That 39-year-old Chael Sonnen and 41-year-old Tito Ortiz are still out there looking for their next paycheck is far from surprising. Surprising is that their upcoming main-event fight at Bellator 170 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, has little buzz so far, considering it is a battle between one of the best trash-talkers ever and the obnoxious “Huntington Beach Bad Boy”, who has claimed this would be his retirement fight.
Apart from a promo video where Ortiz tried to insult Sonnen for his history of PED use showing a juice box, he has mostly avoided media appearances and shown signs of self-seriousness, while the outspoken Sonnen has barely been in trash-talk mode.
Their last attempt to create some buzz happened on Thursday during the official pre-fight press conference, when Sonnen tried to insult his opponent weaponizing Ortiz’s past relationship with famous porn star Jenna Jameson. “Tito always says I’m using my mouth to get my opportunities,” Sonnen said. “The only person that I know that made money using their mouth is his ex-wife.”
Ortiz appeared to be struck by the comment. He starred at his opponent for minutes after the insult was made. “That was a nasty line by me,” Sonnen added. “They don’t call you ‘The Bad Guy’ for nothing.” It is questionable whether their last-minute verbal exchange will bump the TV ratings for Saturday.
Both fighters have never met in an MMA bout, but wrestled each other while in college. Sonnen, who usually competed at 177 pounds for The University of Oregon, moved up a weight class for that match so he could face the bigger Ortiz, who wrestled at 190 pounds for Cal State Bakersfield. Sonnen pinned his opponent in just 44 seconds. The problem is, this match happened in 1998 and is barely a selling point for their MMA bout 19 years later.
“There’s not some great storyline there,” Sonnen told MMAjunkie in a recent interview. “Tito’s a Hall of Famer and a world champion. We’re in the same weight class. So what. Let’s fight.”
When he was on top of his game challenging Anderson Silva for the UFC Middleweight Championship, Sonnen was as confident as a fighter can be. He believed that he had a shot at dethroning Silva, who was believed to be the best fighter in the world at that time. It was easy for Sonnen to call out "The Spider", insult the nation of Brazil and promote his fights as the wordsmith he is.
But now, years later, even Sonnen is not able to sell himself the idea that this bout with Ortiz has any relevancy in the grand scheme of the MMA world, let alone to sell that idea to a wider audience. Sonnen has not fought since November 2013, when he decisively lost to Rashad Evans and later failed two random drug tests.
After announcing his retirement, leaving the UFC and returning to the sport now under the Bellator banner, Ortiz scored two wins over Alexander Shlemenko and Stephan Bonnar, another veteran with at least one fight left on his Bellator contract. Ortiz was even granted a title shot in Bellator’s Light Heavyweight Division, but lost to Liam McGeary via an inverted triangle choke in September 2015.
The Spike-televised headliner this Saturday simply features two veterans with name value way past their prime. But the fight itself will most likely not be as sad to watch as B.J. Penn's return last Sunday or as ridiculous as some of the bouts Bellator put on last year, including the infamous Kimbo Slice-Dada 5000 fight where the latter suffered cardiac arrest and the former failed a drug test and died a few weeks later due to heart failure.
Since then, Bellator has not held an event featuring past-their-prime veterans or freak-show fighters. Yet if the promotion is willing to continue scheduling fights with little sporting value, at least Chael vs Tito is a safer way to claim a niche than throwing internet celebrities unfit to compete or a bunch of 50-year-olds like Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie into the cage. Bellator president Scott Coker still holds on to the concept of having big-time names who can draw eye balls, while promising talent is featured on the same card, although, as several events including the one on Saturday show, the company is currently short on rising stars.
The co-main event is a bout between 33-year-old Paul Daley and 28-year-old Brennan Ward. Daley lost his last bout against Douglas Lima and Ward is the kind of fighter who will go through most of his opponents but struggle against top-tier fighters in the middleweight and welterweight divisions.
That said, as Bellator will probably be overshadowed by the UFC for a long time, it is not the worst strategy to earn money by creating an ‘oldweight’ division. Both Sonnen and Ortiz have at least some credibility left and no one has to fear for the health of these athletes.