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A Look Back at Some of the Greatest Villains

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After the publicity surrounding the cancellation of UFC 151 - which will forever go down in history as the phantom card that never took place - Jon Jones, who has taken a share of the blame, is now likely to find himself, at least temporarily, as a member of a select group.

You can use the term villain, bad guy, or heel, but it's the big star who goes to the cage with thousands booing their lungs out, hoping to vicariously live through their opponent in seeing them beaten. When one of the fighters is truly hated by the crowd, it can increase ticket sales and it creates a great atmosphere surrounding fights.

But heels in mixed martial arts are very different from those in the movies or in pro wrestling. In the movies, the bad guy is scripted ahead of time and everyone knows the role they have to play. In pro wrestling, the same is true, although it's not as cut and dried, because the live audience sometimes has a mind of its own. Sometimes they like people they are supposed to hate.

Unlike in scripted entertainment, in MMA, almost nobody sets out to be the heel. The crowd decides, and if they hate you, you've got a few options. You can let it break you mentally. You can fight to win the crowd back over. Or you can go with the flow and accept that if the crowd doesn't like you, the next best thing is for them to hate you a lot.
Michael Bisping, who would be high on any list of UFC's all-time villains, never set out to be booed. But as long as he gets a big reaction, positive or negative, he says it's music to his ears.

"Absolutely, I like the fact that the majority of people boo me," he said. "There is a small percentage who really like me. Generally people hate me and I like that. I love going to the arena and feeding off the energy of the crowd, the people who cheer to see me knocked out. It's good as long as people show emotion."

People sometimes forget that Bisping came off the third season of Ultimate Fighter, one of the highest rated seasons in history, as champion as one of the company's most popular instant stars. In the U.K., he became the face of the sport. And then things changed, drastically.

At UFC 75, which aired on television in the U.S. before what was at the time the largest audience to watch an MMA broadcast, Bisping won a controversial split decision over Matt Hamill. Those watching saw it as an American with a handicap, Hamill being deaf, went to England, beat their country's biggest star in what was a mild upset at the time, and was robbed in a home town decision. To this day, people will bring this fight up when asked about the worst judging decisions in UFC history.

Bisping points to that decision, and his reaction to it, in getting the ball rolling.

"The Hamill fight was a close fight, but I acted like a bit of a jerk about it."

"Over the years I'm aware I've said a couple of things in a way I regret over the years," he said. "I've been in UFC for a long time, grew up in the organization, I was in my mid-20s then, now I'm in my mid-30s."

What put him over the top was coaching on Ultimate Fighter as part of the U.S. vs. U.K. season against Dan Henderson. Bisping provided the personality in contrast to the more dry Henderson, but it was natural for Americans to see him as the bad guy, and he did a few things and said a few things along the way to reinforce it. The funny thing is, it was almost a dual reality. In the U.K., where the same show edited the same way aired, they loved him for almost everything the Americans hated him for.

The reality show also paved the way for Josh Koscheck to be one of the most hated fighters in the company since his debut. In the first season of the show, he and partner-in-crime Bobby Southworth sprayed a garden hose on a sleeping Chris Leben. The irony was up until that moment, Leben was the big villain on the show, but that episode flipped Leben into being popular, and also made his career. While Southworth never fought in UFC after the show, that episode followed him the rest of his career, as he was even booed heavily in his home town of San Jose when fighting for Strikeforce. Koscheck has rarely been cheered in more than seven years in UFC, usually limited to his scoring a spectacular knockout finish. But the next fight, he's back to being booed.

Like Bisping, he never set out to be a heel, but has embraced it. When he coached against Georges St-Pierre, he did everything he could all season long antagonize St-Pierre. He did his job well, since it led to one of the biggest fights of 2010, and what is still the second largest crowd ever for a UFC show with an announced 23,152 fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

There is a certain dynamic when the crowd absolutely hates one person, and loves the other, that makes for the ultimate atmosphere. Sometimes, such as for Randy Couture's wins over Tito Ortiz and Tim Sylvia, the result was two of the most memorable fights in UFC history. Those two wouldn't even be considered good fights had such strong personality contrasts not existed.

The first sort-of-heel of UFC was Tank Abbott, the original "Huntington Beach Bad Boy." He came across on television as an arrogant, scary, disrespectful bully. But even with those characteristics, the crowds in the early days loved him. Ortiz, the second, became a star when he flipped off the Lion's Den corner, would wear disrespectful T-shirts and pretend to shovel dirt over his defeated opponents. In those days, the crowd hated him, but he became a major box office star, at one time the biggest in the sport. His most memorable fights were when facing stars the crowd badly waned to see teach him a lesson, like Ken Shamrock, Chuck Liddell and Couture. Sometimes it happened and other times it didn't, but those fights were key building blocks to the growth of the sport.

