Chael Sonnen steps into the cage at Bellator 222 at 42 years of age to face Lyoto Machida. But why? Why at an age that is considered beyond the prime for most athletes is Sonnen continuing to put his health at risk?
Sonnen has fought the crème de la crème of the fight world. He has defeated the likes of Rampage Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Michael Bisping, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, and more. Granted, he has also lost bouts to Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, and Tito Ortiz... and that's part of why he is still fighting.
Yes, the competitive fires are stoked, and likely always will be, that hardly ever dies for any elite athlete; but what really motivates Sonnen is a promise to become a world champion. He failed to do that in fights with Silva and Jones, and it's a promise that he doesn't take lightly. After all, it's a promise he made to his father.
"I started in mixed martial arts with one goal: to win a world championship. It was a promise I made to my dad, and it's the only promise I ever made to him that I have not kept," Sonnen wrote in an article for ESPN.
"I have done everything in my power to keep the promise, and I got close a few times, but in the end I have always come in second. I'm still working toward my goal, though, and the promise I made all those years ago remains very much a motivation."
Sonnen has wondered if maybe he shouldn't have kept that particular promise, that motivation, to himself. After all, it's a lot of pressure to say you're going to become a world champion. It's an entirely different level of pressure when you not only say it, but promise it to one of the most special people in your life.
There is a certain gravity to the sense of failure you feel when the promise to achieve is to someone that matters more to you likely than life itself.
“At this point, I almost regret it and wish I would’ve kept it as a personal motivation for myself,” Sonnen told MMA Junkie during Bellator 222’s media day on Wednesday. “It is a lot of pressure.
“I will either win a championship or I will be a failure. I believe that wholeheartedly. I was told when I was 17 years old by Matt Lindland, we were both on a wrestling quest at that time, but he told me, ‘You cannot retire unless you win a world championship; you can only quit.’ I don’t want to be a quitter.”
Sonnen's fight at Bellator 222 on Friday isn't for a championship. But, in facing 41-year-old former UFC champion Lyoto Machida, Sonnen knows that it puts him in prime position to make a run at current Bellator light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.
Machida is on a three-fight winning streak, just a step away from a title shot. Sonnen would like nothing more than to derail Machida and take his spot at the front of the line. Though he lost his last bout, a heavyweight fight against the legendary Fedor, Sonnen defeated Wanderlei Silva and Rampage prior to that.
A victory over Machida is more than a feather in his cap, it puts Sonnen in prime position to try and fulfill that long ago promise he made to his father.