Can Sonnen trash talk his way to the top?
LAS VEGAS – Chael Sonnen is on a roll.
He’s speaking in the smooth, self-assured style of a 1960s professional wrestler doing a TV interview. The subject is Anderson Silva, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s seemingly invincible middleweight champion. Sonnen, a realtor, a one-time state legislator in Oregon and, by the way, one of the elite mixed martial arts fighters in the world, has little use for the champion and isn’t afraid to shout his feelings to the mountaintops.
He thinks Silva is a phony who’s disdainful toward the media, dresses oddly and, most important, doesn’t have the notches on his belt to back up his lofty position.
“Look, he’s not my kind of a guy,” Sonnen says. “This is a grown man that’s got earrings. This is a grown man who wears his hat sideways. This is a guy who wears pink T-shirts. This guy wouldn’t make it 12 minutes in my neighborhood. I live in a nice neighborhood and we’d still run him out.”
He may get his chance to run him out of the cage later this year if he can get past Nate Marquardt on Saturday in the semi-main event of UFC 109 in the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The winner has been guaranteed a shot at the middleweight title, which Silva will defend on April 10 at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, against Vitor Belfort.
Sonnen, 32, is one of the most unique men in the fight business, with virtually no filter to stop him. If he thinks it, he usually says it.
He once chided opponent Yushin Okami – who, ironically, has become a friend who has stayed at Sonnen’s home and trained with him – for failing to help promote their fight.
“This is not just a fight, it’s the fight business,” he said of Okami, a Japanese native who speaks little English, following a bout at UFC 104. “You have to try to sell the fight.”
Sonnen is having a tougher time working up disdain for Marquardt, who is widely regarded to be among the nicest men in the business.
But in addition to being an affable fellow, Marquardt is a lethal fighter whom Sonnen concedes has a strong argument for landing the title shot with Silva.
Marquardt, he says, stands out as a fighter and as a person in a sport in which bullying, posing and conniving are commonplace. Because of the respect he has for Marquardt, he largely hasn’t done what he chided Okami for, and hasn’t talked a lot to try to hype the bout.
He’s spoken far more in his interviews about Silva than Marquardt, though he insists he’s rarely asked about Marquardt. But as he praised Marquardt, he managed to disparage the overwhelming majority of his peers.
“I’m not holding back on Nate, necessarily; I haven’t been asked about him,” Sonnen said. “Secondly, there’s not a lot of ammunition there. Every now and then in this sport – and it’s every now and then; it’s extremely rare – but you’re going to come across a good guy. For every dirt bag in this business, you’re going to run into a Nate Marquardt or a Chael Sonnen or a Rich Franklin somewhere along the way. Two decent human beings have ended up getting paired together.
“He’s a little bit of a harder target than most of the thugs within this company, but I don’t know that I’ve held back. I haven’t been asked about him.”
Sonnen didn’t hold his fire simply at other fighters. He also took a broadside at many trainers, whom he said don’t add much and bluff their way through more often than not.
He said he has a few ideas of what he wants to accomplish against Marquardt, but said anyone who insists they can devise a comprehensive game plan is delusional or trying to fool someone.
He said the idea of game planning is far overblown.
“Here’s the truth: There is no such thing as a game plan,” said Sonnen, who is 23-10-1 and has won four of his last five. “You get these guys, most of whom are eighth-grade dropouts, and they sit around with their gold teeth and their broken English and they act as if they’re some kind of experts in the fight game. There is no such thing [as a game plan]. My skills are my skills.
“This whole game plan thing, yes, I do have a plan, but it’s still based within my skill set. I can’t come out and say, ‘Wow, a spinning roundhouse sure would work great on Nate,’ when I don’t know how to do a spinning roundhouse. There really is no such thing. This whole game plan thing really should be credited to Randy [Couture, the former UFC heavyweight champion].
“Look, Randy took people down, put them against the fence and beat them until [referee] John McCarthy pulled him off. And then [UFC television analyst] Joe Rogan’s on the mic yelling, ‘What a great game plan!’ Well, I guess, but it’s the same thing he does every time. If you want to act like this sport is sophisticated, then you can pretend you have a plan.”