St-Pierre, one of the sport's great protagonists, fought before deafening crowds when matched against Koscheck, Matt Hughes and Matt Serra in particular. Serra is not someone who would necessarily be on anyone's list as an all-time great UFC heel. But he seemingly recognized that since he was fighting St-Pierre on the first ever UFC show in Montreal, at UFC 83, that he wasn't having any friends in the crowd so he may as well make some enemies. In the pre-Chael Sonnen era, Serra's work in building up that fight was among the best ever.

St-Pierre seemed to understand his role, because a few years back at a press gathering, some reporters brought up how he doesn't talk trash and is never disrespectful and were trying to lead him into decrying whoever the big mouths were at that time. He surprised the reporters by saying that he likes it when guys do those type of things that make him interested in a fight, and said his two favorite fighters to watch at that time were Ortiz and Phil Baroni.

Baroni is the prime example of the difference between MMA, a real sport, with the movies or pro wrestling. One of the greatest built-up fights ever outside the UFC was Baroni's bout with Frank Shamrock in San Jose, Calif., five years ago. If Baroni did as well in the ring as he does in talking up a fight and getting his character over, he'd be one of the biggest superstars in the game. He may be the sport's best known 15-15 fighter. But for all his positives, due to his record, his career is still struggling.

No list of great MMA heels would be complete without the one guy who came into the sport already an expert at the role--Brock Lesnar. As far as the box office goes, Lesnar has to be considered the most effective villain in history. He had amazing presence to start with and he understood how to just give the crowd a look that would make them hate him even more.

His pro wrestling background was doubly effective. First, unlike the others who were learning on the job, he was taught by experts how to be a heel to where he was already the finished package when he walked into the UFC in 2008. Plus, he was not just a pro wrestler, but a superstar in pro wrestling. UFC was just getting its own fan base, and the idea that a pro wrestler was walking in as a star infuriated them. What made it worse was he wasn't a joke, because he had the size, strength and strong amateur wrestling background.

It was a magical atmosphere the night he faced Couture for the UFC heavyweight title. Couture was champion, but he was also 45 years old and giving away every bit of 60 pounds at the moment the cage door shut. But he had a huge experience and skill edge, and the crowd was as glued to this fight as any. The place exploded when Couture was able to almost get a takedown, or connect with punches that cut his larger foe. But he came up short, which infuriated the crowd even more, because now the novice outsider had captured UFC's heavyweight title and beaten a beloved legend. The narrative led to some of the company's biggest shows in history.

But there's a thin line between love and hate. In most cases, fans end up having fond memories of people they hated. In other cases, fighters with attitudes where they are defiant and show no respect become popular for that very reason. When Ortiz knocked down and choked out Ryan Bader, it was one of the most emotional moments of the year. Nick Diaz started out hated, but the qualities that made him hated soon made him into a popular star. In Japan, few remember that both Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva were not liked when they went against the native stars. But in quick time, fans grew to love their fighting styles and they became two of the most popular fighters ever in that country.

Most would consider the best heel in MMA today to be Sonnen, but he doesn't easily fit into a specific role. Sonnen is more a personality and an entertainer than a good guy or bad guy. Some love him and some hate him with a passion. His situation was different. In the first Anderson Silva fight, when he single-handedly made what would have been a forgettable title match into a must-see show, he was booed coming out. But very quickly, he was cheered, and heavily, for most of the fight.

Bisping for one, points out that he and Sonnen are very different and shouldn't be lumped together.

"I say controversial things, but it's not me putting on an act. I'm not like Chael Sonnen being fake. I'm not fake. I can look myself in the mirror. And if you don't like it, buy the pay per view to see me knocked out."

Still, even though Bisping knows that being hated has helped his career, it doesn't mean he wouldn't like to be cheered.

"It's been the best thing for my career," he said. "I get paid very handsomely. They take good care of me. Obviously I'm a draw. Some people want to see me win. Some people want to see me get knocked out. That's the landscape."

But he brought up when he fought in Australia, he went there figuring he's outside of the U.S., so he'd be popular. That wasn't the case.

"When I was in Australia, when I walked out, everybody booed," he said. "I thought I was going to get cheered, but I should have known better. We're (U.K. and Australia) huge sports rivals. So I gave them the bird with both hands, and they loved it. I stick two fingers up and they were cheering and going crazy. But I won't do that again because a couple of sponsors didn't like it. But that's an example. In my opinion, it shows it's all in fun."