In light of the UFC's recent release of Yushin Okami, the narrative for next week's UFC Fight Night 29 event becomes a little strange. Prior to 2013, it'd be easy to assume Jake Shield's job security was anything but in danger. After all, he's fighting in the main event, he's a former Strikeforce champion, and he's won his last three UFC fights (one of which was later overturned into a no-contest).
But following the abrupt cutting of Okami, and Jon Fitch before him, it's difficult not to draw parallels between the situations. All three men are former title challengers who fell short and now serve only to derail burgeoning contenders with their own grinding style. All three are in their mid-to-late thirties, none of the them could be considered fan favorites, and at least Okami and Fitch had the benefit of being ranked within the UFC's own top-10 at the time of their release.
This is not, at all, to imply that Shields will lose his job if he falls short against Demian Maia on Wednesday. That's obviously not a decision I'm privy to, nor do I pretend to claim otherwise. But rather, the very notion that Shields' release now seems like a plausible outcome, even in the slightest bit, has to hold some significance.
Earlier this week I spoke to Chael Sonnen, himself a former grinder who over the course of the past four years developed his brand into that of a legitimate pay-per-view star. Sonnen, too, sees the similarities between Shields' situation and the other two UFC casualties. He explained his belief that other fighters are missing opportunities to avoid a similar fate simply by playing the game. A transcript of the conversation can be seen below. (Portions of this interview have been edited for concision.)
Shaun Al-Shatti: Jake Shields has won his last three, but then again, so did Yushin Okami. Cuts come so erratically these days, and there's a pretty strong parallel to draw between both guys. As a fighter, if you're Shields, how does concern for your job security not seep into your head?
Chael Sonnen: It's there. Don't kid yourself that it's not. A fighter will get asked that; they lie constantly. I don't know if Jake's been asked that question, but every fighter gets asked about the pressure and a lot of people lie to put a positive spin on it. Look, don't be afraid to say, ‘Yeah, this spot stinks. This keeps me up at night. I hate being here. I'm panicked about being here.' I think those are much more real (reactions), for Jake at least.
Al-Shatti: For the older guys, it seems like being a star or a fan favorite is the only way to truly feel safe right now. And in the case of Shields, like Okami, he's not at all a star, even despite winning every fight but two since 2005. If winning doesn't do it, what makes fighters enter that rarified air?
Sonnen: You never know. If you were to ask me, ‘Hey Chael, what's it take to be a star in the UFC?' I could give you a pretty good guess, but that's all it would be. I don't really know.
Every year there's something called a Fighter Summit. And the very first one we went to, Dana White touched on this topic, and I'll quote Dana, because he was right. Dana said, ‘I don't know what it takes to be a star. It's a very strange formula.' You take a guy like Conor McGregor, it's overnight. You take a guy like Brock Lesnar, he just walks into the spot.
But the one constant the stars have is they win their fights. Every time you win, you get another fight. Every time you get a fight, you get promotion, marketing and media. Those things are what makes stars. It's the same thing with football. It's not whoever throws the most touchdowns. It's whoever makes it on ESPN or FOX Sports 1 the most that becomes the most famous quarterback. That's just how it works.
Al-Shatti: That's a good point, and you're basically speaking from experience. Then let me ask you, do you think it behooves grinders like Shields and Okami to become more outspoken, if only to add a certain level of value to their names that may not have been there prior? Would it at all help them avoid that fate?
Sonnen: Fighting is an expression. It's a form of speech, and that's why they call it martial arts. It's an art. The greatest form of expression, or at least the most common that we have as human beings, what separates us from the animals, is speaking -- the ability to communicate. That's also an expression and an art, and they go hand in hand.
People bring it up to me, ‘Well, you're only in your spot because you can talk well.' Okay, first off, you could be right. But second, what, am I supposed to apologize for this? No. This is expression. I don't know any other way to communicate besides speaking. I mean, maybe I could pump it out in Morse code, but I don't think as many people are going to understand as when I just say the words. So yes, I think that everybody could do a better job of that.
I'm not a fight fan. If two guys walked outside right now and got into a fight, I'm not going to go out and watch. However, I'm a UFC fan, because I know who's fighting. I know why it's important to them, I know a little about each guy. And the UFC can't do all that on their own. We depend on fighters to tell the story. Why should I want you to win? Or, why should I want you to lose? Most importantly, why should I care about this match? And that's what the UFC does so well, they tell that story. Help them. They'll give you a medium. They'll give you interviews. Help them. When they do that, don't miss a chance.
Al-Shatti: Honestly, it seems like a lot of guys either hesitate or struggle to put themselves out there like that. In your eyes, what's the easiest way to do so?
Sonnen: I'll see a guy have a microphone in his face, and they'll ask him, ‘Who do you want to fight?' They will say time and time again, ‘Whoever the UFC wants me to fight.'
Look, we're all just kind of banging our heads into a wall, going, ‘Listen genius, we know that's who you're going to fight. You have to fight who the UFC wants you to fight. The question was, who do you want? And you just missed your opportunity.' This is America. You're not going to get anything you don't ask for in this country. Don't be afraid, and don't be ashamed to ask.
Al-Shatti: That's actually the ultimate example. The polite and respectful angle is nice, but it doesn't sell fights, and it definitely doesn't drum up interest for a fighter to climb up the ladder any faster. Why not call out a name, if only to help sway your own fate?
Sonnen: I think a lot of guys don't pay attention. They don't pay attention to the industry. I don't think they pay attention very well to the fans.
We also deal with a misconception. There's a tremendous misconception. You'll hear this about martial arts -- martial arts are about respect and honor and all of these things. Don't forget, mixed martial arts is just a term that the Nevada state legislature created in 2001 to pass a law. It's not real. It's not what we're doing. We're fighting in a steel cage. That's what we're doing, with extremely limited rules.
One of the guys I enjoy being on camera the most is Nick Diaz. He hates it though. It's like, Nick, how can you possibly hate this? You're so good. Everything he says is interesting or funny. His post-fight speech with Joe Rogan after he lost to St-Pierre, this was gold. I'd have paid $50 just to hear that.
In a traditional martial arts gym, whether it's karate or kung fu or aikido, these guys will tell their students, ‘Whatever you do, make sure you never get in a fight. Walk away. Don't ever fight anybody, because you could really hurt them.' Now what they're really saying is, I know what I'm teaching you doesn't work. I don't want you to ever test it, because if it does, your father is going to quit bringing me $50 each month. Reality time: this isn't about honor and respect. This is about beating your opponent. This isn't about competition. This is a dirty and nasty sport that we do, because for some reason, you love it. And there's no need to apologize for that.