Saturday night, at the end of the first full day of the Trump administration, a former UFC champion will compete against a perennial UFC title challenger, but it’ll go down in Bellator, which is probably more appropriate for where we’re all psychically at right now. All fights have a theme, and this one’s is America’s struggle to see things as they are—and if we even want to.
Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen are just two years apart in age but are from different eras of fighting, Ortiz having been the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first light-heavyweight champion, while Sonnen didn’t challenge for a belt until he had notched 37 fights and 13 years of mixed martial arts competition on his belt. It doesn’t take that much of a leap to be put in mind of our new President. Gone are the days of the UFC’s obsession with protocol and single-minded corporate messaging, akin to the modern Democratic Party’s antiseptic presentation and erasure of its own recent past. Bellator is the zone these two live in now. It portrays itself as an anti-establishment bulwark while Viacom signs the checks, much like how Betsy DeVos, from the family that brought us Amway and Blackwater, is supposed to represent draining the swamp. Still, Bellator is accidentally honest in the way our new Jacksonian Republicans are; they’ll show how the other guys are full of shit.
The UFC wants you to believe every single fight has title implications. If two guys or girls who’ve each lost three fights in a row are going up against each other on the undercard of UFC: Corn Subsidy City, Jon Anik or whoever they’re getting to replace Mike Goldberg will tell you “they’ve both won eight of their last 12 fights!” Bellator, on the other hand, will stick a pro wrestler against whichever fat guy commanded the lowest rate, set up two fossils who competed in UFC 1, or gift a pedigreed kickboxer someone who has no hope of scoring a takedown, but they’ll more or less openly tell you that this is all just for fun. In the UFC’s quest for a sports legitimacy that doesn’t actually exist, their marketing apparatus often forgets what sport it’s promoting. At the same time, Bellator has its fair share of legitimate and compelling fights, but those are regularly sandwiched between matches that would be made if Kurt Sutter wrote a show about an antihero MMA promoter.
Like both our major political parties, our two major MMA promotions survive through exploitation. While they exist because of how good they are at profiting off people destroying one another, you can point to occasions where there’s clearly a lesser of evils. The UFC has provided health insurance for its fighters since 2011, while no one from Bellator could give me a similar on-the-record claim. The UFC has screwed its fighters out of tens of millions of dollars collectively with the hated Reebok sponsorship deal; Bellator is far more benevolent.
The Ortiz vs. Sonnen card is very on message for Bellator. The bill features the highly skilled Georgi Karakhanyan, as well as nuclear-armed striker Paul Daley, but that’s not what most people are tuning in for. The main event is a “what if they fought in their primes?” deal, an interesting question that will finally be answered long past either fighter’s relevance. Bellator makes no bones about it, though. The promotion of this bout has been what you’d expect from inveterate shit-talkers, with Chael ripping Tito as destitute and Tito characterizing Chael as a fundamentally dishonest maniac. They’re betting you and I will want to watch these two fight, and they’re probably right. It’s hard to resist the tension between spectacle and bullshit.
Tito Ortiz is not just the UFC’s first light heavyweight champion. He’s the reason the title exists. According to him, the specific 205 designation is because of his weight-cutting range.
The child of drug addicts who found in wrestling a solace in an adolescence otherwise defined by poverty and crime, Ortiz came to mixed martial arts through the Huntington Beach tough guy circuit. He fought for the Ultimate Fighting Championship for 15 years, only fighting outside the promotion once before 2014. He was a massive star in the MMA’s early days in the United States, back when John McCain called it “human cockfighting.” Ortiz didn’t attempt to counter the sport’s detractors by going high when they went low. Instead of trying to brand cage fighting as gentlemanly as boxing is so arbitrarily considered, he emphasized the spectacle. As champion of the company’s marquee division, Ortiz brought emotion, juvenile shit talk, and excitement to the promoting of fights previously unseen in the sport, particularly during his feud with Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den gym.
Before he fought Shamrock the first time, he pissed him off so badly that he permanently turned the once-feared fighter into a meme:
Before he fought Guy Mezger, he wore a shirt declaring “Gay Mezger is my bitch.”
