA purists bang their fists on their computer desks and bewail the outrage of déclassé pro wrestling defiling their precious cage fighting - all the while closing their eyes and stuffing their fingers in their ears whenever anyone explains how inexorably linked pro wrestling has been with MMA since the inception of the sport - but I would simply remind them professional boxers have been cutting promos to draw money since at least the turn of the 20th century. In any sport where athletes' paydays are directly affected by box office receipts, it's simply good business to talk as many butts into seats as possible.

When the call was made last fall to slot Sonnen and Jones as coaches of season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, a number of purists were outraged at the idea of an "undeserving" fighter like Sonnen getting a shot at Jones' belt. On the other side of the spectrum, the more business minded members of the MMA community defended the move with the justification that, thanks to his peerless gift of gab, Sonnen would draw more money against Jones than any other opponent at 205 pounds.

Although Jones has a genius-level fight IQ, his promotional instincts are mediocre at best. Facing a master instigator like Sonnen sounded like just what the doctor ordered to rile Jones up and get him to show a little fire in interviews.

So far though Sonnen has been nothing but complimentary of Jones in the buildup to the fight, which has made for a flat promotional dynamic. It could be Sonnen is talking Jones up as an all time great because even he agrees with oddsmakers he has little chance against the 25 year old phenom. Perhaps he's merely employing the old pro wrestling tactic of building up an opponent so a victory over him looks even more impressive. Then again, maybe Sonnen is still taking Renzo Gracie's admonition to dial down the trash talk to heart all these months after Gracie first called him on it last summer.

Whatever the case may be, this kinder gentler Chael Sonnen isn't an improvement on last year's model. Instead of providing fans with a resonant emotional hook to get them invested in the outcome of his fight with Jones, the self styled "American Gangster" has resorted to cartoonish, 1980's pro wrestling promos extolling his own greatness. As a result he now comes across more like a super fan playing pro wrestler than a legitimate ass kicker with the volume turned up to 10 on his personality.

It's cute, if not overly effective, the first time you hear Sonnen go into his sing song routine about being a better fighter than Jon Jones, sounding better than Sean Combs, and even being a better lover than John Holmes. By the 32nd time the schtick has worn decidedly thin. Even worse, what do all these braggadocios nursery rhymes have to do with Sonnen's impending title match?

It wasn't always this way though. While Sonnen obviously borrowed heavily from pro wrestling in his interviews leading up to the first Silva fight, they were invariably grounded in two very concrete themes. First, Sonnen hammered home his message that, for all the mystique surrounding Silva, he was going to pound the tar out of the seemingly unbeatable champ once they got in the Octagon. Second, this was Sonnen's chance to make good on a promise he made to his dying father he would one day win a world championship.

The timing was perfect for Sonnen's antagonistic approach. Silva was coming off an infuriating performance against Damien Maia in Abu Dhabi that had many fans calling for his head. With his self-assured bluster Sonnen was able to tap into this outrage and get the Silva haters to rally around him as their knight in red white and blue TapOut logo adorned armor. For their part, Silva's legion of devotees were outraged by what they perceived as Sonnen's arrogant disrespect of the greatest fighter who ever lived.

The common denominator with both groups of fans? Sonnen gave them each a simple, easily digestible reason to care what happened when he and Silva finally got their hands on each another inside the Octagon.

As a result the fight ended up doing well above average numbers on pay per view, with the final tally coming in around 600,000 buys. When both men finally met in a rematch two years later it drew a monstrous 925,000 PPV buys thanks to the combination of the epic nature of their first meeting and great promos from both Sonnen and Silva hyping up the fight.

What's more, the rivalry took Silva from being a champion whose star power wasn't commensurate with his superlative talent and cemented his place as a living legend. It also elevated Sonnen from being just another gifted, if sometimes underachieving, mid-card fighter into one of the biggest names in the sport. None of this would have happened if Sonnen hadn't first gotten people emotionally invested in the rivalry by verbally eviscerating Silva whenever he found himself with a microphone in his face.

One would think Sonnen of all people would understand the secret to his successful promotion of the feud with Silva, but his latest verbal efforts leave some room for doubt he's truly the master promoter we all assumed he was.

Even if, for whatever reason, Sonnen refuses to take the easy money and make things personal with Jones, the least he could do is get fans invested in his quest to finally win the big one. Here he is challenging for a world title and Sonnen has yet to spend any serious time in interviews focusing on his desire to capture the richest prize in the sport. If Sonnen doesn't care about the belt, why should we?

What's worse, the UFC light heavyweight championship has almost seemed like an afterthought on the rare occasion Sonnen deigns to mention it. Usually the extent of his thoughts on the title consist of hackneyed catchphrases like, "I don't find title fights, title fights find me."

Lines like that may make for entertaining television - at least the first time you hear them - but ultimately the only thing they accomplish is to reinforce Sonnen's image as a blowhard self-promoter who is completely divorced from reality. Sonnen may be getting himself over as the most entertaining talker in the business, but so far he's done a a sub-par job getting fans invested in his fight with Jones.

Unless Sonnen turns up the verbal heat in the final days before Saturday, we may soon find out if amusing catch phrases alone are enough to convince people to fork over fifty bucks to see a fight.

This article originally appeared on on 4/24/13

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