Bellator MMA’s recent signing of former UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen is undoubtedly the biggest acquisition in company history, even if his professional record may not show it. While fellow Bellator signees Rory MacDonald and former UFC champion Benson Henderson boast more impressive resumes, they are unable to match Sonnen’s drawing power. Over the last two years, MMA has undergone a transition from the reliance on rankings to determine fights to more of an entertainment, or “money fight” based sport. No longer does a fighter’s earning potential revolve solely around his in-ring abilities. Fighters who want to reach the top level must also develop personas that fans either love or despise. Fights no longer have to make sense from a pure sport perspective. Bottom line, if people are willing to pay to see a fight, then that’s the fight promoters are interested in. Chael Sonnen is the originator of the “money fight” concept, blurring the lines between fiction and reality, using pro wrestling style theatrics to manufacture conflict and maximize profit. While Bellator may never be a true competitor to the UFC, Sonnen’s gift of gab will certainly draw eyeballs to the product.
Let us first look at Chael’s Octagon abilities. Coming from a wrestling base, he’s known as a grinder, taking opponents down and keeping them trapped from bell to bell. It isn’t the most exciting style. He boasts a professional record of 29-14. He fought for the UFC title three times, and lost three times. He hasn’t competed in nearly three years, and is now 39 years old. Relatively unimpressive credentials. However, what Sonnen lacks in statistics, he makes up for in his ability to promote himself, his opponent, and his employers. He became the sport’s biggest star through his rivalry with then Middleweight champion Anderson Silva, insulting him and the entire country of Brazil at every opportunity. Their first fight was filled with drama, with Sonnen being submitted in the last minute of the last round of a matchup he was winning on judges’ scorecards. Therefore, the rematch nearly two years later was at that time, the most anticipated fight in UFC history. Should the Viacom-owned Bellator organization allow Sonnen to run with the ball as he did in the UFC, ratings will surely improve. He will continue in his role as analyst for ESPN, meaning Bellator will receive at least some airtime in the build-up to his fights.
When comparing Sonnen’s drawing numbers to other UFC castoffs who have recently come to Bellator, it becomes crystal clear that Sonnen, at least from a promotional standpoint, is top dog. Rory MacDonald was never in a UFC pay-per-view main event, and Benson Henderson’s pay-per-view numbers leave much to be desired.
- UFC 117 – VS. Silva: 600K buys
- UFC 148 – VS. Silva: 925K buys
- UFC 144 – VS. Edgar: 375K buys
- UFC 150 – VS. Edgar: 190K buys
While Benson Henderson is a phenomenal fighter, he lacks personality. Fans do not feel one way or the other about him. Chael Sonnen forces fans to tune in, either to cheer him on, or root against him. Because of this connection to audiences, Sonnen will take Bellator to new heights, making him the biggest signing in the history of the promotion.
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