In these early outings, Ortiz’s NCAA wrestling background, size, strength, and submission defense propelled him to victory. The Californian actually understood strength and conditioning, and going up against early one-dimensional fighters and old pro wrestlers, he could shoot takedowns and smash through his opponent’s guard with elbows and punches till they broke. Combined with his acerbic jock charm, it was as winning a formula as any for the UFC.
But soon after he pulverized Shamrock the first time, he lost his belt to Randy Couture. He then lost again to former friend Chuck Liddell, who, as opposed to grinding out the Huntington Beach Bad Boy as Couture did, instead stuffed his takedowns and smashed him up with his superior redneck kenpo karate striking. Fighting is a constantly evolving sport, and Ortiz’s ground-and-pound formula had been solved by men who would eventually have their own games figured out in years to come.
Tito Ortiz never got his title back. He spent his next eight years in the company whipping Ken Shamrock’s ass two more times, serving as a test to Ultimate Fighter reality show winners like Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans, and even shocking the world by destroying then-prospect Ryan Bader within a round after going five fights without a win.
During his 15 years in UFC, Ortiz had numerous public disputes with the management, president Dana White in particular. He would often agitate that he was owed more money for growing the sport in its early years, and White would respond by alternatively stating Tito was unpopular, weak, a bad fighter, stupid, or anything else that betrayed a deep inability to let anything go.
White had actually been Ortiz’s manager at one time, but after his childhood friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the UFC with him in tow, the former Boston boxercise instructor found his inner scab. Their feuding got so bad that at one point, the two almost had a public boxing exhibition, something appropriately corny for a guy as inherently corny as Dana White.
While it seemed impossible to picture Ortiz outside of the UFC, he made his way to Bellator in 2014, two years after his final fight under Dana White and the Fertittas. At age 38, he racked up consecutive wins for the first time in seven years, quickly dispatching Alexander Shlemenko and tightly decisioning fellow UFC veteran Stephan Bonnar. Unfortunately for Ortiz, he could not recapture gold in September 2015 when he contested tricky British competitor Liam McGeary for Bellator’s 205-pound title, ending up in the gangly grappler’s awkward inverted triangle choke in first round.
Talking to Ortiz on the phone, I hear the assuredness and brevity of a lifelong athlete. His answers to everything are brief and orbit whatever singular, simple idea he wants to convey. Even when asked questions concerning things like his legacy (he says this is his last fight, but these things never hold in this sport), his support of Donald Trump, and what he’s going to do with his life after this is all done, it seems as though he picks the first idea he associates with whatever I last said and smashes words around it.
When asked if, as a Trump supporter, his politics has changed since the days he would enter to Eminem’s anti-Bush anthem “Mosh,” Ortiz replies, “[Trump] wants the country to succeed, to make it great again.“
After telling me about being on Celebrity Apprentice and relating what Trump told him about working hard at all hours of the day, Ortiz goes back to stating that his one-time reality TV boss will “make America strong again,” and that his work ethic and drive transcend party affiliation.
Concerning his own support for a fighter’s union, Ortiz refers vaguely to the Muhammad Ali Act, but says that fighters should remain independent contractors (he alludes to the strength of his personal brand in reference to the advantages of this status) before concluding that it’s a “Catch-22 on all sides.”
On whether he regrets some of the more emotionally charged things he’s said in his career, Ortiz says “99 percent of the time, no,” but concedes that wearing a shirt reading “Dana White Is My Bitch” was wrong. Still: “At the end of the day, I spoke my mind the way I wanted to speak it. I had integrity. I never sold out.”
Where Tito Ortiz is, his opponent Chael Sonnen is not. While Ortiz’s public image is in large part informed by his fights with management, Sonnen has always been a dedicated company man who often plays devil’s advocate on behalf of his former bosses when talking about the labor rights of fighters. While Ortiz’s star rose quickly and then went from champion to gatekeeper in a few short years, Sonnen toiled as a midcard fighter for ages until he became a title challenging superstar who garnered massive pay-per-view buys and dominated fighting media.