Sonnen makes no apologies for anything he says or anyone who is caught in his wake. He has a vision of the world that is uniquely his and no one is going to change it.
He irritates many with his frank, opinionated manner, but he’s repeatedly managed to back it up in the cage while taking on all comers. A two-time All-American in Greco-Roman wrestling at the University of Oregon and a 2000 U.S. Olympic team alternate, Sonnen has been a professional since 2002.
He’s beaten a solid list of some of the world’s best fighters, including Paulo Filho, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Dan Miller and Okami. He’s always been one of the sport’s most well-conditioned fighters, but insists he works no more than three hours a day in preparation. Like former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, Sonnen insists it’s not possible to train as hard as many fighters say they do.
He doesn’t go to camp, he insists, but he challenges you to find someone more prepared when the bell sounds. He holds a full-time job as a realtor because he’s able to do the work he needs in three hours and still squeeze in a personal life and an eight-hour-a-day job.
“I don’t do camps,” Sonnen said. “I’ve heard guys do that. I don’t sleep in sleeping bags. I don’t roast marshmallows and I don’t tell ghost stories. Camp is for kids. I go through a training cycle where, from this period to this period, this is what I do and this is when I taper and here’s when I’ll lose weight. So, I don’t know how that whole camp thing works.
“Look, it’s three hours a day. I go two hours with my team every day, and that includes my shower. Our workout is about an hour and 40 minutes, and I do another session of about 45 to 50 minutes of conditioning and strength training at a different time in the day. That leaves me 21 hours in the day to contribute something to society.”
He was getting warmed up and, as he often does when his lips are moving, getting fired up. He sighed as he thought of the claims some fighters make that they work eight hours or more a day.
“These fighters who like to say, ‘I’m a full-time fighter,’ when you hear that, you know you can be assured of a few things,” Sonnen said. “You can be assured that that guy doesn’t get up until noon. You can be assured that that guy is pretty lazy and you can be sure he owns something called a Nintendo Wii because he has nothing else to do with his day and he’s attempting to justify his existence by saying, ‘I am a fighter.’
“Look: I have friends who spend more time playing golf each day than a fighter who trains hard spends in the practice room. Every now and then, you’ll get one of these guys who claims he’s training six or eight hours a day, which, first off, he’s not. And second, even if he were to, he could not possibly be doing intense training. I train extremely hard; I don’t know anyone who trains as hard as me, and I’m in the practice room no more than three hours a day. There’s plenty of time in the day to do other things.”
Such as hold the middleweight title aloft over his head. That’s likely going to take a win over Marquardt, a guy he calls “a truly worthy opponent,” and another over Silva, who is the pound-for-pound top fighter in the world in the Yahoo! Sports rankings.
Sonnen notes he’s beaten the champions in promotions from BoDog, the International Fight League and World Extreme Cagefighting, but has yet to get a shot at Silva “because he won’t fight me.” Beating Marquardt will force that, unless Silva loses to Belfort.
Silva holds the UFC record for most wins in a row, most of which came in devastatingly brutal fashion. Typically, Sonnen’s not impressed.
“I’m not on board with this ‘Anderson is so scary,’ mentality,” Sonnen said. “What’s he ever done? What’s he done? He beat up my teammate, Chris Leben. He was my teammate. … He beat up Patrick Cote, who was not ranked in the top 10 and we found Patrick was fighting on one leg at the time of the fight. He beats up every bum who can get a plane ticket to Ohio and he beats up a couple of slow, unathletic light heavyweights, like that’s hard to do. I don’t know what he’s done. I don’t know where this big mystique that’s around him has come from.
“It’s like when [ex-UFC welterweight champion] Matt Hughes was king of the world. Matt Hughes fought two guys in the top 10 ever, and they both beat him. So, if you want to say the guy’s [Silva] great, fine, but who’s he beat? He’s going to have to fight somebody. And it might as well be me.”
He goes on and on, a reporter’s dream. But you get the sense that after the interview’s concluded and the tape recorder is turned off, Sonnen’s going to call his newly found friend, Yushin Okami.
That, you can imagine him saying, is how you promote a fight.