Ten days before their first fight back in 2010, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and No. 1 contender Chael Sonnen participated in a media conference call that captured perfectly, if inadvertently, the two forces struggling for the soul of modern mixed martial arts.
By that point, Sonnen had been in Silva’s face for months, trash-talking and mocking the champion every chance he could. By assuming the role of the pro-wrestling heel, Sonnen had carnival-barked their fight right out of the provincial world of MMA chat rooms and fan expos and onto ESPN. As a result, Silva, MMA’s first truly transcendent athlete, was getting his first taste of sports stardom four years and 11 fights into his UFC career.
It’s not clear, however, that Silva had any desire for stardom. During the conference call, an interviewer asked the champion if this would be the most anticipated fight of his career, considering all the bluster and disrespect that had been pouring out of Sonnen.
Silva replied, “No.”
A second reporter wanted to know if Silva had trained differently for his recent fight with Forrest Griffin (a masterpiece if ever the UFC saw one) than he did for his recent fights with Damian Maia and Thales Leites (two of the most boring fights in the promotion’s 20-year history).
Silva replied, “No.”
Silva’s manager and translator, Ed Soares, was bemused by his client’s one-word responses. The sports reporters were unsure. Somewhere, UFC president Dana White fumed.
After a long pause, a third reporter took the bait.
“Are you tired of answering these kinds of questions?” she asked.
Soares and the reporters didn’t know what to do. Sonnen, heir to the throne of Muhammad Ali, “Gorgeous” George Wagner, and Don King, did.
“He truly believes that people are tuning in to see a fight and not anything else,” the challenger jumped in. “He couldn’t be more wrong … People don’t just want to see two people fight; they want to know why they’re fighting. He couldn’t have this industry more backwards.”
That exchange, which is the centerpiece of the new Anderson Silva documentary, Like Water, seems to sum up where MMA sits in 2012: fighting to maintain its integrity while experimenting with whatever marketing tactics are available to enter the rarefied air occupied by pro football, baseball, and basketball—including beer commercials starring UFC fighters, network television contracts, and good old-fashioned hype.
To Sonnen, searching for any kind of balance between honoring the spirit of the sport and selling it is a waste of time. He’s an old-school silver-tongued huckster who knows the best way to make his name in MMA, and the only way to make MMA's name in the wider culture, is to talk both up, to create hype, to go on TV and Twitter and to get his named Googled and his videos rebroadcasted on YouTube. The “integrity” and “spirituality” of martial arts are unnecessary burdens holding the sport back from the big money and big recognition of pop culture.
But most fighters—Silva in particular—don’t have Sonnen’s verbal skills or interests. Their hours aren’t spent brushing up their one-liners but slogging away in gyms, punching bags, lifting weights, and trying to figure out the best way to avoid getting their heads kicked off. Who has time to worry about explaining to SportsCenter why they’re going to fight? Figuring out how to fight is hard enough. Only Sonnen could find the energy to master both combat and marketing. Silva, meanwhile, just wants to fight. They represent the two warring impulses at the heart of MMA and the two paths the sport may go down in the future.
The Sonnen path is an alluring but dangerous one, a tightrope between pushing the sport into the lucrative mainstream and turning it into a carnival sideshow where controversy and attention-grabbing become more important than fighting. On the one hand, without characters like Sonnen, the sport will probably never shake off its reputation as a fringe bloodsport, one no longer in need of banning but still at times shunned by decent society, not to mention Madison Avenue. On the other, too many blurred sports-entertainment theatrics, and MMA risks losing the hardcore fans who cringed every time former professional wrestler-turned-UFC fighter Brock Lesnar yelled into the camera about how much sex he would be having after a fight.
In the wake of Sonnen’s second defeat to Silva on July 7, Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has stepped up to claim his role as MMA’s No. 1 rabble-rouser/marketing-savant. Rousey has spent the last few months calling out everybody she can think of, including former opponents like Miesha Tate, upcoming opponents like Sarah Kaufman, potential opponents like the suspended Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps, even heiress and professional “personality” Kim Kardashian. Where Sonnen uses a scalpel, Rousey has taken a scatter-gun approach to self-promotion. She was recently photographed naked in ESPN Magazine, as well as clothed, working out with Carmen Electra.
That Rousey would approach the art of salesmanship with a wider lens than Sonnen makes sense. She not only has herself and her sport to promote; she’s advocating for an entire gender, trying to convince reluctant promoters like Dana White that women belong on the UFC roster, and skeptical fight fans that women can fight at all. Rousey knows it’s not good enough to be good in the cage; if she and her fellow female fighters are going to make it into the Octagon, she’s going to have to drag the whole culture forward. She’s battling thousands of years of inherited prejudice, so who can fault her for using all the weapons she has—her jiu-jitsu skills, her attitude, and, yes, even her body—even if it means moving mixed martial arts one step deeper into the self-obsessed mire of celebrity news and Twitter wars?