Chael Sonnen

So which is it: We like when MMA fighters trash talk or we don't?

We like when there is apparent beef between opponents or we don't? It has to be asked because it seems when a fighter excels at throwing verbal jabs as well as real ones, they get celebrated and sometimes even fast-tracked to better spots in the fight game. But it also seems the loquaciousness of some obligates them to higher expectations for some reason.

There will always be discussion about who does it best or who best follows in the great Muhammad Ali's footsteps, but this is not about how good someone may be at it except insofar as it is part of the success equation. In other words, if being good at it propels. But, there really is an angle to explore in how the fan sees the value in the verbal sparring. And then subsequently what that fan or fans thinks when things go sideways for their favorite smacksmith.

How is it that fighters can be exactly the same human being revered in one moment and then within hours be maligned to the point of near disdain? In one moment, they are hoisted on the shoulders as heroes, the next there are mobs and pitchforks ready to carry them off to wherever mobs carry people off to. Oh, and that one little factor should be mentioned: a loss in a fight between these two scenarios. Yes, that is right. It seems the thing that makes a here a zero is not the talk itself, but not backing it up. A narrative can go from seeing social media erupt, thousands attending press conferences, T-shirts, weigh-ins attended better than some fights (pre-pandemic) to 'someone has to stop this trash-talk', 'it gives the sport a bad look', 'he should just focus on his skills', ad infinitum.

Let us all agree the sport is way more interesting when Chael Sonnen learns how to play the heel, or when Conor McGregor says, well, anything (recent exchange with Poirier below). But it simply has to be remembered that all rules associated with talk in combat sports are ironically unwritten. There are no guidelines. The reflection may not need be from the in-cage participants, but on-couch (at-keyboard) participants. If there is a place of hypocrisy, it might be in the clicking public or pundit who says on one day – as long as the fighter is a winner in their mind – this is great and brings interest to the sport and then after the fall says the fighter should not do that thing that got them in the spot at the front of the line.

We can't tune in like kids on a schoolyard at a bike-rack yelling, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" and add fuel to that fire by yelling, "Oh snap!" or "Shots fired!" after a zinger from a verbal Jiu Jitsu practitioner and then ourselves days later say, "they had it coming" when they lose. Or hypocritically say, they should have just stayed quiet and fought. There is a mirror held up to the observer who enjoys the jawing back and forth and then condemns it. True, it is hard to navigate because as we said, there are no rules except those we impose in a given moment, but it is not as though we are comparing a simple wrong turn to a far worse wrong turn onto a one-way street. Exceptions aside, such as when family or religion are brought into things – not a lot is at stake when the smack is rolling. Of course there are other factors to consider such as when someone is not good at it – but again, that is not for this moment. Nor are those strange paradoxes where a fighter has the charisma mechanics in which fans will let them talk and lose and then not scold them, but revere them more. 'They shot their shot' after all.

It is probably best that fighters be given freedom to be whoever they are. They can choose if they want to listen to a guy named Solomon who says a fool is known by many words or they may choose to use those words as tools of the trade (within reason). Usually a loss is half a paycheck accompanying the L. Somehow, the onlooker seems to think they are owed something when a fighter talks big. As though we were made promises or we were the oncoming traffic they turned into. However, the only person who steps in the cage is the talker. And make no mistake - verbosity or not - they step in that cage.

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