In the current MMA landscape, elite talent is monopolized by the UFC, with the world’s most credentialed fighters competing almost exclusively under their banner. The promotion of pugilistic greatness, then, is a strategy with a low commercial ceiling for rivals to WME-IMG, the UFC’s parent company.
Fortunately for #Bellator, mixed martial arts is not a sport in which performance is the decisive metric in a fighter’s marketability.
MMA, despite its rapid growth and peaking public attention, is not boxing. It has never been viewed by broader society as a gentleman’s sport, nor has it captured the public imagination in the ways that boxing greats such as #MuhammadAli did in the 1970s.
No, in many ways, MMA is more analogous to professional wrestling, despite the fact that MMA’s cognoscenti often dismiss the notion.
There’s nothing wrong with this, and for many, this honest realization has created some of our favorite moments in the sport. Few fighters embrace this notion as naturally as Ortiz and Sonnen.
These men feel like fleshed-out characters, transcendent personalities who would feel right at home alongside any of the #WWE's bizarre or compelling figures. Skilled as they are or have been, they promise entertainment first and foremost. Ortiz himself has made forays into professional wrestling, notably alongside fellow former UFC lightheavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, and the results were dreadful, but intoxicating, in a way that only Tito could pull off.
Ortiz, one of the most dominant champions in the history of the UFC’s light heavyweight division, has never been blessed with a silver tongue, but has a natural penchant for rivalries. Easy as it may be to laugh at some of Tito’s more poorly worded put-downs, there’s a weird genius to what he does.
An oft-awkward practitioner of the spoken word, Ortiz’s draw is not in his delivery, but in his versatility. He consistently finds ways to dislike, and be disliked by, his opponents, capable of stepping into any role where necessary.
In professional wrestling vernacular, good guys are “face,” bad guys are “heel.” While Sonnen almost exclusively plays the heel, Ortiz can shift between either, his conflicting “People’s Champ” and “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” personas seeming to create no dissonance in the minds of his fans.
There’s an earnest charm to even the most obviously recited of his soundbites, allowing him to resonate with fans whether he’s an impassioned badass or a legend-turned-underdog.
Chael Sonnen is a different kind of self-promoter. With linguistic mastery and intense self-awareness, Sonnen delivers the kind of entrancing, articulate promos which put all but the best pro wrestlers to shame.
He possesses the silver tongue which Ortiz never did, along with a natural gift for spinning narratives. “The American Gangster” understands people; how to appeal to them, how to convince them, and how to get them to watch.
These men are, in completely different ways, masters of promotion. Ortiz was one of the UFC’s marquee box office draws during the light heavyweight golden age, when Ortiz stood atop the division along with men like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Since his championship fights with middleweight great Anderson Silva, Sonnen has been one of the sport’s biggest stars, and a consistent ratings draw on free TV.
What a stroke of luck, then, that they would meet like this, and that history would make their rivalry feel so inevitable. The two have competed against each other once before, in a 1998 wrestling match, which Sonnen won in just 44 seconds.
Payback is always an intriguing angle, but there's more to it than that. After his defeat of #WEC middleweight champion Paulo Filho in 2008, in which Filho missed weight and thus did not relinquish his championship, much of the narrative centered on a promise the Oregonian had made to his dying father, to one day become a world champion.
In the public lead up to the bout, Sonnen once again referenced this promise, clarifying that he promised specifically to defeat Ortiz.
"Listen, Tito Ortiz was the world champion when my father passed away and I made him one final promise on his death bed, and hand to God, this is a true story, I said, 'Dad, I am going to beat Tito Ortiz and I'm gonna be the world champion. It's the one promise that I never kept. And on January 21st, I'm going to make that right."
There are no truths or lies with Chael Sonnen, only shades of grey, but there's something compelling about his story, regardless, and the frank way he tells it.
This is not a fight to decide the world's best fighter. Meritorious stakes are minimal. This fight attracts interest not because of the skills of the combatants, but because of their humanity. Those who tune in are watching for the people, to root for and against them.
From a match up perspective, it's certainly intriguing. There's no reason to be particularly confident in either man winning, and the betting odds reflect this. Sonnen is a small -170 favorite over Ortiz, less than 2:1.
The appeal of becoming invested in a personality, and watching the body attached engage in a physical war with an uncertain outcome, is separate to the interests of sporting purists, but there's beauty in this. Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen may not be the best in the world, but they are willing to give every piece of their hearts to the public before giving every piece of their body to the ruthless confines of a steel cage.
This is what MMA is about. It's an emotive, quirky, wonderful spectacle that blurs the lines between sport and entertainment. For Sonnen and Ortiz, there is no line. There's only the build up and the battle, take it or leave it.
Bellator 170 Main Card:
- Chael Sonnen vs Tito Ortiz
- Hisaki Kato vs Ralek Gracie
- Brennan Ward vs Paul Daley
- Emmanuel Sanchez vs Georgi Karakhanyan
- Derek Anderson vs Derek Campos