By Chael Sonnen
There’s an old saying in poker: if you look around the table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s probably you. In this case, the sucker was Wanderlei Silva. You see, there are rules to being an effective Bad Guy. And, as the ax murderer found out, pretending these rules don’t exist is dangerous, especially when you’re sitting across from a gangster who understands the power they yield.
THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER: BRAZIL 3
When you step out of the airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the first thing you notice is the thick air that engulfs this South American metropolis. The urban sprawl, located in a country with one third of the world’s rainforests, produces a distinctive fragrance that’s a unique combination of fresh, humid, and dirty. It was one more reminder to me, my wife and three coaches that we were in a foreign land. Security met us at the gate and ushered the five of us through the Brazilian immigration check. After collecting our bags, we were shuttled in a caravan of three armored SUVs to the secured compound we would call home for the next six weeks.
We traveled to Brazil to film The Ultimate Fighter Brazil TV show. If you haven’t seen the show, here’s how it works—two head coaches pick teams just like you did during a junior high dodgeball game. Except, instead of throwing red rubber balls at each other, during each week of the competition, two fighters face off in the Octagon until one man is left standing and is crowned the TUF Brazil Champion. To enhance the drama, the opposing head coaches agree to fight at the live finale of the show. Bad blood, cage fights, and isolation from the outside world creates a volatile mix that reality TV producers love.
My rival coach for this season was Wanderlei “The Ax Murderer” Silva. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Ax Murderer, he earned quite a reputation over his long and storied fight career—maybe you can tell from his nickname. As one of the biggest names in the sport, Silva had been a multiple-time PRIDE Champion known for his aggressive fighting style and general dislike for anyone he thought he may one day fight. And let me tell you, if Wanderlei didn’t care for his previous opponents, he really did not like me. For years, I tortured him in the media every chance I could. I insulted his career, his character and called into question the validity of his fights. He took the bait every time. When we finally met face to face on his home turf, Wanderlei was much more emotional than I had expected—and it was not an act. The stage was set. With a full production crew documenting every moment, I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before we delivered exactly what the producers were looking for.
But when it happened, it didn’t go down as expected.
To accurately paint the backdrop for this story, it’s helpful to understand the climate surrounding my arrival in Brazil. The reason we were met by a security team at the airport is because I had received death threats when it was announced we would be filming the show in Sao Paulo. I had made a few comments to the media in earnest, questioning Brazil's internet infrastructure and educational system. Apparently, this upset a few people. So, the UFC organized a 24/7, three-man, armed security team that was solely responsible for my well-being. We traveled by bulletproof car from our secured, gated compound to the training center where the show was being filmed. It was intense.
On the first day of filming, a crew of forty people, Wanderlei and his coaching staff, myself and my coaches along with my wife, gathered to watch 32 young Brazilian fighters hoping to make it to the UFC by proving themselves in the cage. Sixteen matches were scheduled and only the fighters getting their hand raised after the final bell would be invited to participate on the show. After a long day each of the sixteen winners lined up. It was at this point that Wanderlei and I were supposed to select the members of our respective teams—but right away, I sensed he was agitated. This was not a surprise. I had disgraced and embarrassed him and insulted his countrymen. Wand’s an emotional guy, and here we were on his home turf. In his mind, he was ready to prove he was the alpha male.
When I agreed to appear on this season of the show, I was very clear on the part I was there to play and had flown all the way to Brazil with the intention of continuing my coveted role as the Bad Guy. My company is even named Bad Guy Inc. It was me alone who insulted the nation of Brazil and I wanted all the credit. Wanderlei, on the other hand, was in a prime position to be the white knight, whose mission it was to teach this disrespectful, loud-mouthed gringo a lesson. He had a nation behind him and every single one of them wanted to see him kick my ass. It was the perfect set-up to our eventual fight.
