I’ll admit that when I sat down to watch the episode of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3” in which Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen brawl on-set, it was originally to see for myself whether it was staged. More accurately, it was to see exactly how staged it was.
That’s the Sonnen Curse. The man knows how to make headlines and rip off sound bites, but he’s also got a little bit of a sincerity problem. His dedication to his persona runs so deep that it’s less a matter of figuring out if he’s faking it as it is to what extent, and to what end.
With this in mind, I sat down to watch my first episode of “TUF: Brazil 3″ on UFC Fight Pass. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot like the original “TUF,” by which I mean the 2005 “TUF” with the team challenges and the ham-fisted product placement. There also are female coaches who seem to have no knowledge whatsoever about the sport of MMA, but apparently they’re big in Brazil for basketball or volleyball or something, and so sure, why not have them hang around and make vaguely inspirational speeches? Poppa Chael can only do so much as a foreigner in a distant land.
Then comes the fight, which erupts after a fairly standard trash-talk session between two rival coaches. Silva makes clear his fervent desire to hurt Sonnen. Sonnen sarcastically wonders why they can’t exchange pleasantries when they pass each other in the halls. It’s aggression vs. ironic insincerity, which, be honest, is exactly what we all expected from this pairing.
Then something kind of remarkable happens. As Silva is getting in Sonnen’s face, miming the threat of an attack in order to get Sonnen to flinch, junior high school-style, the veneer slips.
“Please stop,” Sonnen tells Silva, and there’s something in his voice that seems different. It’s as if he’s just now realizing that this guy isn’t in on the joke, that he’s about to go off-script. Rather than wait around to see exactly what that will look like, Sonnen shoves Silva out of sucker-punching range.
“I can’t let you get close,” Sonnen explains as he puts up his dukes. It hits the viewer like a sudden spasm of honesty. He’s not acting anymore. He’s actually a little worried. Something is really going to happen here.
And then it does happen, with Silva swinging a wide right and Sonnen ducking under it to take him down (even in flip-flops, which is how you know he probably wasn’t planning on getting into it with Silva when he showed up to the set that day). What follows is a few sucker punches from one of Silva’s assistant coaches, then a lot of shoving and shouting and tussling about.
Pretty unsatisfying for a show about professional fighters, really. It’s kind of like tuning in to one of those cooking shows and seeing a chef make himself a quick tuna sandwich for lunch. You know they can do better, so who cares to see them do worse?
Still, it’s that line from Sonnen that stuck with me: “I can’t let you get close.” Like he felt the need to explain why he was shoving Silva away. A very un-Sonnen thing to do, when you think about it, which only tells us how effectively Sonnen has manipulated our expectations of him.
See, he’s playing a part, and we know it. He knows that we know, and so he’s very good about not letting the mask slip. That’s why when there’s a moment like this – a moment that actually seems real – it’s so weirdly interesting, far more so than the sloppy scramble that follows. It’s moments like that which remind us that there’s a person under there, and that person does not wish to be sucker-punched by Wanderlei Silva.
For a second, we almost relate to him. Then he’s back to being the same old Sonnen, and we’re back to wondering just how seriously we’re supposed to take him.