P.T. Barnum, Ernest Hemingway, and the Art of Trash-Talk

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Here at Fightland, where we love words and mixed martial arts in equal measure, we have a particular appreciation for a quality piece of trash-talk. It’s a subtle art; practitioners have to appear brash but not off-putting, confident but not desperate, interested in selling a fight without coming off like salesmen.

It just so happens that in honor of, in conjunction with, or maybe just serendipitously coinciding with the launch of Fightland, one of the sport’s best trash-talkers, lightweight No. 1 contender Nate Diaz, is fighting this weekend at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle. Diaz, like his brother, Nick, is famous for being explicit, even vulgar, with his talk inside the cage. But outside, Diaz has generally preferred a subtler approach to goading. For example, on the UFC’s 45-minute promotional video for this Saturday’s card, Road to the Octagon, Diaz chooses to damn his opponent, lightweight champion Benson Henderson, with faint praise -- a clever, time-tested way to get under someone's skin: “Benson Henderson: He’s tough. He’s definitely gonna be a hard guy to fight. But I don’t think he’s a better fighter than me. He might be a better round-winner, but all-in-all fighter overall, I don’t think so.” Diaz was then asked by MMA Insider if he felt like he would need to finish Henderson in order to beat him, considering judges’ tendencies toward handing close decisions to incumbent champions and the Diaz brothers’ undying contention that judges will always vote against them out of personal animus. 

“I don’t think I got a chance of winning any type of decision,” Diaz responded.

Taken together, these two quotes constitute an entire universe of trash-talking brilliance. Look at what Diaz managed to do in just five sentences. He goaded Ben Henderson into brawling with him (which Henderson should absolutely steer clear of against a born fist-fighter like Diaz). He implicitly questioned the champion’s manhood by saying he’s not the kind of fighter who wins fights but rather the kind of fighter who scores points. He pre-emptively excused himself if he loses by decision and possibly even broadened the definition of “victory” to include losing by arguing that anyone who beats him by decision must have lost the actual fight, i.e., the fight the judges have nothing to do with. And he may have even influenced the judges, making them question whether they actually do have a prejudice against Diaz or if they should do something to ensure people they don't. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, there is much more beneath the surface of Diaz’s approach than above it. 

Compare Diaz’s approach to the other great trash-talker of the age: Chael Sonnen. Sonnen can’t stop talking. He adores the sound of his own voice and abhors any vacuum he can’t fill. He’s also outlandishly, comically arrogant – a born professional wrestler who just happens to be a real fighter. Where Diaz is subtle and serious, Sonnen is outsized and absurdist. In the run-up to his next fight, a championship bout he talked his way into against seemingly unstoppable light-heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones, Sonnen has doubted his opponent’s previously undoubtable abilities, skewered his intelligence, and mocked his DUI arrest, his Nike endorsement deal, even his heroic saving of a couple who had just been mugged at a park in Newark last March.

Here are some of Sonnen’s best Jones-aimed Tweets:

“Advice to ‪@jonnybones. Take some of that Nike money, hire new writers.”

“Boarding plane to Oregon now, home of your corporate wage masters. Next time you are in town, knock on my door. Don't drive.”  

“The toughest fight you've had at 205 was the chump who snatched the old ladies purse while you were playing on the swings at the park.”

Unlike Diaz, Sonnen is interested in his opponent only inasmuch as he can use him to promote himself. It's a simple equation: By selling himself, Sonnen sells fights; by selling fights, he makes money. He’s P.T. Barnum out to rouse the rabble and make a buck. He doesn’t actually care if he gets under the skin of his opponents or deflates their strategy because he’s already won by getting people to pay to watch him fight. Like countless theatrical heels before him, Sonnen recognizes that a big mouth and a silver tongue sell more tickets than a quality matchup. Diaz, meanwhile, doesn’t sell; he simply reaffirms his invincibility (even if I lose I’m still tougher than you; if fact, losing proves that I’m tougher than you) in an effort to make his opponent's doubt themselves. Diaz is the guy whispering in your ear, making you question things you know are true. Sonnen is the guy shouting from the rooftops, selling you on a fantasy world.