LAS VEGAS – There hasn't been much sizzle in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's middleweight division in the last few years. Champion Anderson Silva has been so dominant since winning the title in 2006 that most challengers are beaten before they step into the cage.
That changed in a big way on Saturday at UFC 109 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center when Chael Sonnen pummeled Nate Marquardt, a 5-1 favorite, and earned a title shot with a unanimous decision victory.
It's a shorter list to name the body parts that Sonnen said weren't hurting after the physical, bloody battle with Marquardt. He looked like Frankenstein with a long set of stitches across his forehead. He had another set of stitches crossing his nose, his face was dotted with welts and he was gingerly shaking hands.
Sonnen, though, performed as big in the cage as he talked prior to the fight when he trashed Silva, referred to most of the sport's fighters as dirtbags and raised such a fuss that he caused UFC president Dana White to say Sonnen's comments in a Yahoo! Sports column were "as crazy as some of my video blog rants."
An Olympic alternate wrestler, Sonnen used his wrestling ability to repeatedly take Marquardt to the mat, where he held him down and blistered him with punches and elbows.
After the fight, he was as defiant as ever. He'll fight the winner of the title fight at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, between Silva and Vitor Belfort. Silva is the top-ranked fighter in the world, but Sonnen said he'd much rather have Silva win.
It wasn't some corny token comment about wanting to test himself against the best. Rather, he took the opportunity to taunt Silva once again.
"I hope Anderson wins because I think Vitor is a lot tougher fighter," Sonnen said. "If I have to choose between the two, I'm going to take the low road and choose the easier opponent. I really do mean it. Vitor Belfort, in truth, has really never lost a fight. The blueprint to beat Vitor is out there, but it's not to stand up with him. I am picking Vitor.
"But look, at the end of the day, if you want to get to the top of the card in the UFC, you have to fight tough guys. If you want to be a fighter, get in the cage and be a big deal at your local strip club, go to Showtime. But if you want to fight real guys, this is the place to do it."
Sonnen hasn't been regarded as among the elite middleweights, though he has wins over many top fighters, including Paulo Filho, Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and, now, Marquardt.
His coach, Matt Lindland, isn't surprised by his sudden emergence as an elite competitor. Sonnen, he said, has always had the skills but was dogged by a tendency to give in when the going got tough. Somehow, Lindland got through to him and convinced him to gut it out.
The result is that he's become a legitimately dangerous man, as evidenced by how thoroughly he thrashed Marquardt.
"He had to learn how to get tough," Lindland said. "If there was one thing he lacked in the past, it was toughness. If he took a knee to the head, well, you can take that knee and say, 'I'm good,' and keep fighting through it. But nobody would have blamed him for quitting. You get knocked out with a knee to the head and everyone would say, 'Hey, good job. You worked hard. You fought tough.'
"But you know what? That's not good enough in this sport. It's not good enough if you're going to take a title. You have to fight through that [expletive]. That's what he's willing to do now and that's what he's going to do when he goes out and shocks the world and wins the world title."
Sonnen's next move isn't to start breaking down film of Silva, however. He's got a campaign to run.
He's running for a seat in District 37 of the Oregon House of Representatives – he plugged his campaign website, VoteSonnen.com, and noted that UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta made a generous contribution – and will begin plotting fundraising and campaign strategy.
It's not the norm for a professional fighter, but Sonnen said he needs to make a contribution to society.
After the way he described the experience of sharing a cage with Marquardt, the frequently nasty, cutthroat world of politics may look good.
"He knocked the heck out of me [with an elbow from the bottom in the second round]," Sonnen said. "He knocked me out with a flying knee. He nearly choked me to death in the third round. It was a miserable experience. I'm glad it's over."
He was clearly on his way to a life-changing win when Marquardt caught him in a guillotine choke along the fence late in the third round. Sonnen's faced looked like a Lakers' road jersey as Marquardt squeezed with all his power as he tried for the stunning finish.
Somehow, though, Sonnen found a way to wiggle free. Only a few minutes later, he was officially the winner and headed for a title shot.
He had a lot to deal with, including the repercussions that his comments caused. But he said he was never bothered by anything.
"I can say I'm going to beat up Nate Marquardt and he can say he's going to beat me up, but the real truth is that no matter what I say, it's not going to help my skills," Sonnen said. "No matter what he says, it's not going to help his skills. No matter how much [betting] money comes in on him, or how much comes in on me, it's not going to help our skills.
"My skills are my skills, and when we get into that ring, I have to make sure I can use them. I can't let my mind buy into anything else. I have to shut everything out and be ready to fight hard for 15 minutes."
He angered a lot of fans with his bold prefight talk. He made a lot more fans with his superb performance on Saturday. And he convinced White that he's a serious contender.
"This guy," White said, shaking his head, "is the real deal."
And he's a guy, Lindland insists, with the style to knock Silva off from his lofty perch.
"You know that's true," Lindland said. "He's a bad matchup for Anderson. Everybody knows that. If there's a style that beats Anderson, it's Chael's style. There's no question.
"The big question is, he's going to get hit – will he keep going through those and put him on his back and beat him up?"
It would have seemed more than outrageous just four months ago to say these words in succession: Chael Sonnen, middleweight champion.
While he's a long way from wearing the belt, one thing became abundantly clear: Chael Sonnen is no joke, and the middleweight division just got a heck of a lot more intriguing.
- Chael Sonnen
- Anderson Silva
- Nate Marquardt
- Vitor Belfort