LAS VEGAS – If they would have darkened the room, given him a barstool and shone a spotlight on him, Chael Sonnen would have been no different than any of the comics trying to scratch out a living on the Strip.
The self-proclaimed "American Gangster" from West Linn, Ore., spent the better part of an hour Tuesday at the UFC 148 pre-fight news conference at the swanky Palazzo doing a standup routine.
Occasionally, he remembered he was fighting Anderson Silva for the middleweight title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, as he did when he was asked about Silva's angry outburst on a conference call.
"Listen, if you knew your funeral was coming up, you'd probably have some parting words, as well," Sonnen said. "It was nice to see the real Anderson come through. I don't mean funeral in a morbid way, but this is the funeral of a career, man. This is coming to an end on 7/7 at 7 p.m., 10 in the East. Only on pay-per-view, Chael Sonnen Promotions in conjunction with Zuffa LLC will bring to you Sonnen versus Silva II: The End. He will step aside and the man will walk through."
It sounded like a monster truck radio spot.
Later, Silva was asked about the fact that Sonnen dominated the previous fight with him even when they were standing, which is Silva's forte.
The Brazilian champion allowed his manager, Ed Soares, to interpret the question from English into his native Portuguese before answering.
"For him to be able to strike with me standing up, he has to be a magician," Silva said. "It's impossible for him to strike with me."
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Sonnen was asked for his response, but he wanted none of it. He had a script and he was sticking to it.
"Why are you asking questions in English?" Sonnen said. "Anderson sits here like he doesn't understand you. Ed Soares interprets and we've got to hear it a second time. First off, he speaks English and secondly, we could replace Ed Soares with an app I could download for my phone for $9.99. What kind of a bizarro world are we in here? This is the strangest thing I've been a part of.
"People asked me if I wanted to go to Brazil for the fight. Sure, it would be neutral territory. Anderson lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills. Las Vegas, Nevada, is closer to him than it is to West Linn, Oregon. He's got home-court advantage. What are we even doing here, guys? This is insanity. He comes here pretending he doesn't speak English? Come on! It's like pretending he's the world champion. The guy walks around with a fake belt."
On and on it went, Sonnen managing to keep a grin creasing the face of UFC president Dana White the entire time. It was Sonnen in full character.
Or, according to someone who knows him best, not in character.
Sonnen's mother, Claudia, arrived late to Tuesday's news conference, missing much of her son's masterful performance.
She didn't really miss much, though. Sonnen has been the same way, more or less, his whole life, she said. He's a little more polished now and slick with his presentation, but he was only three years old and was mugging for his Dad's camcorder, impersonating Mister T.
Claudia Sonnen calls her son "an exceptional human being," whom she said treats her like royalty and who willingly goes well out of his way to help anyone he loves.
She said that when her son plays the pro-wrestling heel character he so frequently does when he's trying to promote his fights, it produces a few cringe-worthy moments for her.
He's managed to make scores of people hate him. He raised the ire of Brazilians forever when he did a bit at a fan question-and-answer session in Atlanta in April and said the toothbrush was invented in Brazil.
"Give them credit for that," he said. "If it was invented in this country, it would be known as the teethbrush, but it was invented in Brazil, so it's called the toothbrush."
It was clearly a joke, but a scary number of people believe he's being serious. And Claudia Sonnen would like to shake some of those people and tell them that's not who her son is.
"As a parent, yes, you want the world to love and understand your child," she said. "Now, this character, this is part of Chael. Yes, maybe part of it is what you people would call a character, but he's always done this. From Day One, as soon as he could talk and walk, he did this kind of thing.
"A lot of what you see now, he's honed that and I'll give you that. I have him on tape as a 3-year-old where he was talking into a tape recorder and he was Mister T. He's always had that quirkiness, I might say, and he's always analyzed things differently than other people."
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He was always great at finding a way to spin anything, even bad news, in a way that served his purposes.
On Tuesday, when a reporter asked him about submitting to Silva at UFC 117, the man who for months he had disparaged as a bum, Sonnen said there had been a misunderstanding of the rules.
"I thought tapping meant that would end that round, not the entire fight," he said to guffaws from the crowd.
Claudia Sonnen recalled him using his power of persuasion on her when she chastised him for failing to get a report in on time.
He had a paper that was due on a Monday. By Thursday, it not only wasn't turned in, he hadn't worked on it.
His mother confronted him, but he was typically cool under fire.
"He just has a very unique, personal way of looking at things that is different from the rest of us," she said. "He said something like, 'Well, Mom, let's see. The girl next door is 15 and she's pregnant. Joe down the street, his parents are taking him to rehab. So-and-so just got a DUI. And you're worried that I'm a few days late with a paper?' "
Claudia Sonnen laughed, but Chael Sonnen did the paper.
She now attends every one of his practices and Chael dubbed her his "practice cornerman."
He portrays a confident, almost cocky attitude, but she said he's had to work hard on building his belief in himself.
He promised his dying father, Patrick, in 2002 that he would win a major title for him.
And now, he's several days away from doing just that.
"Hey, it's not easy," Claudia Sonnen said. "Anderson Silva is one of the greatest fighters I've seen. He's so good."
So is her son. He was pretty much good at everything, but came up just short of so many big goals. This one, given his talk with his dying father, would mean a lot.
"Chael was second in a lot of things," she said. "Second in Pac-10. Olympic alternate. Everything big, he came in No. 2. We always felt he did it more to himself. It was like he would be on the brink and say, 'Oh my God, I can't beat this guy,' or whatever. He's worked a lot on that. He recognized that and spent a long time working to get better at that."
The final conversation he had with his father, Patrick, who died of colon cancer in 2002, still sticks in his mind. Chael vowed to his father that he would win the world title. At the time, the UFC didn't have a middleweight division, and Tito Ortiz held the light heavyweight belt.
"I wasn't in the room, but it was the night before his father died, or maybe two nights," she said. "His Dad was lucid right up to the end. Chael and his sister were there with him and it was the best conversation. Chael said to his Dad, 'You know, I know you're not going to make it and I just want to lay things out, tell you what I'm going to do in my life so you know and you can share in that with me.' And he told his Dad he would win the UFC title.
"Chael had pinned Tito in wrestling once, and it was not long after that Tito went to the UFC and won the title. I think that may have been a great inspiration to Chael. I know how much this means to him. He's been after this for a very, very long time. And he's made a lot of jokes and said a lot of crazy things, but this to Chael is something he's literally been after his whole life. It's no joke."
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