Could Nick Diaz talk his way into a title shot at 170 pounds? | Photo: Sherdog.com
The line between sport and entertainment first began to blur centuries ago, when gladiators roamed the arena to satiate the appetite of the bloodthirsty masses. Long before Chael Sonnen perfected the art of talking his way into title shots, a real-life version of Maximus played to the crowd at the Colosseum in Rome, hoping to curry favor by slicing through a variety of opposition.
“Are you not entertained?” may have been coined by the popular 2000 action flick “Gladiator,” but society has subscribed to this mantra far longer than that. At our very core -- despite well-to-do references to fairness and competition -- don’t we all just want to be entertained?
At a time when the mixed martial arts fan has grown weary of Ultimate Fighting Championship-generated gladiator themes, it seems short-sighted to compare the two. Livelihoods, not lives, are at stake in Octagon, after all. Still, the union between sport and entertainment lives on, perhaps stronger than ever.
Even in ancient times, the so-called matchmaking did not always follow a logical pattern. Mano-y-mano contests were OK, but warriors of the arena could also be expected to square off with multiple opponents, foes brandishing weapons, ferocious animals or any of the above, all in hopes of persuading the good citizens of Rome to drop their currency for a leisurely afternoon of violence and spirits.
While professional mixed martial artists do not face odds nearly that long on fight night, the motivation behind the matchups remains the same. Still confused as to why Sonnen leapfrogged the entire light heavyweight field to receive a bout with reigning champion Jon Jones in April? Other than maybe four or five solid rounds against middleweight king Anderson Silva, Sonnen used nothing other than an outsized persona to trump the credentials of his new 205-pound peers.
It is no secret that Sonnen’s shelf-life as a marketable commodity has an expiration date. One spectacular finish by Jones, and Sonnen’s drawing power fades into the West Linn, Ore., sunset. Credit Sonnen for recognizing this reality and launching an irritate-Jon-Jones-campaign that helped elevate him to the lofty -- and questionable -- position he currently occupies. Regardless of whether Sonnen deserves another title shot is irrelevant in the big picture. People will watch, from Sonnen supporters and Sonnen haters to just bleed guys and casual fans. It is why the match was made.
Without saying as much, Firas Zahabi launched his own campaign in the name of entertainment this past week. Shortly after Georges St. Pierre dispatched Carlos Condit at UFC 154, the debate regarding his next opponent began in earnest. Silva vs. Johny Hendricks remains the most popular argument in that conversation, but another potential contender remains just as intriguing in the eyes of many, including GSP’s head trainer at the Tristar Gym in Montreal.
“I think [Nick] Diaz is the guy who deserves it most,” Zahabi told MMAJunkie.com. “His fight with Carlos was so close. Who knows? People judge it both ways. [Diaz is] the guy who is the Strikeforce champion. He climbed up the ladder all the way. Johny deserves it very much, but Diaz has been there longer and done more fights and has bigger wins. If you want to be really fair about it, he is the guy who beat the most amount of names in the biggest fights.”
Fairness, of course, has nothing to do it. Diaz has been under the champion’s skin since UFC 137, when he called out St. Pierre following a victory over B.J. Penn.
“I don’t think Georges is hurt,” Diaz said then. “I think he’s scared to fight anyone.”
St. Pierre has been seething ever since. Normally, the Canadian is polite, poised and polished, but Diaz’s trash talk brought out a side of St. Pierre’s personality that we rarely, if ever, are allowed to see. St. Pierre’s appearance on the UFC “Primetime” special featuring Diaz and Condit earlier this year was a scene-stealer. Condit ultimately spoiled the scenario by defeating the Stockton, Calif., native at UFC 143, but it still left us wondering: “What if?”
Diaz prodded St. Pierre again after the champion defeated Condit at UFC 154.
“I am not impressed by your performance Georges St. Pierre,” Diaz tweeted.
A vindictive St. Pierre could be a massive box-office hit, impressive considering that the regular GSP does a pretty good job of drawing an audience as it is. Do not think for a second that UFC brass has not already considered the possibility. The Silva bout remains the long-term dream, but it is hard to think of it as anything more than that as long as St. Pierre continues to make a bitter beer face every time the Brazilian’s name is mentioned. Hendricks, meanwhile, has the beard, the knockout power and the good ole boy sensibility to be a star, but he obviously has not piqued the interest of the St. Pierre camp just yet.
Then there is Diaz. He flaked out when first presented with the chance to face St. Pierre; he is still serving a suspension for a failed drug test; and he lost to Condit in his last outing. Handing Diaz the No. 1 contender’s spot when he is eligible to return is irresponsible and illogical, but, once upon a time, so was pairing a gladiator with a lion, and plenty of people watched that.
In many ways, Diaz is the happy medium between Silva and Hendricks: an adversary that moves the needle and is appealing to the champion. There is no guarantee Diaz-St. Pierre happens, but do not be surprised if it does. Sonnen got his shot at Jones for doing a lot less.
In the end, it is all in the name of entertainment.