Jim Miller has won seven fights in a row inside the UFC Octagon. Yushin Okami has won three straight against the best middleweights in the business. Most fans couldn't pick either man out of a lineup. Not so Chael Sonnen - but it wasn't always that way.
Chael Sonnen contested 35 fights over thirteen years completely under the radar. He's had fights in Tokyo and fights in places like McHenry, Illinois. Opponents include a who's who of the MMA industry - but those high profile opponents are almost entirely on the "L" side of the won-loss bracket. Yet, despite this mixed track record, Sonnen suddenly become a very famous man in the insular world of mixed martial arts.
Part of that has to do with his high profile successes, including a huge win over top contender Nate Marquardt and an amazing performance against long time UFC champion Anderson Silva. But more than anything else, Sonnen's rise to prominence was a product of public relations. At 33, Sonnen must have seen athletic mortality creeping up on him. He'd fought consistently since 2002 with little to show for it - a win over an addled and out of shape Paulo Fihlo, a championship belt from a secondary promotion that had to be mailed to him because the champion couldn't make weight for the bout.
What turned things around for Sonnen - what separated him from other title contenders who disappeared from fans' collective consciousness as soon as ads for the next PPV started to air - was personality. It started slow. Sonnen made reporters laugh in the post fight press conference after UFC 109. Then the fans got a taste of Sonnen's glib tongue and quick wit - he answered fan questions before UFC 115 to critical acclaim. He was funny and charming and a breath of fresh air compared to other fighters who traditionally gave very straight forward and careful answers.
Interviews followed with reporters like the Houston Chronicle's Jeremy Botter. Sonnen was in full on trash talk mode by this point, taking on champion Anderson Silva at every opportunity. But with someone he trusted like Botter, Sonnen was an equal opportunity insult machine - going so far as to insinuate the entire sport was filled with lazy and worthless couch potatoes:
"Look, anybody who is a full time fighter is a full time lazy guy. There’s no way. What do we work out for, three hours a day? I’ve got a two hour session with Team Quest and a one hour session on my own each day. That’s three hours a day. I’ve got friends who spend more time playing golf. That leaves you 21 hours a day," Sonnen told Brawl Sports.
"You can either contribute to society or you can play Playstation. There is no such thing as a full time fighter. You can say that all you want, but unless you’re working out 40 hours a week — which you are not — it’s just not full time. That’s just the truth."
Eventually Sonnen would get carried away. It was one thing to take out journalist Jon Lane. Verbal hijinks directed at Nevada's Keith Kizer was another matter entirely. One thing is for certain: Sonnen's plan worked to perfection. At UFC 104, he fought Okami on the undercard. Now he's a main eventer. His fighting style is basically the same. Only his mouth has earned him what is a significant promotion to the top of the card.
Other fighters with a pro wrestling style flair:
1. Ken Shamrock: Shamrock played it straight during the early UFC's, but by UFC 6 he was figuring out how to work his pro wrestling magic in a UFC context. He stormed out of a press conference and made an ordinary fight with Dan Severn a grudge match. His feud with Tito Ortiz would later be the narrative force that drove the UFC's light heavyweight division to the top of the promotion.
2. David "Tank" Abbott: Tank was a walking tough guy cliche. His trash talk was inspired and often mean spirited. No one was safe from the Tank's tongue. "Ok, right here I'm tickling his brain," Abbott once said when asked to describe a brutal knockout on replay. There was no one quite like Tank.
3. Tito Ortiz: The "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" wasn't a pro wrestler in a previous life, but man you could see he wished he had been so lucky. Ortiz talked the talk, walked the walk, and then had elaborate post fight celebrations, often involving a mock burial of his opponent and a dismissive t-shirt.
4. Frank Shamrock: Frank learned from the best. As a UFC announcer after his premature retirement, he had seen some fighters succeed and others fail at attempts to make fans care about a fight. When he returned for Strikeforce, Frank knew just what buttons to push. His prefight trash talk got under the skin of Cesar Gracie and Phil Baroni and set the standard for viral MMA promotion.