As you might have noticed, Chael Sonnen hasn’t quite been himself lately.
During the last few months, it seemed like most of the vitriol had drained out of MMA’s favorite bad guy. Somewhere between his shellacking of Brian Stann at UFC 136 and Anderson Silva’s latest injury, Sonnen appeared to have become resigned to the idea he might never get another crack at the soon-to-be 37-year-old middleweight champion. With that realization -- whether real or just the latest manifestation of his carnival barker act -- he backed off a bit on his customary trash talk.
In Sonnen's defense, it’s pretty hard to hurl the same kind of verbal barbs at opponents like Stann and Mark Munoz that he once chucked at “The Spider,” Wanderlei Silva and the Nogueira Bros. Who knows? Maybe combing through hours of old “Superstar” Billy Graham videos looking for one-liners just isn’t as fun when you’re set to take on guys you legitimately like.
If that’s the case, you could argue Sonnen got a reprieve this week when Munoz dropped out of their Jan. 28 scrap with an arm injury and the UFC tagged-in Michael Bisping instead. Truth was, there hadn't been much sizzle surrounding the original booking, with most of the prefight hype concerning whether the organization was merely jeopardizing any lingering hope for Sonnen-Silva II by having him fight a fellow wrestler as good as Munoz.
Those fears are somewhat alleviated against Bisping, as most everybody now expects Sonnen’s grappling will win the day. That fabled rematch with Silva now feels closer than ever. Even still, I’d hazard a guess fans are instantaneously more interested to watch Sonnen clean Bisping’s clock than engage in a slightly more competitive but infinitely less gratifying fight with Munoz, even if the buildup doesn’t play out exactly like we thought.
On the surface, a bout with Bisping seems like a slow pitch softball for a self promoter the caliber of Sonnen. If the former Oregon wrestler was just biding his time in recent days, waiting for another chance to channel his inner Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, he got it in spades against the swaggering Brit. Bisping’s very being seems to invite that sort of acrimony. You might even say, if you can’t talk trash against Bisping, you can’t talk trash.
Oddly however, Sonnen -- true to his penchant for the unexpected -- hasn’t played it that way. At least not yet. In the hours after the switch was announced he seemed fairly complimentary of the former “Ultimate Fighter” winner, even going so far as to tell USA Today’s Sergio Non: "I'm a Bisping supporter. I'm not on the anti-Bisping bandwagon. I never have been."
Perhaps this will change. With 10 days yet to go before the fight, perhaps Bisping will say something to set Sonnen off or find a way wheedle under his skin in the same way he’s done with most of his previous opponents. Maybe this whole thing will devolve into the epic beef session we all assume it will be.
If not though, perhaps Sonnen (for one fight only) has the opportunity to play the most interesting role of his UFC career: Fan favorite.
Chael Sonnen, good guy. How does that strike you?
If you said “weird,” you’re right. And that’s exactly what makes Bisping a more intriguing matchup for Sonnen than Munoz ever could be.