Where Ortiz is often failed by words, Sonnen is known for his pro wrestling-inspired promos:
The cultural image of fighters is that of tribal-tattooed societal malcontents from broken homes, Sonnen couldn’t fit that mold worse. He grew up in West Linn, Ore., raised by a no-nonsense mom and a hardworking plumber father. (“There was good jobs and there was bad jobs, but he got up every day and did whatever the job was,” Sonnen tells me.) His athletic history is the kind of stuff that makes “lunchpail 9-to-5” sports fetishists shoot in their pants.
Sonnen began wrestling well before puberty, and embraced the grinding, painful, solitary, and character-building aspects of the sport. As a student at the University of Oregon, he achieved status as a PAC-10 runner-up and an All-American, then scored a silver medal at the World University Championships in 2000. He won first place two years in a row in two different weight classes at the Dave Schultz Memorial International. It was the last time he would achieve a first place marker in any athletic competition.
Sonnen didn’t start his fighting career as a hot-shit prospect who always ended up with the title just out of his grasp. He lost a lot, almost always by submission. He could take almost anyone down, but when he did, he’d find himself in a triangle choke or armbar. Brazilian Babalu Sobral snatched his heel to earn a spot on the UFC’s video package that they play before every main card. He got cut from the UFC two fights after that, at the age of 29. The story ends there for many fighters, but it didn’t for Sonnen.
To hear him tell it, Sonnen is the last of a dying breed of fighter: the hard-working badass who goes through the hell of fight preparation because he loves competition more than any paycheck.
“It annoys me,” Sonnen tells me when I ask him about this. “I think it’s what a bully does—bullies pick and choose their fights and only take the ones they know they can win. It annoys me, and these guys aren’t real tough guys.”
This is very clearly an image that has been crafted, sharpened, and perfected, but there’s truth to it, too. Sonnen took a hard, rocky road back into the UFC (he would’ve won his first championship belt in the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion had Paulo Filho not missed weight before their bizarre rematch), and even though he got torn to bits by Demian Maia in his first fight back, he strung together three dominant wins, the latter two against Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, who were both highly favored to send Sonnen back to the Indian reservations and Northeastern casinos that host B-league MMA.
Sonnen had earned his right to fight Anderson Silva, the reputed greatest fighter of all time and at the time, the middleweight champion. Leading up to the fight, Silva had alienated fight fans with taunting, mercurial performances against Thales Leites and Demian Maia in title fights. He pissed people off so badly that Dana White declared he would cut the Brazilian from the company if he kept fighting that way. Sonnen knew the way the wind was blowing, and verbally ripped into his adversary in the months leading up to the fight: Silva was a “sissy” who wore pink shirts, a high-pitched Hollywood weirdo who was simultaneously an elitist while also a criminal thug from a criminal thug country. It was a virtuoso performance in Lee Atwater dogwhistle bullshit by a lifelong Republican and would-be elected official. Sonnen mastered the art of calling someone a fucking pussy cocksucker knockout-game thief with a poor work ethic and low IQ using country club-friendly trash talk, and it hit all the right buttons with MMA fans. Guys who felt victimized by cocky ethnics, passed over by a feminized culture, maybe even made to live in bondage by that famous oppressor, reverse racism, were so happy they could barely contain it.
For four straight rounds, Sonnen destroyed Silva. He dropped him early on. He took him down at will. He hit the champion more times than he had ever been hit. He even ended up on his back and scooped Silva with a double leg takedown. But what had always happened happened: In the fifth round, Sonnen took Silva down like he was a grappling dummy, but after a few punches, Silva threw up an ugly triangle, which he switched to a triangle-armbar. With his legs barely around Sonnen, Silva adjusted, and the Oregonian tapped with just two minutes and nine seconds before he would have been champion. For a man whose competitive life had been characterized by coming in second, there could not be a more cosmically cruel ending.
But Sonnen gave something to Silva: the attention of others. For Silva’s championship run leading up to the Fight of the Night-winning victory against Sonnen, he had trouble moving pay-per-view numbers on his own. But his opponent’s endless torrent of shit talk had drawn 600,000 buys. Silva’s next go-around, it increased to 750,000 as he fed Vitor Belfort his foot. Silva was becoming a genuine star, and no one forgot it was at least in part Sonnen’s doing.
