Chael Sonnen got dealt a tough hand when the UFC matched him up against Brian Stann for UFC 136. It's not necessarily the difficulty of the fight itself -- though Stann's no pushover, oddsmakers give the edge to Sonnen.
No, for the Sonnen the trouble is all in the approach. How do you keep your over-the-top, pro wrestler-meets-insult comic persona going when you're fighting a war hero who's so inoffensive and wholesome that he could make a slice of apple pie feel like a dirty commie by comparison?
Judging by Sonnen's demeanor at Wednesday's pre-fight press conference, you don't. You play nice. You praise instead of berate. You do everything short of writing him a letter of recommendation, and then you wait for an opportunity to go back to talking about Anderson Silva.
"Nobody wants to fight Brian Stann," Sonnen said on Wednesday afternoon in Houston. "I'm not the only guy and that's not a big secret. But our paths are going to cross sooner or later. He keeps beating people up and so that's just the way it goes."
Presumably Sonnen then had to rush back to the hotel for some mouthwash just to get the unfamiliar taste of compliments out of his mouth.
Not that Stann was making things easy on him, mind you. He praised Sonnen's wrestling ability, his penchant for making other people fight his kind of fight, and even jogged down memory lane with his opponent, telling a story about when Sonnen served as a ringside announcer for his first pro bout.
"I don't even think he remembers, but I remember meeting him there and he was very respectful to a guy who was 0-0 at the time," Stann said, to which Sonnen replied that he remembered the fight and the meeting very clearly and recalled that Stann was "very nice back."
"Awwww," said UFC president Dana White, who might have been wondering what happened to the guy who once sat down at a pre-fight press conference and declared, "I don't really know what respect means. That sounds like something a kid in the street says after he's getting ready to take your coat and your shoes."
Of course, that little gem came before Sonnen's bout with the UFC middleweight champ Silva, who remains his go-to target for his choicest bits of trash talk.
"I'm out trying to pick a fight and I'm not making any qualms about it. I've been after Anderson for some time and that's it," said Sonnen, who added that he also had "a beef" with the other fighters in the UFC who continually ask for title shots.
"I've never told Dana I want a title fight; I told him I want the title," Sonnen said. "That's a big difference between me and everybody else."
You see? He's still got his gift with language when he wants it, but against a guy like Stann there just isn't much you can do with it. A man who once explained that he doesn't believe in utilizing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guard because that would involve lying on his back with another man between his legs and "I'm a Republican and we don't do that," probably also isn't going to make much headway trying to insult a former U.S. Marine with more boy-next-door charm than he knows what to do with.
Maybe the best Sonnen can do is play the nice guy for now, or at least as nice as he can stand to be. One way or another, he acknowledged, he still has a fight on Saturday night, and what happens once the cage door slams shut is the same whether you can find something bad to say about the other guy or not.
"When that guy in the shark suit gets out of the ring and the guy with the dreadlocks says 'fight,'" Sonnen said, "I will."
And if things go his way, maybe soon he'll be able to get back to being the Chael Sonnen we've come to know and expect.