Chael Sonnen: Will the Ultimate Fighter Earn or Lose Fans for MMA's Top Heel?

James MacDonaldFeatured ColumnistNovember 23, 2012

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 30:  Host and mixed martial artist Chael Sonnen arrives with (L) Regan Molatore and (R) Brittany Smith at the Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards 2011 at the Palms Casino Resort November 30, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Chael Sonnen is as polarizing a figure as you are likely to find in the world of mixed martial arts.

Regular readers are, perhaps, aware that I am an occasional Chael Sonnen apologist, so the content of this piece likely won’t come as much of a surprise.

Indeed, I fully expect to be derided for swinging from the proverbial jewels of West Linn’s finest.

So, it is at the risk of being accused of such wanton “nuthuggery” that I argue why Sonnen’s stint on The Ultimate Fighter will introduce some much-needed shades of grey into the palette of fan opinion, softening some of the harsher attitudes towards the UFC’s top villain.

Once a fighter capable of generating little more than extreme apathy, Sonnen has transformed himself into one of MMA’s most bankable commodities—both quantitatively and qualitatively.

In stark contrast to his early career, fan indifference would appear to be the least of Chael’s worries. He has divided opinion like no other, fostering a uniquely dichotomous attitude within the MMA community.

Many fans love Sonnen’s pro wrestling-inspired approach to promoting MMA, but arguably, just as many have dismissed him as a racist felon with more bark than bite—an unfair assessment, yet it remains a well subscribed point of view.

The aforementioned charge of racism, perpetuated by the likes of Jon Jones, must not go unchallenged. Such a loaded term should be used sparingly, lest the concept become so dilute that it is rendered benign.

One has to wonder why so many people insist on taking Sonnen’s shtick so seriously.

Anyone who has ever had so much as a passing interest in pro wrestling should be able to recognize when a heel is attempting to generate heat.

Charging the Oregon native with any form of bigotry is as nonsensical as calling the Iron Sheik a xenophobe for his contrived anti-American antics in the 1980s.

As pointed out in previous articles, spending quality time in the company of the former middleweight contender appears to dispel the notion that he is anything more sinister than a mere pantomime villain.

Just ask Michael Bisping or, even more surprisingly, Jon Jones.

It is fair to say that the current light heavyweight champion went into the most recent series of TUF with a less than positive opinion of Chael Sonnen.

Despite initially holding Sonnen in the same regard as your average white supremacist, Jones flip-flopped like a kipper within the first 48 hours of filming the show.

During a fan Q&A last month, the competing coaches could be seen playfully ribbing one another, trading compliments rather than barbs. One could have been forgiven for thinking that they were BFFs of the high school variety.

The impression one gets, therefore, is that Chael has decided to dispense with the pageantry and break kayfabe—or at least express more of his natural personality.

It is precisely for this reason that Sonnen should expect his fanbase to expand throughout the course of his time on TUF.

As fun and engaging as he is while in character, the contrast provided by his real personality will simultaneously surprise and delight those who had bought into his “West Linn Gangster” persona.

Don’t be shocked if your opinion of Chael Sonnen has altogether changed by the end of The Ultimate Fighter season 17.