NEWARK, N.J. – Chael Sonnen was, for years, one of the best interviews in sports, let alone in mixed martial arts. He was thoughtful, candid, accessible and insightful.
Interviews with Sonnen always had great depth.
But, and there is always a but, he was largely ignored despite that brilliance even though an interview with him would lead to an outstanding story.
Sonnen was a good, but not great fighter in those days, but as MMA was growing as a sport, he was being overlooked. The mainstream media wasn't paying much attention to MMA, and what little attention they gave went to stars such as Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz.
Then came 2010. Sonnen was coming off an unexpectedly one-sided victory over Yushin Okami at UFC 104 in Los Angeles and was set to fight Nate Marquardt in a middleweight title elimination bout at UFC 109 in Las Vegas.
By the time of the Marquardt match, the media attention on UFC bouts had increased considerably. Because Sonnen was one step away from challenging Anderson Silva for the UFC belt, the spotlight turned to him.All of a sudden, everything with Chael Sonnen became completely different.
"When I first heard him give one of those interviews, I was like, 'What the hell is this [expletive]?' " UFC president Dana White said.
Sonnen, who fights light heavyweight champion Jon Jones on Saturday at the Prudential Center in the main event of UFC 159, had changed interviewing tactics after the Okami fight and before the Marquardt bout.
It seemed that he'd used his days at the old WCW Power Plant – a school for wannabe pro wrestlers – to good advantage. He'd apparently combed through YouTube and had claimed many of ex-WWWF champion Superstar Billy Graham's finest lines as his own.
He was suddenly speaking in rhymes, often outrageous and very over-the-top.
No one at the time was certain how to take it, and many still aren't. Reporters are still referring to his interview style as "deplorable" or worse, and he's taking a great deal of abuse from fans and media for accepting the fight he was offered against Jones.
In the traditional sense, Sonnen clearly doesn't "deserve" the fight. He hasn't competed at light heavyweight in almost eight years. He's coming off a loss at middleweight. He hasn't done anything in the cage recently to "earn" the title shot.
Such a competition would not occur in any other sport, because of bracketing and seeding and schedules. An athlete's ability to promote an event has little to do with the competition in most sports. In combat sports, though, it is frequently a key part of it.
But Sonnen was criticized for getting a shot that he hadn't earned in the cage. That's true, as far as it goes. That school of thought, though, overlooks one very important aspect of all this.
Sonnen's change in persona created dramatically more business. His middleweight title fights against Silva, at UFC 117 in 2010 and at UFC 148 in 2012, sold considerably more pay-per-views than expected. The UFC does not officially release its pay-per-view results, but it is believed that UFC 117 did in excess of 650,000 and that UFC 148 did just under 1 million.
All the wailing and gnashing of teeth about what he'd done to the "purity" of the sport being bandied about by the media and by the tiny but vocal hardcore fan base ignored the fact that Sonnen's new approach to promoting was working marvelously well. He was generating considerably more money for himself, his opponent and his company.
How is that a bad thing?
It's almost impossible now to speak to Sonnen without him being in character. Earlier in the week, he appeared on ESPN's SportsCenter. Asked by anchor Sage Steele if he needed to hate his opponent, Sonnen responded by ignoring the question and asking Steele if he could touch her hair. Steele complied and Sonnen told the audience that her hair was soft.
The UFC has trademarked the phrase, "As Real As It Gets," and many of Sonnen's critics have pointed out that his over-the-top comments are anything but real.
The pre-Marquardt Sonnen was wildly popular with the few media who bothered to pay him attention. He was as eloquent a speaker as there was, but he was also as anonymous as a UFC fighter could be.
[Related: Chael Sonnen facing long odds against Jon Jones ]
He can pull off the wrestling shtick, and so he does. It wouldn't work for nearly anyone else – heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez just isn't the sort to speak in rhyme, for example – but Sonnen has the ability to do it and it's helped him become rich.
It's also helped launch a potentially lucrative broadcasting career.
"I was saying the other day, Fox just loves him, man," White said. "They really love him. He's going to get some kind of a big job with them."
Sonnen has become an enigma as a result of his approach to promoting. His critics rail on him as a little more than an opportunist and point to a 2010 failed drug test and a 2011 felony conviction for money laundering as evidence that Sonnen is unworthy of the star push he's getting from the UFC.
His stint as a coach opposite Jones on the recently concluded season of "The Ultimate Fighter" shows a vastly different side of the man. Instead of trash talking and playing the comic, Sonnen took his job as coach seriously and won the respect of those on his team.
"Chael met and surpassed my expectations," said Luke Barnatt, who was Sonnen's top pick.
Barnatt and some of his TUF castmates went to Oregon to train with Sonnen after filming of the show concluded. Barnatt raved about his friend's character and his ability as a mentor.
"Chael is the most inspirational and motivating person, let alone coach, I've ever met," Barnatt said. "He's been competing in sport for over 25 years and doing MMA since he was 19, so the man has a lot of knowledge to pass on. He's been at the top of the UFC for five years and has had experiences only a handful of men have had, so his opinion is a very influential one. As a coach, I feel I learned more from Chael mentally than anything else. Not only about being a better fighter but becoming a better person.
"Chael was such a great influence on me because we have a very similar outlook and attitude on MMA. You work hard, you fight hard and everything else is usually just hype. Tactics and game plans are for kids' bedtime stories. He addressed the event of the fight and taught us how to overcome obstacles and handle high-pressure situations, such as fighting in front of Dana White. He did this by sharing his experiences and believing in his team."
He wasn't given the title fight against Jones because of his ability to coach. And he wasn't given the shot because he represented the stiffest challenge to Jones' title reign.
If we're being honest, let's admit that there are no legitimate challenges left for Jones at light heavyweight. Had he faced, say, Alexander Gustafsson or Glover Texeira, attention on the show would have been less than half of what it is with Sonnen, and neither stands much of a chance to defeat Jones.
And while many, myself included, thought Dan Henderson could provide Jones a threat, Henderson's awful performance in a February loss to Lyoto Machida should have conclusively proven that was a mistake.
The fight that the UFC should have made was Jones against Silva. That is the best bout that the UFC could offer and it would have been a mega-event.
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Jones, though, wanted to try to break Ortiz's record for title defenses, so he needed to defend the title twice more.
That led to Sonnen getting the title bout.
There are fighters who may have been slightly – ever so slightly – more competitive against Jones than Sonnen will be Saturday. Not a single one of them, though, will have made the event as interesting as Sonnen.
It would be nice to talk to the pre-UFC 109 Sonnen again, and get his insights on a variety of topics. Sadly, the wrestling shtick is working and he's likely to stay in character for a while longer.
But let's drop this silly notion that Sonnen getting a shot at the title is somehow hurting the sport.
If the fans want to see it – and they're proving that they do by buying tickets and pay-per-views – then it's not that big of a deal.
Get over it.
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