Sonnen had some time on the shelf after the fight, getting popped for a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio four times higher than what was allowed in competition, and failing to disclose he was using testosterone replacement therapy. If anything, that added to his “American Gangster” persona. Sonnen wasn’t a self-serious “I’ll die in this cage” Affliction-shirted psycho. He’s always been acutely aware of what’s funny, what’s interesting, and what’s ridiculous about himself, that there’s a silliness to the phrase “the mean streets of West Linn, Oregon,” or to claiming that he’d been on a bike ride with Floyd Landis a day after pissing hot. After he popped, he pleaded guilty to a Dinesh D’Souza-esque money laundering charge. He added this to his “gangster” qualifications, despite it being the most boring of white collar crimes. He knew that, though. It was his type of Republican anti-comedy, and it enamored those fans already inclined to like him.
Sonnen’s verbal abilities landed him spots as an analyst for ESPN and the UFC’s own programming in between a dominant victory over Brian Stann and a close nod over current UFC middleweight king Michael Bisping, before he fought Silva a second time. This time he racked up only one round of dominance before Silva turned him into a highlight reel. That didn’t matter, because they moved just shy of a million PPV buys. With that in mind, Sonnen was sent to coach a season of The Ultimate Fighter against then-champion Jon Jones, and would’ve won the title had he survived the first round—Jones nearly severed his toe from his foot during the bout, and any fight doctor whose family wasn’t being held hostage by Jones’s older brothers would have stopped the fight in between rounds.
Unlike in his wrestling career, Sonnen could cash huge paychecks after he came up short. People just wanted to see him, to hear his prepared lines, to see him call someone a ridiculous pussy to their face. It didn’t really matter whether he won or not. But as Carmela Soprano once said, everything comes to an end. In 2014, he was flagged by the California State Athletic Commission for four banned substances (including HGH and the masking agent hCG) before a scrapped bout with former PRIDE FC champion Wanderlei Silva. Sonnen announced his retirement, but the UFC went ahead and terminated his contract as a broadcaster despite the fact that he was no longer competing. Joe Rogan openly takes testosterone (and many other drugs), then-CEO Lorenzo Fertitta looked like this, but no one ever accused sports enterprises of being internally consistent.
CSAC stuck Sonnen with a two-year ban, making Saturday’s fight against Ortiz his first since 2013. Talking to Sonnen last week, I was reminded that it was not just his ability to make nearly any fighter naked levels of angry within seconds that brought so many eyes to his fights. He’s a genuinely interesting guy to talk to.
For the first few questions I asked, it was clear when he was doing shtick. Blah blah all these fighters are cowards blah blah fake tough guys, the usual Sonnen warm-up. When the conversation turned to politics, he really got going.
When I pressed him on what he sees as failures of the Republican Party, I expected some boilerplate “not conservative enough” answer, but I got something totally different. Sonnen referred to the Benghazi Subcommittee as “a total embarrassment,” comparing it to Colin Powell’s case for the Iraq War at the United Nations many years ago (“They did the Colin Powell, where you show up with absolutely nothing”), and calling Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) “a bitch, not in the playground term, but just a bitch.”
In fighting, Sonnen presses forward, often to the detriment of his limbs and carotid arteries, but in conversation, he’s difficult to catch in anything. When I asked if he sees Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism” as preferable to factory-pressed Congressional conservatism, he almost let himself become a kind of TCOT Adam Curtis (“There’s no such thing as a foreign policy expert”) before he stuck his landing by saying he liked Sarah Palin (“she used regular sense”). We talked about politics as the division of resources, about Yemen, and about the concept of economic nationalism, but it was impossible to get a bead on what he actually believes. It was clear he pays a lot of attention to politics, but whenever it seemed he’d fit in a slot as a hardcore Trump acolyte or as a libertarian conservative, he’d say something like, “Obama caught a lot of flak he didn’t deserve,” and go on to say that the outgoing president adeptly deployed the “peace through strength” model of foreign policy. “Think about the toughest guy you knew at school,” Sonnen said. “Did you ever see him fight?”