So it was to everyone’s surprise when, with cameras rolling, Wanderlei stepped forward and demanded I apologize to all of Brazil for my disrespectful comments—or he would immediately quit the show. He must have planned this stunt, but he clearly hadn’t thought his ultimatum through. All I could think was, “Why did you paint yourself into that corner, Wanderlei?” Well, I’m sure his rationale was simple—he thought I would apologize. But he hadn’t considered the other option—what if I didn’t? Would he really quit the show?
Naturally, I refused to apologize.
Photo credit: UFC (ZUFFA)
With cameras recording and a microphone taped to his shirt, Wanderlei didn’t know what to do. After a moment the fog must have cleared, as he realized he was left with only one option—quit the show. So he stormed off the set, left the building, and jumped in a car with the producers in tow pleading with him to return. This display was followed by an awkward moment where everyone—the crew, cast, and onlookers—stood there wondering what the hell just happened. For the exhausted, bruised, and battered fighters, many of whom didn’t speak English, this must have been especially confusing.
Producing a reality television show where the contestants’ sole job is to beat up their roommates makes it difficult to plan for every contingency. But I don’t think anyone expected a coach to walk off, especially Wanderlei Silva. It quickly became apparent the producers had no plan B as they kept trying to convince him to return. Finally, one executive from the UFC pulled me aside and asked if I would apologize if that’s what it took to get Wanderlei back. I told him yes, to preserve the show, I would apologize.
In the meantime, I reached out to Vitor Belfort. Although he was not an ally, he was someone I knew could be used for leverage. Since I had signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding the show, I discreetly asked if his schedule was open. Where’s my leverage here? Well, I’m not sure who Wanderlei dislikes more—Vitor or me. Vitor was the original Brazilian MMA star who years earlier knocked Wanderlei out in 44 seconds. Back then, it was a different era. Brazilian mixed martial arts was called vale tudo, meaning “anything goes” in Portuguese. Vitor and Wanderlei were career-long rivals from opposing teams, and if there was one person Wanderlei wouldn’t want to be replaced with, it was Vitor Belfort. When I spoke with Vitor on the phone, he let me know he was available. Now I had a back-up plan if the Ax Murderer disappeared for good.
It was several hours before the producers convinced Wanderlei to come back to the set. When he did, they put the two of us in a room together alone. This was risky on their part since there was no telling where this meeting would go, but I was straight with Wanderlei. I said, “You’re Wanderlei Silva and we are in Brazil. I know I’m under your skin, but everyone is here for you.” Still very emotional, he laid into me, scolding me about the way I promote fights. I said “Wanderlei, I’m the highest paid fighter in the UFC and the biggest draw.” He acknowledged this as true. I continued, “Am I the guy you tell how to promote or am I the model you copy?” I explained to him that the storyline was already written. “I am the Bad Guy. You are the White Knight who rides in to avenge the honor of Brazil while your adoring fans cheer you on.” He was supposed to be the hero in this story. “But now you’re bullying me,” I said to him. “Everyone knows I’m the one who traveled to hostile territory alone to face you like a man. This dynamic is why the storyline works and is the whole reason we are here. These guys love you, not me. I don’t even speak their language. This whole circus cannot continue without you. But know this—if you bully me, it’s going to endear me to your fans. I will appear vulnerable because I am. And if you keep doing this, I will become the good guy. Remember, you want to be loved—I don’t.”
By this point, the sixteen tired, hungry fighters had been standing there for hours, waiting to be selected for one of our teams. Even the production crew didn’t know what Wanderlei was going to do. But despite his yelling, anger, and insults, I must have gotten through. He left the room, walked back to where the fighters were standing, and told everyone that Brazil would not be getting an apology today—but he would kick my ass in the end. Perfect.
At this point, we finally got around to choosing our team. As we picked our athletes, each fighter was handed a team jersey. I wasn’t sure how these fighters would react to me and I didn’t even know their names since most went by nicknames that were difficult to pronounce. Brazilians are very nationalistic and always back each other, especially when a disrespectful foreigner comes to town. Half of them were now on Team Sonnen, but that was no guarantee they were on my side.
