To succeed in the modern era of combat sports, it’s no longer enough to just be a great fighter. A good work ethic, genetic gifts, technical proficiency and a hunger to win will only take you so far. These days, you’re going to need more. Want fame and glory and world titles? Want fifteen Rolls-Royces and condos in Mallorca and a harem of supermodels to pick out designer furniture to go in them? Want legions of adoring fans, your own brand of hand-sanitizer and some dangerous and exotic animal on a chain, like a Giraffe, or a Cassowary? Then kid, put down those pads, get off the treadmill and start working on your one-liners because this is the age where the trash-talker rises ascendant.
Trash-talking your opponent is nothing new. Think back to your childhood and no doubt there would’ve been that one little punk who sassed you in front of all your friends with a well-timed jibe. You threw some heat back their way, set a date and time (usually after school behind the bike-sheds) and by the end of the day the whole school was there to watch the super-fight go down. Really, apart from a few trifling differences, huge six-figure paydays and a vast outreach to millions of spectators among them, the fight game hasn’t changed all that much. It’s an inescapable fact that trash-talking sells fights. Instead of yelling at that one kid you don’t like, you now sit back and send him or her a few barbed tweets, wait for the incensed replies, and hope that the matchmakers are paying attention.
But it’s only been in the last several years that fighters have begun to elevate trash-talking to an art form, to make it as important to their game as strength and conditioning, or cardio. Why? With so many promotions and so many hopeful prospects to fill them, fighters can’t just rely on spectacular finishes alone to gain the edge.
Trash-talking then and now
Gone are the golden days when silent killers like Royce Gracie decimated the competition, only to bow and praise their opponents afterward. Honor, humility, and respect were all hallowed virtues to live by, and anyone who did not display these qualities was no better than a know-nothing street brawler.
That was a time when the world had yet to wake up to the phenomenon of MMA, when fighters earned not much more than concussions and coupons to the local restaurant for their efforts, and social media was merely an echo of some shadowy future. Those early pioneers fought for the love of their craft and the respect of their peers, not their bank accounts.
Fast forward a decade or two, and while those trail-blazers may have become MMA royalty, their code of ethics has largely been subsumed by the very street brawlers they once fought against. One of the earliest fighters to reach a greater audience through trash-talking was Chael Sonnen. A middle-of-the-road wrestler, it was his wits and his quick tongue rather than his fists that propelled him to early fame. And perhaps he was the first to ever practice his lines in a mirror beforehand, who knows?
“I’m sore, tired, under the weather, over-trained and under-motivated and still tough enough to beat this guy.”
“I want an easy fight. Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, either of the Silvas. Bigfoot Silva. They all suck. Gimme a Silva!”
“Two half-naked men are going to get into a steel cage and fight for the applause of a drunken rowdy crowd; you don’t need to plan for that.”
While many had mean or amusing things to say about their opponents before fights, it was Sonnen who wrote the blueprint for creating hype, and even though he often lost, beaten by opponents who paid more attention to their training, he remained a crowd favourite simply because people really wanted to see this disrespectful loudmouth get his head kicked in.
When it goes right
These days it seems as though every fighter and his dog has a few choice lines to spit whenever there’s a microphone handy. And with social media serving as an all-pervasive and immediate forum, they don’t even need those anymore. With only a few belts to go around, and hundreds of fighters clambering over each other for them, it’s the one with the biggest lungs who succeeds.
You may be thinking, hang on, what about guys like Cerrone, Lawler, Lauzon, Teixeira, Miller; crowd favorites who’ve never had a bad word to say about their opponents yet. And while that’s true, they had to fight through hell to get there, in a time when there were far fewer contemporaries on the roster. They and those of their ilk no longer need to self-promote when they come with a readymade sachet of rabid fans that only takes a moment in the microwave to prepare. The new breed has no such luxury and must seize every opportunity they can, fighting tooth and nail to single themselves out from the crowd. And we as fans are then forced to listen to whatever ridiculous nonsense they have to say just to get to the seemingly less important bit where they do the actual face-punching thing.
The McGregor effect
Where would Conor McGregor be if he wasn’t a fan of the spotlight, if he just kept his head down and concentrated on his fighting? Given his technical skill and power, no doubt he would still be great, but it is his mouth that has propelled him to the top of the mountain, not his abilities alone, and it has polarized fans the world over.
Let’s take his win over Jose Aldo, for example. A rooster in a run of hens, McGregor burst onto the scene and immediately woke everyone up with his damned irritating early-morning yodeling. Having only fought a handful of times against fairly second-rate competition, he was fast-tracked into the title picture because the UFC saw a quick and easy route to huge profits and a greater global outreach. Harness the love of the casual fan, and you’re golden, baby. It’s likely that not even the UFC foresaw the kind of monster they were about to unleash.
