The story goes that Chael Sonnen accidentally found out where he stood with the UFC in the summer of 2009. That's when, having just heard that Matt Hamill had been forced to pull out of a bout with Brandon Vera at UFC 102 in Portland, he decided to offer his services. Sure, it was a fight out of his weight class. And yes, he was already signed to fight Yushin Okami at UFC 104 in October. So what? If the UFC was headed into his backyard, he might as well see if he couldn't wrangle a spot on the fight card.
So Sonnen texted UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and told him that if he was still looking for an opponent for Vera in Portland, he'd take the fight. Silva texted him back: Who is this?
"It was a little bit of an eye-opener," Sonnen says now. He knew he'd exchanged texts with the UFC matchmaker before. He had Silva's name in his phone, and presumably, at some point, Silva had had his. Then, in what Sonnen imagined as some kind of purge of unnecessary contacts, he'd gotten deleted.
Chael Sonnen? Don't need that number anymore.
That's what the UFC thought of him, he realized. Another middle-of-the-pack middleweight. Another interchangeable part in a division that, for the past three years, had consisted of Anderson Silva and a bunch of other guys. If you wanted to be a contact worth saving in that weight class, you had to find a way to distinguish yourself. Sonnen found it by making what seems to be a conscious decision to become someone else, and he's found that fans and promoters like that person considerably better.
Odds are Sonnen had multiple reasons for dropping the humble wrestler-next-door act in favor of the brash, pro wrestling-style persona he adopted full-time in 2010. Not that you can ask him what those reasons might be, of course, or even get him to admit that he's doing it at all. It's like asking a magician to show you where he was hiding the rabbit. For Sonnen's act to work, he must maintain, however unconvincingly, that there is no act.
Maybe what matters most is it does work. It has. Back in 2009 he was another struggling UFC middleweight still trying to put two consecutive wins together. Now he's a couple days away from a fight against Michael Bisping on the UFC's second network TV event on Fox. If he wins, as he's expected to do, it will likely land him in a rematch with middleweight champion Silva in front of 100,000 fans in a soccer stadium in Brazil some time this summer.
We're talking not just the biggest fight of his career, but probably the biggest fight of any MMA fighter's career. Not bad for a guy whose cell phone number wasn't worth holding on to three years ago.
But when you do it the way Sonnen did, you make a deal with a particular type of devil. You more or less renounce your right to be yourself in the public eye, for one thing. You no longer get to just say stuff and have it accepted on face value. Even when you are speaking for yourself and saying it's exactly what's on your mind, people won't believe it. People will assume you're still in character, that this is all part of the bit.
And when a little credibility might come in handy -- say, for example, when making your case to the California State Athletic Commission about that supplemental testosterone you say you need -- you might find yourself wishing that your word still meant something, somewhere.
This by-product of an assumed identity doesn't really exist in other sports. Not like this, anyway. That's because other athletes don't need to sell themselves to quite the extent that MMA fighters do. Fighters get paid based in part on their ability to put butts in seats, and -- unlike in baseball or football -- victory alone won't get it done. They need people to care about who they are and not just what they can do. When the real you isn't working, you might consider trying something else. That's what Sonnen did. If anything, it's worked a little too well.
Say Sonnen beats Bisping in front of a live network TV audience, only a small percentage of which understands what his whole deal is. Say he then gets to challenge Silva for the title again, and say he even wins. Say he holds onto the belt long enough to avoid being an MMA version of Buster Douglas, but not long enough to become an MMA version of Evander Holyfield. What then? Would it be enough to legitimize the path he took to the top, or to make fans remember him as a fighter first and a personality second? Would it even matter to him how people thought of him, as long as he still got to walk away with a big bag of money at the end of it?
These are bizarre questions to even ask about a man who, regardless of what you think about how he's gotten his share of the spotlight, has kept it by being a talented and successful professional athlete. But then, that's the world that Sonnen has created for himself. He's the one who, after demolishing Brian Stann in his last fight, went out of his way to make sure people were talking about his post-fight speech rather than his in-fight performance. He's the one who decided that people didn't care enough about the old Chael and then invented a brand new one that they couldn't get enough of.
And when he did all that, you have to think that this was exactly the result he was hoping for. You also have to think that he therefore considers all this -- the fan and media response, the insatiable hunger for a Sonnen sound bite, the headline dominance even heading into a event where two other guys are technically the main event -- to be a great success.
You also have to wonder if this is how he thought success would feel back when he was trying to think of a way to get Joe Silva to save his cell number, and if he ever wishes there had been another way to go about achieving it.