Wednesday, 11 July 2012

An Off Take: All You Have To Do Is Make Me Care: Or How Chael Sonnen Forced Us To


Indulge me for a bit here...

If you are objective enough to realize when a life lesson is being presented to you, literal or metaphoric, you will grab it and remember it forever. There are also moments in life when you realize just how powerful one person can be, just by their sheer ability to be so.

On Saturday night (July 07) Chael Sonnen, a UFC Fighter, participated in the biggest MMA fight not just of the year, but perhaps of all time. It was against Anderson Silva, the best MMA fighter on the planet. As I sat in the bar my friend and I were at, awaiting this most epic of all epic encounters, I found myself getting far more nervous for this than even when I went sky diving. I looked around the bar, just as the fight was mere seconds away, and nobody was talking. I mean nobody. Everyone had their eyes glued to the TV’s.

I have been watching UFC/MMA for over three years, which is not very long compared to others. I did, however, watch WWE for most of my childhood and teenage years. Even then, there was nothing in that “Sports Entertainment” brand that ever came close to the anticipation of this fight. At this moment the PPV buyrates have not come out, and we don’t know how many people in fact watched this fight, but no matter the size of the audience, everyone in the MMA world was intensely focused for a moment in time on just these two men.

Fights with a lot of build only come around every couple of years, and nothing has ever come close to this. The only way you get this kind of intensity is getting an audience, one way or another, to care about the outcome. As Andrew Stanton says in the famous TED talk “Make me care.” It’s a simple as that, and is probably the hardest thing to do in storytelling, especially film making. However, it’s not just a rarity in MMA, it borderlines on myth.

For those of you who don’t know, Chael Sonnen is an MMA fighter with a heavy amatuer wrestling back ground. The first time he fought Anderson Silva he was a 4-to-1 underdog. Silva, at this time, was on the brink of being called the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Going into the fight, nobody gave Sonnen a chance, yet Chael began talking so much trash, it gave a new meaning to the word “hype". On August 17, 2010 he backed up everything he said. He beat up Silva for four and a half rounds. It was a spectacle you had to see to believe, and all fans were in shock. Near the end of the fifth and final round, Silva submitted Sonnen in a come-from-behind victory that will go down in history.

After this fight, Silva went on to defeat two more challengers and Sonnen fell on hard times. He was suspended for elevated testosterone (not steroids) and had some run-ins with the law that forced him out for 14 months. He won his first fight back (October 2011) and called out Silva in a now infamous post-fight interview. Silva, who had an injury at the time, did not accept the fight. Sonnen then fought another fighter (Michael Bisping) for the chance to fight Silva in the summer. Needless to say, Sonnen won and got his rematch.

Those are the facts. But the bigger story is how Chael Sonnen, not just trash talked, but promoted himself and the rematch in ways that MMA fans can’t even begin to understand.

You see, Sonnen created an alter ego, which he and the fans now call ‘Chael P. Sonnen.’ With this character, he was able to say things that were disrespectful, (bashing Silva’s home country of Brazil) outrageous (claiming he didn’t understand the rules of the first fight) to almost crossing the line (commented on Silva’s wife cooking him a steak). There are interviews of him on sports shows, MMA websites and he was even on TMZ. For the latter, his humor and classic sayings had the entire place laughing like it was a comedy show.


But how did MMA fans react? Well half of the audience loved it and the other half hated Sonnen with such distaste it seemed as though someone would attack him physically before the fight. He created such a polarizing view of himself, that the audience either loved him or hated him. Nobody, not one UFC fan was on the fence about Chael Sonnen. You either wanted 'The Bad Guy' to win gloriously or be defeated embarrassingly. It was more intense than any movie. Because it was real.

And that’s the point.

So often in story telling we are presented with such indifferent stories and characters that the audience just doesn't care on a basic and fundamental level. Too often do we sit in a movie theatre and are indifferent to how our main characters will end up at the end of the film. It doesn't matter what situation they are in, how good your action sequences are, how intense your romantic or break-up scenes are, or even how funny your scene is - if you do not care on a basic level about a character, it's death for the story.

I use the example of Chael Sonnen not only because it’s rare to have such an intense story unfold in front of your eyes in MMA, but for all sports in general. This rivalry he created with Anderson Silva is one of the greatest that the world of sports has ever seen. Sure, the UFC has guys who fight each other that don't like each other. Guys with some history between the two. But the level that we experienced leading up to UFC 148, was above and beyond.

So why am I praising a UFC fighter on a film blog?

MMA has fights almost every week. Two men enter a cage, or ring, and fight. It's as basic of a sport as you can get. It's just one on one. Professional Wrestling has been doing a 'fake' version of this for years. While they benefit from a script and a much more spectacle-type show, MMA is completely unpredictable. You just never know what's going to happen. All these ingredients should on their own add up to every fight being intense. But it's just not. In fact sometimes I find myself cheering for fighters I don't know, simply because they are wearing a cool set of shorts. Even in a simple, brutal and intense sport like this, people usually find themselves completely indifferent to the outcome. Even if a fighter does an amazing knockout, it wont be as impressive since you had no stakes in the fight anyway.


Sonnen made you choose to hate him or love him. He showed us the power of not just hype and promotion, but of basic story telling. At its very core, when I say "made you care" I really mean "made you have an opinion." That's what it's all about. Half the people that watched that fight wanted to see him get beaten and they did. The other half wanted to see him win and they didn't. But for those 7 minutes of fighting, no movie on earth has ever made me that emotional or nervous. Everyone wanted to know the outcome. And whether or not you got your desired outcome is next to irrelevant. The joy in this has been the months of hype and build. The debate's and the articles. The name calling and the shoving between these two. The stare-downs. Then the fight. That's what we want to be apart of.

I know it will be hard for people who don't watch UFC to understand the specifics of what went down, but I believe the overall point is glaring. Story telling after all its bells and whistles, no matter what medium your in, all comes down to emotion. Whether it's watching two people falling in love, a Superhero saving the world, or two guys in a cage fighting, the very first thing you have to get right, is making me care one way or the other.


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