BURBANK, Calif. — It’s barely noon on Monday of the biggest week of his professional life, but Chael Sonnen is already clicking on all cylinders.
The man who will challenge Anderson Silva for the middleweight title in the main event of UFC 148 on Saturday night won’t even arrive in Las Vegas to commence fight-week activities until evening.
But as holds court with a group of reporters in a private dining room at Morton’s the Steakhouse, Sonnen finds himself getting all wound up while discussing the recent rash of UFC fighter injuries.
“I don’t get it,” said the quotable native of West Linn, Ore. “I’ve been wrestling since I was nine years old. Not once have a missed a competition due to illness or injury. You say you’ll do something and the competition is set. That’s it. You show up.”
“My dad was a plumber. That’s hard work. He never missed a day of work. I will never disrespect him by not showing up for an athletic competition that has a maximum duration of 25 minutes. There should be forfeiture if you have to pull out of a fight. If you don’t show up, it should be a loss on your record.”
As an example, Sonnen singles out Vitor Belfort, who pulled out of last month’s UFC 147 bout in Brazil with Wanderlei Silva, a card which Silva-Sonnen was slated to headline before that bout was moved to Nevada.
“Vitor Belfort pulls out of more fights than he agrees to,” Sonnen said. “He’s fantastic, but he’s such a chicken and he’s such a liar. To say you’re going to fight, to sell tickets, to sign your name, to film the TV show, and then to pull out? Against an invalid? That’s insane. It’s shocking they’re able to say that with a straight face. My opinion of Wanderlei is constantly evolving, because as atrocious as he is skills-wise, he shows up and fights. He goes hard in spite of the lack of talent and gives the fans his best.”
Does Sonnen really believe Belfort is a liar, or that Silva has no talent? It’s often hard to tell where reality ends and illusion begins with the No. 1 contender to the 185-pound title. For example, Sonnen mentions that he had dinner over the weekend with Portland sports radio host John Canzano, with whom he supposedly had a testy on-air dustup last week, then shifts the subject matter when reporters inquire further on the matter. No matter how hard he’s pressed, he’ll tell you none of this is a put-on, and that he’s the most honest man in the game.
“I’m the only respectful guy in the organization,” he said. “So many guys think that respect is to look at your face and tell you a lie. To pay you a compliment and then stick a knife in your back when you turn around. I will tell you to your face that when you turn around, I’ll put a knife in your back. And then I will. And people find that refreshing. I’m not a trash talker, I’m a truth talker, and if you ask me a question, I’m going to give you an answer. I don’t manufacture conflict.”
Sonnen, who has 20 pounds left to cut before Friday afternoon’s weigh-in, eats a single scallop off his plate before turning to a pre-packed lunch of cashews and a tangerine. His rant on fighter injuries was just the warm-up act. Pick a subject, he has an opinion.
Martial arts: “There’s no such thing as martial arts. That’s a concept they come up with for Hollywood. They made up the concept of mixed martial arts so they could get a bill passed to legalize the sport. When you say ‘I am a martial artist,” what does that even mean? We fight in a cage. I’m a cage fighter, I come to fight.”
Pound-for-pound rankings: “Total popularity contest. It’s a made-up thing. Look at Dan Henderson. He beat two former heavyweight champions. He was light heavyweight champion. He was middleweight champion. He beat former welterweight champion Carlos Newton. No other fighter has done that across four weight classes. So shouldn’t he be pound-for-pound number one?”
California politics: “You guys are getting what you deserved. You had Jerry Brown, a governor with failed policies back in the ‘70s, and you elected him back in again and his policies are failing again. Are you surprised?”
You get the feeling the challenger would have stayed all day answering questions on random topics if he wasn’t being whisked around the Los Angeles area. But eventually, it’s time to get down to business and talk about Saturday night’s much-anticipated rematch.
If Sonnen was nothing but talk, he wouldn’t have reached this position. That’s why he’s here watching a bunch of sportswriters stuff their faces and the rest of the fighters on the card aren’t: Sonnen offers plenty of substance to go with the considerable hype.
Few fighters have been able to deal with the type of adversity that Sonnen has seen over the past couple years — even if much of it was self-inflicted — and then worked themselves back into position for another title shot with Sonnen’s aplomb.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Sonnen said. “Looking back, there were so many things that had to happen. But, Anderson, he had two hard fights. Vitor’s a dork, but he’s a tough fighter, man. I really think he’s an excellent fighter. [Yushin] Okami’s awesome. Okami beats on me every day. So Anderson got through these guys, and we both had to get back to this spot, it wasn’t handed to us. Every night when I closed my eyes, I saw this fight coming, but I don’t know why. Now that we’re talking about it, I don’t know why, when I should have thought it was ever going to happen. Coming back, I’m thinking, OK, I have to fight Anderson, but it becomes Brian Stann and it’s OK, that’s weird, alright will Chael will fight Anderson next. Now it’s Munoz, now it’s Bisping. I always thought it would be Anderson and it wasn’t. So many things have to line up for [there to be] a big fight.”
Part of the two-year journey to the rematch, of course, was the fight’s shift from Brazil in June to Las Vegas this weekend. At this point of the discussion, Sonnen slides from introspection back into salesman mode.
“Brazil would have been a good neutral territory,” Sonnen said. “Most of those fighters live here. Anderson lives in Beverly Hills, in a two-million-dollar mansion. He left those Brazilians just as soon as Wanderlei and Vitor did. T4hey go back anytime they can reach into those guys’ pockets, but the reality is they’re Americans, they got rich in America, they pay taxes in America, they got famous in America, they’re employed by an American company, those guys are Americans. His plane fight from Beverly Hills to Las Vegas is shorter than my ride from West Linn, Ore. So good for Anderson for getting it moved to his home turf.”
Sonnen, a former All-American wrestler at the University of Oregon, has been at this game since before the Unified Rules were laid out. Not only was there no talk of multi-million dollar gates back when Sonnen was breaking in, there were nights when you were simply lucky to get paid.
“I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it for the accomplishment,” said Sonnen. “I date back to 1997. The only other fighter who dates back to 1997 is Dan Henderson. My first fight was against Trevor Prangley, who is a bad, bad, dude, and we fought for free in Portland, Ore. My first professional fight was against [Jason] ‘Mayhem’ Miller. We fought for $ 500 and the cage was broke, so you couldn’t go into a certain part of it. That’s just the way it was back then. There was no commissions, there was no regulatory bodies, it was a different deal. When I say I’m not in it for the money, I was in it when there was no money for it.”
And that ties back into what makes Sonnen such a compelling figure. He was there back in the day. He paid his dues. Even when you’re wondering if he believes half the stuff that comes out of his mouth, there’s no denying Sonnen travelled a long road in MMA to get to where he is, about to headline what many expect to the biggest-selling fight of 2012.
And as he gets ready to wrap up lunch and brave LA’s infamous afternoon traffic to get to the airport and fly out to Vegas, he let those assembled knows that he knows it, too.
“In all candidness, my ego is on the line too,” he said. I’d like to be the biggest draw. I’d like to be the highest-paid guy. I don’t mean to be brash, but there’s no other way to do it when you’re talking about money. The only way to be recognized from the guys in the industry who make the decisions, are a paycheck, and getting the pay-per-view buys. I’m proud that people take the night off and get together and want to see when I fight. I intend to hang on to that.”
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