Sonnen's attempt at flattery falls short

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
6:13
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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That Chael Sonnen guy: He isn’t one of the best light heavyweights in UFC. But Sonnen has the gift of gab. He’s second to none in that category. His uncanny ability to come up with catchy phrases, primarily derogatory comments targeted at champions, captures the attention of the most casual fight fan.

Like it or not, when Sonnen speaks, everyone listens. And it has earned him some very lucrative paydays the past few years. It was during the months leading to his showdowns with middleweight titleholder Anderson Silva that Sonnen added a new wrinkle to his chatter. He took prefight trash talk to new heights, or depths, depending on your perspective. Sonnen questioned Silva’s intelligence, hinted at touching his wife in an inappropriate manner and said unflattering things about the champ’s native country of Brazil.

His statements could be classified as deplorable, but they served two purposes -- increasing interest in the fights and getting into Silva’s head. Sonnen is very skilled at getting in an opponent’s head before fight night.

He has employed this tactic again for his light heavyweight title bout Saturday night (pay-per-view) in Newark, N.J., against champion Jon Jones. But Sonnen has slightly altered his strategy.

There’s still a hint of nastiness -- he raised an issue about Jones’ mental capacity. That approach, however, has grown old and Jones is clearly too intelligent to be fazed by it.

So during a recent media call to promote the fight, Sonnen unveiled Plan B: soften Jones up with kindness. Rather than attempt to get under Jones’ skin with derogatory statements, Sonnen turned to praise as a way to distract the champion.

“I always find it, you know, as great as Jon is, I don’t think that he understands how good he is,” Sonnen said. “You know for him to pay tribute to Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali earlier was a very nice thing for him to do. The reality is Jon Jones could beat up Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in the same day.

“And when he says he wants to be the best ever, Jon, news flash, buddy, you are the best.”

Talk about taking prefight mind games to extremes.

Is Jones the best mixed martial artist today? Yes, though Silva supporters would surely chime in on this discussion.

The comparison to Tyson is fine. But Sonnen went too far by mentioning Jones and Ali in the same sentence. That’s total madness.

Ali was far more than a great boxer, he transcended his sport. Like Sonnen, he talked a lot of trash before fights -- often belittling his opponent -- which served to increase interest in the bout. More often than not, Ali backed up his prefight boasting. But what separated, and continues to separate, Ali from most other great athletes was his unwavering willingness to confront the social injustices of his day.

Ali’s positions weren’t always met with full approval from the masses, but the man was admired, especially in the African-American community, for staying true to his convictions in the face of overwhelming verbal attacks.

Jones has a long way to go and many more hurdles to overcome in his professional fighting career before comparisons to Ali can be taken seriously. Until then it is unfair, even insulting, to Jones to make such a comparison.

Fortunately, Jones refused to be sucked in to Sonnen’s trap. He remains focused on the issue at hand -- retaining his title Saturday night at UFC 159.

“I can’t afford to worry or feel any type of feelings of him being kind or anything,” Jones said. “The thought of someone taking my name away from me and that nickname is Champ, I take that very personal. I take that with a grain of salt.

“And that’s the way I need to keep my attitude. I need to keep my focus. Someone’s trying to take away my dream, you know, the thought of going home without my belt, it keeps me angry. So I don’t care if someone says something nice about me.”

Jones will defeat Sonnen at UFC 159, within three rounds, continuing his journey toward MMA immortality. And maybe one day a young champion will be compared to him, prematurely. That too, of course, will be unfair.

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