“Scottish rage” got Roddy Piper a long way in the professional wrestling business. A Canadian, he managed to parlay wearing a kilt and acting like a crazy person into one of the most storied wrestling careers in the history of the entire business. Though he has been retired from the ring for years, he remains one of the most beloved and recognizable names in professional wrestling. In fact, WWE still brings him back on to their programming from time to time just for the nostalgia pop.
Most wrestling fans don’t even care that he never held a major title in the WWF/E.
The question after Saturday’s UFC Fight Night on Fox Sports One is whether Chael Sonnen can be satisfied as the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of the UFC. The man whose antics made him more famous than some of the promotion’s champions has never won a title. In fact, he has lost three all championship fights he’s had.
Unlike professional wrestling, it matters whether mixed martial artists win their fights, which Sonnen has done for most of his career. His high-profile losses to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones are nothing to be ashamed of (they ARE two of the best three fighters in the world). As he showed on Saturday by besting Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Sonnen can still beat very good fighters and, apparently, climb the ladder back toward a title shot.
But after the swift beating he took at the hands of Jones, is one last title shot really in Sonnen’s best interests anymore? He is clearly not in the champion’s class, and at 37 years old he isn’t going to suddenly hit another prime, regardless of how much Testosterone Replacement Therapy he undergoes. What can an aging fighter do when he’s not championship material anymore? We have seen what aging boxers like Oscar De La Hoya can do, but there have not been many MMA fighters to follow that same path into business and promotion.
The most interesting thing about Sonnen in this part of his career is how he can get people to care about a fighter who will never be champion and may never have a fight of real consequence ever again. People will have to tune in for his fights solely on the basis of his personality and the potential violence his fights could produce if he’s going to maintain any longevity in the Octagon.
It’s possible this is the purest form of mixed martial arts. Many people just want to see guys hurt each other regardless of what’s at stake, or what outside pressures Dana White can put on his fighters. Sure, the original UFC fights had some kind of trophy at the end for the guy who won all his fights that night. The draw was the violence and the chance to see guys with big reputations like Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie. Hell, even Tank Abbott was a draw. Never underestimate the interest people will have for a bloody slugfest between guys with reputations for being tough, even when there’s no way either guy is going to actually win a championship. And make no mistake, the UFC is well aware of that type of fan interest.
Much like the WWE, the titles are not always the most important things in the fight business. Wanderlei Silva, he of the Chute Boxe team and several incredible brawls over the years in various organizations, has had quite the second act of his career based almost entirely on his reputation as a vicious striker who ends up fighting in wars with whomever he is pitted against. That could provide a road map for the next few years of Sonnen’s career. As long as he has something that can keep fans interested in his fights, it appears Dana White and the UFC brass will continue to run him out there against certain kinds of fighters (i.e. other veterans looking for a big paycheck).
Sonnen, ever the observant strategist, has taken to calling Silva out following his submission win over Rua Saturday. Though it’s a little on the nose, it makes it clear that Sonnen might be well aware of what his next, best move might be. After all, nostalgia pops are still meaningful, even if the fighter’s prime is long since past.
Even better for Sonnen, the Silva fight makes perfect sense for him stylistically. Silva is a well-known striker who is not nearly as comfortable against wrestling-based fighters like Sonnen. That is exactly the same problem Rua had with Sonnen.
The only way a guy can maintain the position of “guy who gets big time fights, just not for the title” is if he keeps winning or goes out on his shield. Silva is 4-6 since joining the UFC in 2007, but he has mustered big enough wins against big names (Brian Stann, Cung Le, Michael Bisping) and enough valiant defeats (Rich Franklin twice, Chuck Liddell) that fans still want to see him fight.
What comes next after a Silva fight doesn’t really matter for Sonnen. If he’s really serious about this next phase of his career, then what matters is the promotion for the fight and then winning it. Or at least losing well. The fans, and more importantly Dana White, love big talkers and great fighters. If Sonnen can do the talking, then the UFC will let him do the fighting for a few more years. He can ride that as long as long as possible and then fall back on his only weapon that won’t go away with age: his mouth.
After all, he’s already doing some analyst work for Fox and the UFC, and he can continue to do that after the fights dry up much like Kenny Florian does.
It seems Sonnen has already figured out the next angle for his mixed martial arts career. The question still is: will it be enough for him? It was for Roddy Piper, but the UFC isn’t (entirely) show business.