It’s important to note at this point in the story that one thing is made very clear to everyone participating in the show—violence outside of the sanctioned fights that take place during production would not be tolerated. Coaches cannot touch one another. Cast members can’t fight in the house or anywhere else outside of the cage.
The selection ceremony took less than ten minutes and ended with my team, dressed in official UFC Team Sonnen jerseys, standing behind me and Wanderlei’s team, wearing Team Silva jerseys, standing behind him. As I stood there, waiting for instruction from the producers, Wanderlei walked up out of nowhere and shoved me. And something surprising happened—both teams stormed into the mix and eight Brazilians, whose names I could not yet pronounce, threw caution to the wind and fought to protect their new coach—me.
Wanderlei made several critical errors that day and many more during the filming of the show:
His biggest offense on day one was forgetting his place. Wanderlei played a specific role in this production. It’s not often someone named the Ax Murderer gets to be the good guy, but this was his moment. But he incorrectly assumed he possessed leverage when he did not. Knowing who you are allows for a better understanding of how you fit into your environment. If you can be replaced with one phone call, that should be factored into your decision-making process.
Next, he wasn’t clever enough to realize his opponent was playing by a different set of rules, ones that put Wanderlei at a distinct disadvantage. Never assume the man standing across from you subscribes to the same rules of fair play as you. If you are bold enough to offer an ultimatum, you better be prepared to honor it.
Lastly, Wanderlei forgot that fame is fickle and your supporters will leave you for a more compelling hero that captures their hearts. No one is under any obligation to maintain a lifetime membership in your fan club, so respect the hearts and minds of the people.
And what about those Brazilian MMA fighters who only knew me as someone who had insulted their country? Why did they choose to back me after only being selected to my team moments earlier? While you can never be a hundred percent certain what lies in another man’s heart, there were at least two factors that influenced their actions that day.
First, while Wanderlei thought he was endearing himself to his fellow countrymen, these young fighters, stuck in this stressful place were far more concerned with their immediate future than the honor of a nation I may or may not have offended. Getting picked for a team is an emotional experience. Remember how you felt in gym class waiting for the team captain to choose you? These are not easy moments. Each contestant had no control over what was happening as they stood waiting for their name to be called. It didn’t require much forethought for them to realize their new coach, me, was going to play an essential role in their success on the show and they would be better served by committing to the side best equipped to help their cause.
Second, the rewards afforded to a successful UFC fighter are significant, and previous winners of this tournament have gone on to earn millions of dollars. This bit of information was not lost on any of the sixteen candidates who had sacrificed everything for this opportunity. Each fighter came in with an idea of which coach they felt would best suit them. Some had teammates or friends they wanted to train with and others they wanted to avoid. There were those looking to improve their wrestling by joining my team. And others who wanted to avoid me at all costs. When each team roster became official, the uncertainty of this crucial step was relieved—at least they could begin piecing together what would come next. As I handed each athlete a new UFC jersey with TEAM SONNEN boldly displayed on the back, they immediately became members of an exclusive club. A new identify, formed in the moment, represented one giant step out of poverty into a life filled with opportunity.
Prior to the filming of TUF Brazil, I would of never guessed that I would be the one Brazil was rooting for by the show’s finale. Remember, I am the Bad Guy. This complete role reversal caught me off guard, but looking back it’s not hard to see how it happened. Wanderlei was a bully—and no one likes a bully. Even though I did not want to fight, I put my hands up, fair and square, and fought him outside of the cage during production. After easily putting him on his back on the concrete, his assistant coach jumped in and started hitting me from behind. Wanderlei showed up late for training and didn’t seem to have the best interests of his athletes at heart. This type of behavior is generally frowned upon by people worldwide and has nothing to do with the color of the flag waving in the wind. Although the show was produced for the Brazilian market and I don’t speak Portuguese, it didn’t take long before the audience started to root for me. Despite being conditioned to dislike me, the majority ended up on my side eight weeks later.