When his title fight was announced, McGregor immediately launched into a relentless campaign of sledging and insults, of heinous disrespect and public spectacle that lassoed the attention of millions. Here was this wild-eyed little Irishman who nobody could really understand very well, capering about in front of the cameras like some bearded clown. He fired one-liners and gags left and right like a possessed assault rifle, all at a target that had never experienced such a barrage before. And added to that, Aldo’s English was almost non-existent. Sitting at the press conferences vibrating almost out of his chair with rage, he knew he was being mocked, yet he didn’t know what the Irishman was, in fact, saying to him.
“If this was a different time, Oi would invade his favela on horseback.”
“Tell him ‘Oi’m his daddy.’ Sit on my lap, boy.”
“After that Mendes fight, which arguably could have gone to him, you look like you’ve had a stroke, the left side of yer face is droopin’. Oi’m worried about you. Oi love you like my bitch.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Aldo was looking to even the score when they eventually met in the cage. McGregor’s relentless onslaught had effectively won him the fight before he’d even entered the octagon. So angry was he at McGregor that Aldo erupted forward wildly, game-plan thrown out the window, and wound up on the floor, minus his belt.
Would McGregor have had the same success if he’d kept his mouth shut and been respectful to his opponent? It’s impossible to say, but it can’t be denied that it was his mind and his confidence to use it that packed as great an impact as his left hand that night.
Another noteworthy occasion where trash-talk swayed the outcome of a fight was Nate Diaz versus Donald Cerrone. Bullish to the last and utterly impossible to intimidate, Diaz’s staunch disrespect came to a head when he flipped Cerrone’s Stetson from his head at weigh-ins. Did the hat really need to be present, considering it was indoors, and probably night at the time? No. But on the flipside, if there’s one thing you don’t do to a cowboy, it’s mess with his Stetson, so you can appreciate why Cerrone might have been a little bit salty about the whole affray. Desperately wanting to put a cork (and his foot) in Diaz’s mumbling grill, Cerrone effectively forgot how to Octagon, and wound up on the wrong side of one of the biggest significant strike tallies in UFC lightweight history.
When it goes bad
At best, trash-talking is a little irritating, but entertaining nonetheless. At worst, it’s hurtful, disrespectful, ugly, and largely unnecessary. And more than that, it can only have heinous consequences for the perpetrator if things don’t go the way he or she planned. We return to Chael Sonnen as a prime example. After his first contest with then UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, which was his to lose up until that unfortunate triangle choke in the fifth round, he campaigned relentlessly for a rematch, using every opportunity he could to openly and venomously (albeit in amusing and cleverly worded ways) deride Silva both personally and professionally. It eventually paid off, and Sonnen got his rematch. It paid off perhaps a little too well, as Silva’s ire was raised, ending in a stoppage win for the Brazilian in the second round.
We move to two recent examples of trash-talking gone wrong that occurred on the same card. Let’s start with former UFC strawweight queen Joanna Champion (I’m not even sure there are enough consonants in the English alphabet to go in her last name), and her bout against then-challenger, Rose Namajunas. Up until that night, Joanna had blitzed every opponent she had ever faced (with the exception of her first fight against Claudia Gadelha, but that’s another story), so her confidence going into the fight was riding an all-time high. And why not? She’d come off a dominant win against Jessica Andrade, a lady-tank many thought would be the Polish killer’s staunchest test.
Joanna is famous for her pre-fight nastiness, writing mean things on her water bottles, getting into the faces of her opponents, whispering evil little comments into their ears at weigh-ins, and even in the case of Rose, giving her beak a little tap with her fist. It had worked to tremendous effect in the past. She intimidated everybody, not just other girls in her division, and it certainly appeared as though Rose was scared stiff. And then Joanna took her trash-talk a step too far.
“The boogie-woman is coming for you!”
“You know what? I will take your soul.”
She started to believe her own hype, to believe she truly was unstoppable. It’s the Rousey curse. As soon as you say your goal is to retire undefeated, you will be defeated. Khabib, pay attention to that, please. The next night, the boogie-woman was exposed, the 0 taken from her record as well as her belt and a significant proportion of her reputation as well.
And then there’s Michael Bisping. Where to even start? He seems to have a God-given talent for making mortal enemies of not only his opponents but also nearly everyone around him. Even his kids famously root against him. And it’s been remarked upon before that it took Bisping just days to do what Sonnen could only manage after years of trying: to bring out Anderson Silva’s dark side.
Enter Georges St-Pierre. An MMA legend, future hall-of-famer, and as far as Bisping was concerned, cake money. Here was another instance of a smooth-tongued trash-talker overflowing with confidence and a penchant for performing in front of a crowd, utterly rinsing a man who was famously none of the above. And to boot, St-Pierre’s English has never been the greatest. It was shades of McGregor versus Aldo.
Bisping had the opportunity for months to work his way into the Canadian’s head, and boy did he do his best. Though it no doubt lost him plenty of fans, he was laying the foundations for a performance in the cage that would secure not only his belt but his somewhat egregious legacy as a giant-killer. He did the same to Silva and then Luke Rockhold, so why not St-Pierre? After all, how many interviews and press events did they do side by side? St-Pierre could only laugh awkwardly and stutter out some faltering retort in the few instances when Bisping drew breath, knowing he was losing the battle of words abysmally.
