Trash talking ingrained in the fight game

June, 29, 2012
6/29/12
1:44
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Back in 2006, Ken Shamrock appeared on "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" via a satellite feed from northern California. Sitting in the Los Angeles studio was Tito Ortiz, a fugitive of Shamrock justice who in a short while would be forced to deal with some very cruel consequences in the cage.

The idea of the segment was to escalate a feud that began when Ortiz flipped the double bird at the Lion’s Den corner after he defeated Guy Mezger years before. This made for bad blood. When there’s bad blood, the idea is to exploit it. Good television is made of this.

“I’m going to take your soul,” Shamrock cautioned.

“I’m glad you didn’t have to go to the Wizard of Oz to find your courage, little lion,” Ortiz retorted.

That’s just fun. And the fun between those two carried over to a news conference when Shamrock said, “I hope to god you’re ready, because I’m going to beat you into a living death.” Ortiz came back with the only thing he could have -- hysterical laughter. Shamrock’s veins thickened and for a moment he became apoplectic.

When you’re selling pay-per-views, this is gold. Mission accomplished if you’re Tito Ortiz getting under Shamrock’s skin.

Same thing, it appears, for Chael Sonnen, who has disrespected middleweight champion Anderson Silva for so long that Silva finally announced his intentions to break a lot of Sonnen teeth and bones. If we’re to take Silva at face value, Sonnen will return to the mean streets of West Linn in a state of recalcification.

That’s trash talk -- a novelty for Silva, an uncontrollable urge for Sonnen.

It’s part of the fight game. The media provokes, the fighters respond. When fighters cross the line of good taste, media turns righteous. Righteous media makes divisions in the sand. In truth, we’re a bunch of barometers. Fighters know what a few choice words in the media means. It means an echo down the hallway.

But in all this reactionary give and take, bad-mouthing and moralizing, one thing happens that a fight promoter can live with -- people are talking about the fight. We are feeding interest into a conflict.

That’s the central idea.

Know why it works so well in MMA?
[+] EnlargeFrank Mir
Jon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesFrank Mir, bottom, failed to honor his vow of seriously hurting Brock Lesnar.

Because of where it’s headed -- to a fight. The ultimate culmination of a bunch of heated insults is to fight. If kids in school start talking about each other’s mothers, a flagpole appointment is made to settle the differences. The excitement feeds on itself and everybody shows up to watch. Same thing here, only gussied up with sponsors and cage lights. If ever there was an arena where people should talk smack about each other, it’s one where they will be forced to back it up in a cage. The use of metaphors - like a ball in other sports -- isn’t the case in fighting. Fighting is literal.

Far more literal than the words, which are often not literal at all. Frank Mir didn’t talk about breaking Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s arm before the fight, he just did it. If there’s a moral jurisdiction in this game, it’s in the actions, not the words. If we can accept the one, then we should at least be able to understand when the other is winking at us.

Back before UFC 94, B.J. Penn cut a promo for the UFC where he said, “Georges, I’m going to go to the death. I’m going to try and kill you, and I’m not joking about this.” He was talking about Georges St. Pierre, the welterweight champion.

Penn wasn’t exactly joking, but he wasn’t being completely serious either. This was him saying he wanted to beat St. Pierre up real bad. All the other stuff was just a mindset. It’s a declaration of serious intent. Just peacock warriorism, to align himself with Kurosawa characters.

In essence, Penn said this to help sell the fight.

There have been countless other examples. Dan Henderson said he wanted to punch holes in Anderson Silva’s face. Frank Mir said he wanted to make Brock Lesnar the first fatal casualty in the Octagon. Wanderlei Silva said he would kill Sonnen quick if they ever fought. Mike Tyson once told Jim Gray “my style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart, I want to eat your children -- praise be to Allah!” He was directing some of that to Lenox Lewis, and some to a spiritual government.

The juxtaposition was raw, and it got you to thinking. Did he really think Lewis’s children were edible? No. But he was clearly mad at Lewis. Same as when somebody says, “I’m going to knock your head off,” which is a fight game proverb at this point. Nobody is seriously thinking decapitation.

But it helps when there’s genuine animosity, like there is with Sonnen/Silva, and like there was with Shamrock/Ortiz. As Ortiz said recently, trash talking has got to come from the heart. That’s sort of the dark side of a Hallmark sentiment, isn’t it? Feuds that are real feel more personal to everybody. It helps if we care.

In other professional sports, threats of breaking bones and knocking heads can’t be tolerated.

In professional prizefighting, especially in the protective renegade ideology of the UFC, it’s not always endorsed but it’s certainly condoned. How could it not be? It’s part of the game to sell the bout. And the game itself is not a game at all. It’s a fight.

Any words spoken beforehand just build around a conflict, a conflict that invites itself to be resolved in front of as many people as possible.

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