Sonnen’s showmanship is a big sell for the UFC

You never quite know what Chael Sonnen might say, but it’s never a mystery what he is going to do. He’s one of the world’s finest mixed martial arts fighters – “The best,” he corrected a reporter – but his skill as a fighter pales in comparison to his ability to bring attention to an event.

Sonnen had long been a great talker, though he was largely unknown for it until 2010, when he began to give over-the-top interviews that seemed to have been written by one of wrestling impresario Vince McMahon’s chief lieutenants.

On Wednesday, three days before he’s to face Michael Bisping on Saturday at the United Center at UFC on Fox 2 with a shot at the middleweight title going to the winner, Sonnen played the assembled media brilliantly.

He stood in the corner of a tiny sweatbox gym, two blocks from where the Chicago White Sox play, and captivated his audience with thoughts on SOPA and PIPA, President Obama’s State of the Union speech, his disappointment in the failure of either Herman Cain or Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination, and the UFC’s business practices.

But as the conversation steered to the way the talking heads on CNN and Fox News cover the presidential race, Sonnen quickly moved the conversation right where he wanted it to be all along.

Stepping forward, he said in an animatedly loud voice, “Does anyone here know there is a fistfight going on in the United Center on Saturday night, at 8 p.m. in the East and 5 in the West, and yours truly will be headlining it? Is anybody here aware of that? Do you know that Chael Sonnen Promotions, in conjunction with Zuffa, is putting on UFC on Fox 2 this Saturday? Have we talked about that yet? Does anybody know that yet?”

The conversation is going to go where Sonnen wants it to go, and behind all the wacky comments is the mind of a very sharp man. He understands how to attract a crowd and how to build interest in a show.

When Sonnen was largely silent prior to his fight with Brian Stann at UFC 136, the tepid pay-per-view results told a big story. Sonnen saw no benefit in trash-talking an American war hero and so his interviews were decidedly low key and lacking the sizzle that fans have come to expect.

When Sonnen is working it, as he did in nearly Ali-esque fashion prior to his challenge of champion Anderson Silva at UFC 117, interest in a show grows exponentially. As 2010 began, no one expected a Silva-Sonnen fight to be a big deal. But then, before he fought Nate Marquardt at UFC 109, Sonnen began to trash Silva and kept it up all the way until the night of the fight.

The result was significantly more media attention for UFC 117 than officials could have dreamed of getting and pay-per-view numbers that came in well above expectations.

He didn’t have the benefit of a full promotion to build interest in his fight with Bisping. The trash talk would have been immense had he had that opportunity, but he made the best with what he had.

Sonnen was originally slated to fight Mark Munoz on Saturday, but when Munoz injured an elbow and needed surgery, the UFC shifted its fights. It moved Bisping out of a fight with Demian Maia and into the match with Sonnen, then brought in Chris Weidman to fight Maia.

That left Sonnen preparing for a completely different style of fighter, but he shrugged it off as no big deal.

“The change of opponent doesn’t really affect me,” he said. “There was no game plan for me to chance because I don’t do game plans. What I do is beat myself up for two months, or rather I show up for that to happen to me. I am a staff sergeant. I’m not a general. I show up, I show up with my gear and I do what I am told. I run where I am told to, lift and drill what I am told to drill for as long as I am told to do it. Then I shower, whether they tell me to or not, and go home and eat what someone has told me to eat.

“I don’t come up with the battle plan. I fight the battle. That’s the way it works and that’s the strategy that has won me a lot of wars so far. I hadn’t watched one tape on Mark Munoz and probably was only going to watch anything on him [this] week in the hotel. I had sparred with him, and I’ve barely met Michael, but there’s no game plan to change up because I never had one other than [to] show up in shape and be ready to fight.”

Though UFC president Dana White has insisted that the winner of Saturday’s bout will fight Silva for the middleweight title, likely in June in Brazil, Sonnen has already begun working on building that card by intimating that Silva is afraid to fight him again.

Sonnen unexpectedly dominated Silva at UFC 117, but lost when he was submitted with just over two minutes left in the bout.

He’s since become the self-proclaimed middleweight champion and has painted himself as a gunslinger going from town to town to knock off its toughest guys.

With an eye toward future business, he’s said in his interviews he’s not excited about a rematch with Silva because he knows he’ll never get it. When a reporter challenged him on that assertion, Sonnen did his thing. He gave Silva yet another verbal beating and suggested he’ll face either light heavyweight champion Jon Jones or even welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre in his next outing.

“Come on, you’ve been around long enough not to be fooled by the games Anderson Silva plays,” Sonnen said. “I’m going to win this fight [on Saturday against Bisping] and then I’m going to fight either Jon Jones or GSP next because Anderson Silva is running like a scared dog. Four times, he was offered the fight and four times, he said, no way, no how. I’ll play the game like they want me to do, and act like the fight is going to happen, but you know and I know that as soon as Anderson Silva realizes that we’re all serious about this thing and that nobody is joking, he’s going to find a way to make sure he can back out of the fight.”

There are guys who talk for talk’s sake, there are guys who are great promoters and then there is Sonnen.

He may be the UFC’s most disliked fighter besides Bisping, but he’s in a league of his own when it comes to selling a bout.

And in a business that relies on selling tickets, getting television ratings and convincing folks to plunk $45 a month to buy a pay-per-view, a guy like Sonnen is invaluable.

In that regard, he’s correct: He is, by far, the best there is.

It’s another win for the head of Chael Sonnen Promotions.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports.

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