The Bottom Line: Different Approaches to Villainy

By Todd Martin May 1, 2018

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Chael Sonnen went into the cage at Bellator 198 on Saturday with every intention of building up his fight with Fedor Emelianenko in the Bellator MMA heavyweight grand prix by playing the role of villain and issuing some harsh words for the Russian legend. Unfortunately for Sonnen, he was done in as he frequently is by his own politeness. Sonnen, as much as he recognizes the value in maintaining his heel persona, just can’t help but be nice when opponents treat him with respect. Before Sonnen could even get the microphone, Emelianenko immediately offered him a handshake. Sonnen, faced with his personal kryptonite, had no choice but to shake Emelianenko’s hand and even gave him a hug.

Undeterred, Sonnen still tried to cut the nasty promo he went into the cage to deliver. He insulted the city of Chicago and vowed to make quick work of Emelianenko when they fight. It was short, harsh and to the point. The unflappable Emelianenko, rather than responding with anger, smiled and offered Sonnen another handshake. If Sonnen could have summoned up the nerve to refuse it, it would have helped to put an exclamation point on his effort to sell the fight. Of course, that’s not what Sonnen did. Backed into a corner, Sonnen had no choice but to give “The Last Emperor” a second handshake and hug.

Having twice fallen for Emelianenko’s psychological tactic of friendliness, Sonnen then turned away with a disgusted look on his face. The poor guy was surely upset at his own inability to be unrepentantly villainous for even a minute. Genghis Khan reached the outskirts of Baghdad, thought that the people looked awfully nice and decided to throw them a parade rather than following through with his whole burn everything to the ground plan.

Sonnen has been open about how his persona is heavily influenced by the world of professional wrestling, with its “babyface” heroes and unlikeable “heels.” However, it’s important to note that he plays a much more modern version of a pro wrestling heel. It used to be that wrestling heels were principally concerned with being hated, drawing money by making people pay to see them defeated. In recent years, that has shifted. As pro wrestling has become an even more over-the-top spectacle, few wrestlers generate genuine hatred. Pro wrestling heels today, like Sonnen, largely play the bad guy with a wink and a nod to the knowing audience. It’s all in fun, and few take Sonnen very seriously in his efforts to be hated.

Old-school scoundrels may be less common these days, but they have not entirely left the MMA game. Just take a look at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Colby Covington. Like Sonnen, Covington’s persona is clearly influenced by the world of pro wrestling, and he even performed at pro wrestling events last year for the Impact Wrestling promotion. Covington, however, is playing a very different type of bad guy than Sonnen. It’s not clever and amusing; it’s crude and nasty. He isn’t winking at anybody; he’s trolling for attention and for dislike. That dislike, he surely theorizes, can make him money and get him ahead in the sport.

In the past week, Covington followed up on his earlier posting of Star Wars spoilers on Twitter by sending out spoilers for the new Avengers movie. He also got into a confrontation with Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett at an event promoted by a porn company. This comes on the heels of vile comments directed at Mike Perry’s girlfriend and a seemingly unending series of insults aimed at the country of Brazil. Covington’s routine is to offend, not to amuse.

Will the antics of Covington pay off? It’s too soon to say. An interim title fight with Rafael dos Anjos is a big opportunity, but if he can’t continue to back up his words, he may have a harder fall than a comparable fighter who didn’t make so many enemies. His shtick is also heavily reliant on an opponent popping up to rally fans against him. Against opponents that fans don’t particularly care for, fans are likely to simply turn away rather than getting invested in his downfall. On the other hand, against a beloved opponent, he could be tremendously effective. He’s pretty much the perfect opponent for Georges St. Pierre from a promotional standpoint.

There’s another pro wrestling concept that has relevance to Covington: go-away heat. Heat in wrestling means the hatred fans have towards a villain. However, sometimes a wrestler will have the wrong type of heat. Fans dislike the villain, not because they want to see him conquered but because they simply want him off of the show entirely. Fans won’t pay to see that antagonist lose and just want that character to go away. It’s entirely possible the reactions Covington gets right now are basically go-away heat and it won’t translate into him ever drawing ratings or pay-per-view buy rates. If that’s the case, Covington might end up wishing he had Sonnen’s propensity to let his likeable characteristics sneak through.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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