“Come on Georges, you look like a history teacher.”
“Look at your big fat face, taking all those protein shakes…”
“If you want to go out filling holes, that’s up to you pal.”
“Listen, Georges is a very good wrestler, but do you know what the best takedown in the game is? A left hook.”
As an aside, here’s the thing with trash-talking. You can’t knock somebody out with an insult, no matter how cutting it is, nor how fluidly it’s delivered. Where it served McGregor well in one fight, arguably gaining him the belt, it famously abandoned him in the next. Like trying to smash a window with a gummy bear, all of the Irishman’s best artillery simply pinged off Nate Diaz’s impenetrable armor of belligerent stoicism. And when the cage door was closed the tables turned, Diaz not only mocking and slapping his opponent, but forcing him to tap as well. There has never been a better example of trash-talk gone wrong in all of MMA, and it prompted one of the most iconic lines in UFC history:
“I’m not surprised, mother***ers.”
The same scene was repeated when Bisping had to shut his mouth and start using his fists. Unlike Aldo, Georges St-Pierre was unmoved by his opponent’s endlessly quotable barbs, and it ended in Bisping taking a little nap, effectively rendering all of that tireless groundwork before the fight a waste of time.
A new era
2017 could be said to be the peak of trash-talking when we consider the spectacle of ‘The Money Fight’.
This was an opportunity for Conor McGregor’s fast-talking prowess to shine. In an event that quickly stole the world’s attention, the Irishman was put on stage in front of an audience of millions; not just followers of MMA and boxing, but an entire legion of casual fans who hadn’t previously paid any attention to the world of combat sports. He had the stage, a microphone, a willing audience and a passive target in Floyd Mayweather who, like Aldo and St-Pierre, just wasn’t in the same league. Did Mayweather sit down with pen and paper with the aim of listing possible taunts, only to get called away after jotting down just the one line, “Hard work”, or was that the best he could come up with?
Conversely, McGregor had the world eating out of his hands. With little resistance coming back his way, he easily made himself the hero, and Mayweather the contemptible villain, destined for a humbling defeat. Just as he did in his MMA career, McGregor wrapped around himself the aura of perfection, and drew a sparkling gauze down over the eyes of everyone watching. How could he lose, when he had so thoroughly destroyed his lesser competition in the build-up? After all, all Mayweather could do was sit in the cocoon of his numerous bodyguards and smile mutely back at the crowd, the microphone in his hand all but useless. Was it even turned on? Does anybody even remember what he said in riposte to McGregor’s ceaseless assault? There are too many gems to quote:
“His little legs, his little head; I’m going to knock him out inside four rounds, mark my words.”
“On the count of tree, everyone scream, ‘fook the Maywedders!’”
“What are you doing wit a schoolbag on stage? You can’t even read!”
The fog of invincibility Mcgregor had conjured for himself was back thicker than ever, which only made the fight’s outcome that much more anticlimactic. He had spectacularly failed to live up to his own hype, trounced by Mayweather round after round before being stopped in the tenth.
McGregor’s unabashed response? “I go tru a wobbly patch in the tenth, oi tort it was an early stoppage, but fair play to him.”
The Money Fight is a good example of what happens when the spectacle eclipses the main event itself. It doesn’t really matter that McGregor lost. He was never expected to win. All the world wanted was to be entertained, to be offered up a satisfying illusion that we could all buy into, and he provided it. Has there been any other fighter in history who can benefit as much from a loss as a win than the Irishman?
Still think trash-talking is for you? Then consider what we’ve learned. Be really damn good at fighting first. It’ll do you no good to go sassing everyone from the champ to the mailman and have a record of 2-7. Second, have a good call-out ready should you win and be interviewed afterward, and it’d probably be a good idea to have a little practice by yourself in the locker-room beforehand. Speak clearly, and don’t stutter. Call out the best of the best, and not just in your weight division either; that way if any top dogs take the bait and you win, you leap-frog a whole swathe of competition. Stick to what you’re good at. Remember, slamming a potential opponent for his or her terrible ground game only to be slept in a rear-naked choke in the first minute doesn’t send a particularly strong message. Make your slander interesting; consider alliteration, or even rhyming a few words. Hey, it worked for Sonnen, didn’t it? Speak in a weird accent? Even better. And above all, keep your shots above the belt.
While McGregor may have provided us with the trash-talk gold-standard, it can come at a cost. Fans are fickle, and if you push the boat out too far they’ll turn on you. In the cutthroat world of today’s MMA scene, young fighters have to be well-rounded, and that includes their actions outside the cage. The qualities that the early era legends swore by, respect and humility, still ring true now. Do whatever it takes to get that belt and make bank, certainly, but when the fight’s over, thank your opponent for a battle well fought, regardless of the outcome.
Or not. Kick up a stink and storm out of the cage swearing black and blue that you won while the crowd boos you out of the arena, and then whinge about it on social media afterward. After all, the only bad press is no press at all, right?