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UFC 136: Can Sport Without Spectacle Sell? Ask Frankie Edgar And Chael Sonnen

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Does the relatively flat fan response to Frankie Edgar's incredible fight at UFC 136 and the frenzy for Chael Sonnen's schtick mean spectacle has triumphed over sport?

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Chael Sonnen reacts after defeating Brian Stann by submission during the UFC 136 event at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Chael Sonnen reacts after defeating Brian Stann by submission during the UFC 136 event at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

In the last three weeks we've seen four UFC championship belts put on the line. By definition eight of the world's greatest martial artists, most skilled, most dedicated athletes competed with one another in those bouts. And the product delivered too. Champs Jon Jones, Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar all confirmed their standing at the top of their divisions and at the top of the sport by beating dangerous opponents in good fights. 

You'd think we'd be reveling in the after-glow of one of the most exciting months in UFC history. Fans should be in a frenzy, buzzing about which champ is the best pound-for-pound fighter on Earth, reliving the high light moments of the fights, talking about who could possibly beat these guys.

Instead we've got a big flat "meh."

A lot of us obsessed MMA fans just don't understand. I mean, I can see why fans haven't warmed to the somewhat eccentric Jon Jones, a man whose preternatural talent is almost as off-putting as his not quite convincing nice guy persona.Sure Dominick Cruz' point-fighting style offends purists who live on the raw carnage of cage fighting and Jose Aldo has yet to put on his best performance for UFC fans, but Frankie Edgar?


Frankie Edgar Stamps His Ticket Into Immortality


How in the hell can fans not care about UFC lightweight champ Frankie Edgar now that he's put on two of the most epic, most amazing, most legendary performances MMA has ever seen? 

Edgar came into UFC 136 against a bigger, stronger fighter with a better technical wrestling pedigree in Gray Maynard. Worse, Maynard had already beaten Edgar once and beaten the crap out of him in their second bout (which Edgar was lucky to escape with a tie). Maynard had all the confidence in the world going into Saturday's fight and proceeded to show why in a first round that saw him do everything but take Edgar by the ankles and use his head to mop the Octagon floor clean of blood, sweat and tears. 

But Gray just couldn't finish the plucky lad from New Jersey in that first round and from there it was all over. Maynard faded with each succeeding round and Edgar just got tougher. When he finally finished Maynard there were no questions left as to which fighter is the better man.

And yet online in the post-fight buzz, Edgar's feat gets a shrug and the conversation turns to the WWE style antics of one Chael Sonnen, an undercard fighter at UFC 136.

Sonnen, a convicted felon who just came off a year's suspension for failing a drug test, riveted fans on Saturday. Not so much with his flawless performance in a submission win over the dangerous Brian Stann. Nah, most fans don't seem to appreciate the way Sonnen incorporated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu into his Olympic-level wrestling game. No one's really hyped about the way Sonnen's improved grappling game put him in position to not just dominate Stann on the ground, but finish him in short order. 


Chael Sonnen And The Best Interview In UFC History


No, instead everyone is lathering because Sonnen whipped out one of the most tired cliches of pro wrestling and challenged UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva to a "loser leaves town match." Really.

Let me quote MMA Payout on Sonnen's antics:

But what was more interesting than the fight was the post-fight interview. Short, brief and concise. Sonnen challenged Anderson Silva (who was in attendance and sitting next to Charles Barkley) to a loser leaves match (Silva leaves division or Sonnen leaves the UFC). A textbook pro wrestling promo: 1) Insult opponent, 2) challenge said opponent to a fight, 3) state when the fight is happening, 4) state stipulations and 5) leave.

And how does the site of record for the MMA business see Sonnen's gimmick going over with fans? Like gangbusters of course:

Sonnen vs. Silva - Super Bowl Weekend. The event is not on the schedule yet but I guess we have our first fight. This will be a big event and should help jumpstart 2012 with a big buy rate. Sonnen will be in full promo mode and with the help of Fox, we're going to be seeing Sonnen's face all over the Fox networks. There are talks of this being in Cowboys Stadium although that seems like talk at this point.

Someday maybe the magnitude of Frankie Edgar's athletic feats will be appreciated by fans. But in the meantime we're all about to get hustled by one of the best salesmen in the sport. 

Happily Silva vs. Sonnen II promises to be a fight even more epic than Edgar-Maynard. Silva is thoroughly established as a fighting legend with UFC fans. Sure many American fans don't like or understand Silva and resent the times he's coasted through title fights with weak opponents, but they know he's the best. If his jaw dropping highlight reel didn't convince, Silva's records for most Octagon wins, most title defenses, etc. and Dana White's six year sales job have taught American fans that Silva is an amazing, incredible, once-in-a-lifetime athlete and martial artist. 

The cherry on top is Silva's new-found status as a genuine celebrity in his native Brazil.

Sonnen's brand of hype was dismissed by many going into his first fight with Silva at UFC 117, but after the four and one-half rounds of ass-whipping Sonnen put on Silva, everyone knows he's the biggest threat to take the title. Sure there's the little factor of Sonnen being forced to tap out to a submission hold in the fifth and final round, but no one doubts Sonnen when he says Silva is not looking forward to fighting him again.

Is the moral of the story that Frankie Edgar needs to go to pro-wrestling school like Chael Sonnen did (I wish I was kidding)? No, but he might want to see if he can share another bill with Sonnen, maybe on Super Bowl Sunday, this time with Sonnen on top of the card and Frankie just one step away from the spot light.