Chael Sonnen knows a thing or two about tapping into the theatrical side of MMA.
In his heyday, “The Bad Guy” was one of the sharpest self-promoters to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves, using his gift of gab to propel himself to superstardom. Sonnen wound up challenging for titles in two different UFC divisions and headlined a myriad of lucrative events and pay-per-views, so he knows good fight promotion when he sees it.
All of which is to say, Sonnen kept a close eye on Israel Adesanya’s work following “The Last Stylebender’s” title-winning knockout of Alex Pereira at UFC 287 — and Sonnen came away intrigued by what he saw from the now two-time UFC middleweight champion.
“I think he went heel — and it’s a big deal,” Sonnen said Monday on The MMA Hour. “If he has gone heel, it matters. And the reason I say that is when they throw to them backstage and Izzy’s trying to cheer up what’s-his-name, and Izzy is telling him, ‘Hey, great job, you’ll always be a champion to me,’ and then he goes into a post-fight press conference, he says, ‘Everything is square in the world. Forget that he beat me three times and took everything I wanted and ran me out of a sport and beat me in front of the world, Madison Square Garden. I’ve won this one time.’
“The only time I’ve ever seen that — and it was embarrassing the first time — is when Chuck [Liddell] lost to Tito [Ortiz], and Tito, who’d been cleaned up, lost his belt, lost his fame, lost his money, lost his position in the company, goes over to some show that nobody watched, lands a shot on a guy that’s 48 years old, and then tells you, ‘Well, everything’s good.’ Well, no, it’s not good. Chuck is way ahead of you. He’s millions ahead of you. He’s fights, he’s experience, he’s opportunities, public perception ahead of you. He took all these things.
“So I saw Tito do that, and now I come back to Adesanya — Adesanya tried to act like we’re square. He ran you out of a sport. He chased you down in this one. He beat you at the Mecca. Not for nothing, but you’re not square — unless you’re a heel.”
After losing three times to Pereira across kickboxing and MMA, Adesanya finally exacted his revenge over the Brazilian in attempt number four, demolishing his nemesis with a highlight-reel second-round knockout this past Saturday at UFC 287.
Afterward, Adesanya and Pereira shared an embrace backstage in the bowels of Miami’s Kaseya Center, which Sonnen particularly enjoyed for its “very condescending” nature. Adesanya also leaned into his showmanship by unleashing a volley of faux arrows over Pereira’s unconscious body following the knockout, then mocking Pereira’s young son — who was seated cageside — by mimicking the celebration Pereira’s son directed at him following his knockout loss to the Brazilian in their second kickboxing match back in 2017.
“That was beautiful work,” Sonnen said of the champ mocking Pereira’s young son, which even Adesanya admitted was “petty” in his post-fight press conference.
“Just, that’s really good stuff right there. I mean, he was owed it. That was good stuff. Not to mention, I think the young man is still a minor. I think he was about six at the time of that kickboxing video. It’s been about [six] years. I think he’s six. No, it’s a big deal though. If you do it to an adult, it’s a little different. If you do it to a minor — I just thought it was great. I really did.”
One of the main reasons Sonnen feels Adesanya’s decision to turn “heel” matters in the long run is because of the biggest looming question coming out of UFC 287: What’s next?
In the aftermath of the event, Adesanya vociferously dismissed the idea running back an MMA trilogy fight with Pereira and instead directed his venom at South African contender Dricus Du Plessis. And by doing so in the manner he did, Sonnen believes Adesanya may have successfully swung the narrative surrounding his ongoing rivalry with Pereira.
“I do hope that fans or even fighters can sit and study this,” Sonnen said. “If you don’t want something, it’s never helpful in life to have a complainer — unless that complainer offers you a suggestion. You don’t get that a lot. We have politicians that will come in and bitch at the other side trying to do something, they don’t offer a suggestion. Right?
“It should obviously be Pereira vs. Adesanya part three, obviously, but Adesanya has now created an entire new conversation with Du Plessis — to the point, he’s won me over. I came on your show, the biggest show in our space, and I’m pushing for Du Plessis. That was an idea that I never would have come to on my own. So it’s a big difference if you do what Adesanya did, which is create another army, create a whole other fight.
“Look, if Pereira stays at ‘85, it’s got to be Pereira,” he continued. “Nothing else really would make sense. [Robert] Whittaker doesn’t have a dance partner. Everybody else is pretty booked up. The other side of the coin — Izzy’s only asked for one thing. He’s been very clear on telling us this: ‘I would like some parody. I would like new guys.’ He’s gone and beaten everybody, then he beat some of them twice. He’s getting ready to beat some of them a third time. Or we can move down the rankings to who hasn’t been there yet, we can bring in Du Plessis, we’ve got the African tie-in, he’s on a little bit of a roll — let’s get this done.
“I think that argument is going to win the day with Pereira out of the division. The real question is, if Pereira goes to 205, does he walk right into a world title fight? They’ve only had one guy in history to get starched at ‘85 and contend at 205 — it’s yours truly.”