Chael Sonnen, who fought through MMA's 'Dark Ages,' says UFC is a global powerhouse

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – It's hardly ancient history when it comes to practically any other sport, but when it's mixed martial arts, 2002 still qualifies as the Dark Ages.

Chael Sonnen, now one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, was a neophyte in 2002 when he met Jason Miller in a bout in Anza, Calif., that was promoted by Hitman Fighting.

Sonnen, who fights former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 167 at the MGM Grand Garden, was an MMA neophyte in 2002 with little idea of what to expect.

It didn't take long for Sonnen to realize that this new venture would be significantly different than anything he was used to in wrestling.

"There was no commission, no regulation, none of that stuff that we take for granted now," Sonnen said. "I picked Mayhem up in a double leg and I took him down to the mat. When we hit the mat, we just kept going. The cage gave way. The floor broke out and we disappeared beneath the canvas."

It's incomprehensible that such an event would happen in the UFC now, but that was what the sport's pioneers had to deal with in the early days.

By March 30, 2002, Dana White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta were more than a year into their ownership of the UFC and were trying to transform it into a legitimate business.

But the early advertising slogan, "Banned in 49 states," wasn't all that far off even in 2002. There were more states that did not regulate MMA in those days than there were states that did. Now, every state but New York regulates it.

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Even as the UFC was attempting to legitimize the sport, there were small shows happening unregulated all around the country where scenes occurred just like the one in the first round of the 2002 Sonnen-Miller fight.

For those who wanted to try to make a career of this fledgling sport, or for someone who just wanted to try something new, this kind of a thing was little more than the cost of doing business.

"We were only fight number eight of a 12-fight card, so there were multiple fights after us," Sonnen said. "This was my first fight ever and I didn't have a complete awareness of what was going on. They worked on the cage for a while and then the promoter comes over and yells to us, 'We can't fix it. Just stay out of that area.' And at that point, I had no idea where 'that area' was, because they pulled the tarp that covers the ring nice and tight so everything looked level.

"We couldn't see the hole any more, so for the rest of the fight, every step we took, we didn't know if we were going to disappear down into some hole and be lost under the ring. That's just the way it was then. It wasn't even seen as weird. This was a new sport and we were trying to make it work and things like that happened."

It's one of many stories he has from the old days. His first loss as a pro came to Trevor Prangley on Jan. 25, 2003, now more than two years into the Zuffa Era of the UFC.

Sonnen was arm barred by Prangley at 7:34 in his bout in the Xtreme Fighting Alliance.

"The fight was only a seven-minute fight," Sonnen said. "The promoter enjoyed the fight so much, he let it keep going. And even with it happening, we didn't protest or argue at all. It's just the way it was. If a promoter didn't want to stop a fight, he didn't stop it."

It's vastly different now. And though White said last week he doesn't believe the UFC has reached mainstream status, Sonnen isn't so sure.

Saturday's bout at the MGM Grand, headlined by a welterweight title match between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks, is a sell-out with a $5.7 million paid gate.

Sonnen said that fight card would sell out no matter where in the world it occurred. The same, he said, can't be said for any other sport.

"The sport is huge and let's start with that first off," Sonnen said of MMA. "There's a legitimate argument which sport is the biggest sport. I'm a fighter and I don't want to bring down other sports, but here is the reality:

"If you take the two best soccer teams in the world and you stuck them in a venue in my hometown [West Linn, Ore.], nobody's coming. Nobody is going to buy a ticket. But if we take the biggest UFC fight there was, whatever you want to make that, whether it's Georges St-Pierre and Johny or Anderson [Silva] and [Chris] Weidman, we could stick that in any venue in the world on any continent in the world and it would sell out.

"I don't know what statistics people look at when they talk about what's the biggest sport," Sonnen said. "I know this, and that's that we're a global event and we can sell out from Abu Dhabi to China and anywhere in between. No other sport could. There's no football team, baseball team or other that could do that. So to say that we don't have a place in this world is just incorrect."

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