For most people, accepting the role of the Bad Guy is too much to handle. It requires a special skill set, one Wanderlei did not possess. But these essential traits are necessary when navigating shark filled waters—or the habitat of an ax-murdering cage fighter.
Bad Guy 101: 5 Critical Traits
Don’t be the sucker at the poker table—avoid Wanderlei Silva’s mistakes. There’s an art to navigating your bad side. It can be a source of power and influence if kept in check. The following five traits are the foundation.
1. Lose the Need to Be Liked
Humans have an innate desire to be liked. We’ll go out of our way to impress people we don’t even respect, just hoping they will like us. And rightly so. Imagine living in a small tribe two thousand years ago. Everyone needed to work together for the group to survive, so it was good if the people you depended on happened to like you. But this need comes at a cost. If you’re driven by a constant desire to be liked, you’ll fail to develop to your full capabilities. You may find yourself saying yes to things that are not right for you. Or you may find yourself stepping back when there is opportunity to lead. Leaders don’t casually bend to the opinions of others—and Bad Guys are not afraid to have an enemy or two. I did everything in my power to make Wanderlei Silva the good guy so I could remain the Bad Guy. I understood how to leverage the power of negativity to build a large fan base. The Ax Murderer just needed to be loved.
2. Don’t Fall for Your Own Hype
The biggest mistake elite fighters, or successful people in any area of life make, is believing their own hype. Long-term success requires you to keep your public persona in perspective. You’re probably not as good as your raving fans think you are, nor as bad as your enemies say you are. The character you show the world is one element of your personality—don’t forget this or it will lead to your downfall.
3. Don’t Hide Your Flaws
Anyone who appears flawless will quickly elicit emotions of distrust. We are intimately aware of our own flaws and when we see someone who appears to have none, it’s off-putting. Show enough imperfections to prove you’re human, but never make excuses or apologize. If someone points them out, respond with an easy laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you are not emotionally prepared to lead with your bad side. That fragile portion of your ego will seek unnecessary conflict and rob you of your ability to influence your surroundings. I insulted the nation of Brazil and then lost to the UFC’s most dominant Champion, Anderson Silva. My shortcomings were displayed for the whole world to see. Given the access and anonymity social media provides, you’ll occasionally take some heat for your deficiencies. But when managed properly, they endear you to the public and extend the life of your career.
4. Don’t Explain Who You Are
You can talk about yourself, but never try to explain who you are—it almost never works. Others will inevitably talk about you – let them talk. Practice ignoring the urge to explain yourself to anyone. It may be hard at first, but it’s a skill that gets easier with use. Any indication that you are concerned with someone else’s opinion of you will undermine your influence and social standing. There will be individuals immune to your charm. They may cast you in a negative light without knowing who you are. Never try to convince these people you are anyone other than their limited view. On occasion, some will change their minds of their own accord, and when they do, they will often become powerful allies whose loyalty runs deeper than some of your closest friends. The athletes on Team Sonnen proved this.
5. Don’t Fear Looking Stupid
Agreeing to appear on The Ultimate Fighter Brazil had elements of risk. No one wants to lose face or look incompetent. This fear alone stops many from acting. But there is no reward without risk, and everyone is entitled to look foolish from time to time. Tell your ego to go wait in the car while you get to work and you’ll quickly move past this fear. During the process, keep your mouth shut, pay attention, and work to master the basics. Don’t make excuses or talk down to yourself. Most importantly—don’t blame others when life doesn’t go your way.
We all have a Bad Guy inside. But a bad side is not the same as bad character. Bullies, thieves, and liars who manipulate the truth to harm the innocent should be culled from your flock. No kicking puppies allowed. Your bad side must be directed at a willing opponent who is capable of defending himself and mounting an offense. Unfortunately, Wanderlei Silva won’t have an opportunity to do either of these things when the cage door closes in Madison Square Garden—but rules were made to be broken.