The personality Sonnen shows to reporters is a work; it’s a pastiche of salesman techniques, pro-wrestling lines, and a few of his actual opinions. He knows that he appeals to a certain kind of reactionary, but doesn’t want to implicitly tie himself to the success or failure of Donald Trump or the Republican Party at large, lest he become branded as a conservative circuit celebrity. He’s firm in his beliefs about the individual failings or positive aspects of individuals, but never sees anything as symptomatic of a larger ideology. In Sonnen’s hyperreality, the political left and right, the UFC’s management, MMA fighters, and everyone else exist not on spectrums of beliefs, but on axes of courage and cowardice, work ethic and laziness, practicality or academic impotence. He can avow himself a conservative Republican who really likes Trump, praise Obama for scoring political victories and his drone campaign in Yemen, then excoriate fighters for pretending to hate each other because the Chael Sonnen character evaluates the world only through the lens of effectiveness.
How can a fighter who never achieved first place claim that he’s the greatest ever? Because he sold out stadiums and headlined cards. Because he was effective in setting his offense against Anderson Silva for the majority of both their fights, even if he lost.
“In what parallel scoring system,” Sonnen asks rhetorically, “do you punch a man 300 times, he hits you 11 times, wraps his legs around your head for eight seconds and they declare him the winner? That doesn’t make you a winner. In no form of society, from the jungle to the streets, does that make you a winner. I’m the people’s champion. I’m the linear champion. I’m the best middleweight there’s ever been, and I am the UFC’s true champion.”
Fighters probably make more excuses than any other athletes, simply because losing a fight is a greater blow to one’s ego than coming up short in any other type of competition. These excuses are usually rooted in old injuries that kept our hero from being 100 percent when they got in the ring, but they sometimes point to unfair referees or even marital problems. Few would ever be so creative to say that they actually won all those fights they lost because they see the values of the world as totally different than the average moron who’s watching the fight, or the idiots who drew up the rules of MMA.
When Ortiz and Sonnen face off this weekend, it’s ostensibly a battle between Trump-supporting Republicans, but the men couldn’t be more different in how they experience the world. Consider the gulf in their perspectives on Ronda Rousey’s recent loss. Ortiz told me that the women’s MMA icon was a victim of “fighting real competition” for once, which is why she avoided his former management client Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, lest she be “served a slice of humble pie the right way.”
Sonnen told me that to hear Rousey say she’s depressed after losing showed “a disconnect.” “I had 14 fights by the time I was 25,” he says. “She’s had 14 fights.” But despite referring to Rousey as being “green,” she “sold out arenas, main evented cards.” She didn’t win, but she won at the business of fighting.
Ortiz only sees the world in terms of competition. Sonnen doesn’t get why anyone would be depressed when they’re famous. Ortiz is a guy with a high tax liability and an admiration for business success, one of millions of his type who like Donald Trump. But Chael Sonnen actually lives in Donald Trump’s hyperreality. Sonnen occupies that zone where you’re supposed to take Trump seriously, not literally, where he holds press conferences because elements of the deep state accused him of liking watersports, where liberals clutch children’s books about wizards like they’re exhaustive political manuals and conservatives are split between hating Putin because some think tank told them to and loving him because he makes Democrats sputter like idiots.
Our reality is now nakedly stupid in the way Bellator is. It smacks you in the face and flat out tells you it’s all a spectacle, but knows that you’ll watch. But don’t be confused, the previous reality was pretty fucking dumb, too. It was fucking dumb in the way the UFC was, with hints here and there, such as Joe Rogan and Dana White screaming at each other with excitement before every card or Mike Goldberg completely fucking someone’s name up. But that gloss of professionalism that made the truly stupid shit seem like aberrations is gone. We are Ortiz, adrift in the idiocy of the world with only our loved ones to hold onto, or we are Sonnen, unrepentantly kayfabe.
When it was breaking into mainstream audiences, UFC would often do video segments for some charity or other. They’d trot a champion out to speak some cliche about how everyone is a fighter, especially people with breast cancer or maimed troops or whoever it was that time. That’s even truer than they knew. Everyone is not just a fighter, but an MMA fighter: a socially dislocated pawn with precarious employment status whose labor serves only competing groups of rich guys, stumbling from spectacle to spectacle and playing but rules that aren’t our own and praying that there will be anything left of both ourselves and the world when we physically just can’t do it any longer.