Chael Sonnen is widely credited for ushering in a new era of trash talk in the UFC. His work on the microphone is responsible in part for his three title shots and the inspiration to stars such as Conor McGregor.
Sonnen has said — and still says — some of the most outlandish (and glaringly false) things on the microphone. But he will not curse, unless he’s playing a character on film. That is his personal line, as relatively small as it is.
As to the lines others cross, Sonnen believes the audience — not the promoters or regulators — should be the ones deciding what is in and out of bounds. So when he thinks of what Colby Covington said to Leon Edwards before UFC 296, he personally doesn’t agree with it.
“Yeah, with the dad comment, of course he did,” Sonnen said Wednesday on The MMA Hour when asked whether Covington went too far in his controversial comments about Edwards’ late father.
But to Sonnen, there’s a big difference between the theory of policing speech and actually doing it. Although he agrees that fines and other punishments are one way, there’s too much ambiguity and room for interpretation to be consistent in the way it’s applied.
There’s a much simpler way, and that’s through the crowd.
“If the audience doesn’t like it, because make sure you understand, even if you wrote this down, what you can and can’t do, which, for a large part, is done — [UFC CEO] Dana [White] tells you, ‘Don’t go out there and curse,’ and it’s to the point even on the live broadcast, if you curse in your post-fight speech, you’re not getting a bonus, so if you win a ‘Fight of the Night,’ I’m taking it from you, do not curse — but that’s as far as you can go,” Sonnen said. “And the reason I bring four-letter words up expressly is, Colby didn’t do that. So Colby would have gotten around that, had you had it written in.
“Now, what he said was very mean. It was designed to be mean. But then the payment is the audience. So when you say you think that Colby will respect it, I hear you on that, but I think that other fighters have observed this and seen this, and that’s where you start to see where that line is. The line moves all the time.”
A decade ago, the UFC attempted to draw a line when it crafted the UFC Code of Conduct, which gave the promotion broad authority to punish fighters for offensive speech. Several fighters ran afoul of it, with one, former WEC champ Miguel Torres, even getting released from his contract for parroting a joke about sexual assault on social media.
In recent years, however, the promotion has taken a far more hands-off approach to what fighters say in and outside the octagon. White has leaned on the idea that the UFC is a place for free expression, even if fighters have been limited from certain types of expression such as bringing national flags into the octagon. White wouldn’t say it outright, but he indicated that banning flags was a response to the Russia/Ukraine war. The UFC’s broadcast partner, ESPN, has also edited out at least one expression of support for Palestine amid its ongoing conflict with Israel.
Such moves appear to be an acknowledgement from the UFC that there are at least certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Sonnen sees them as a sign of the times.
“There was a guy that used to sing back in the seventies that was my mother’s favorite,” Sonnen said. “His name was Elvis Presley. And all the parents, the mothers and the fathers would stop the high-school girls from watching Elvis or going to his concerts, because at some point in that three-hour performance, he would shift his hips, and not in a sexual manner, but he would just shift his hips. But that was the most forbidden.
“You remember a guy they tried to ban from wrestling called ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin because he said the word ass on a pay-per-view. So I’m sharing with you, what is over the line or where the line is, constantly gets moving. Some of it’s even within your delivery, but it’s not like Colby’s going to come out and say, ‘No, that was a great thing to do. I’d love to go back and do it 10 more times.’ You test things, you learn, and you move on.
“There should not be a rule. I guess that’s what I’m saying. I hate that idea. Do not let us fall into that, man. This world is a weak place. Words just simply can’t hurt you. They just can’t.”