LAS VEGAS – By the end of 2009, Chael Sonnen had long been known as one of the best interviews in mixed martial arts. But in the preceding years, he'd bounced from promotion to promotion, had a terrible submission defense problem and never really was accepted by the public as an elite fighter.
He underwent something of a metamorphosis after throttling Yushin Okami at UFC 104 in Los Angeles that year, a win that put him one victory away from a shot at the UFC middleweight title.
Not long after the UFC booked him to meet Nate Marquardt in a No. 1 contender's match at UFC 109 on Feb. 6, 2010, Sonnen adopted a new, more colorful persona.
He began talking trash to Marquardt incessantly, almost as if he were playing a character on a pro wrestling show. At the pre-fight news conference for the event, UFC president Dana White called Sonnen's quotes in a Yahoo! Sports column, "the craziest [expletive] I've heard."
By the time UFC 109 rolled around, it was clear Sonnen had raised his game considerably. He was coming off an impressive win over Okami and then drubbed Marquardt to earn a title shot against champion Anderson Silva.
It wasn't just his fighting that was improving, though. Sonnen also improved his trash talk to where Chael Sonnen the character had overtaken Chael Sonnen the man.
He was prone to outlandish, over-the-top statements, insulting everyone from his opponents and the media to people in Brazil.
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After he defeated Brian Stann at UFC 136 in Houston, he spied Silva seated at ringside. He grabbed the microphone from broadcaster Joe Rogan and bellowed, "Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck."
Silva simply just rolled his eyes and smiled.
But as their July 7 rematch for the middleweight title at the MGM Grand Garden approaches, there is another perceptible change in Sonnen's public persona: The pro wrestling character he's played in interviews has largely been shelved, replaced by a confident, but insightful man.
Asked about the disappearance of his alter ego character on a conference call, though, Sonnen couldn't resist.
"I don't do characters, so I'm not real sure what that meant, but I mean, I got serious about this fight a long time ago," Sonnen said. "I've been training for combat since I was nine years old, and I've wanted to be the UFC champion since 1993. I couldn't think of a day in my life where this wasn't serious to me."
He took things very seriously at UFC 117, when he nearly upset Silva in Oakland, Calif., to win the title.
Sonnen landed 320 strikes against Silva, more than any other fight since Royce Gracie landed 355 strikes on Ken Shamrock in a 36-minute fight at UFC 5. Entering the bout with Sonnen at UFC 117, Silva had only absorbed 166 strikes from 11 opponents. Sonnen nearly doubled that total himself.
Yet, it did him no good. As he was going down the homestretch of what would have been one of the greatest upsets in UFC history, Sonnen's old bugaboo surfaced again. His submission defense betrayed him and Silva caught him in a triangle choke to end the fight and retain his title.
It's been nearly two years since that stunning finish, during which Sonnen served a suspension from the California State Athletic Commission for not properly obtaining a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy and also pleaded guilty to felony charges in a real estate case in Oregon.
He's beaten Stann and Michael Bisping since returning from his suspension, each time unexpectedly dialing down the pro wrestling shtick.
And while he doesn't have much good to say about Silva, he's saying it in his own voice instead of in the voice of a pro wrestling heel.
Sonnen, though, is very calculated and doesn't make a move without thinking it through. He knows that Silva has been irate at him for the taunts Sonnen has hurled over the years. And Silva during the conference call on Monday lost his trademark cool, threatening Sonnen with injury.
The middleweight champ railed against him at length in a very uncharacteristic manner.
"Well, first of all, Chael is a criminal," Silva said. "He's been convicted of crimes. He doesn't deserve to be inside the Octagon, and when the time comes and the time is right, I'm going to break his face and break every one of his teeth in his mouth."
Silva is the best fighter in the world and he's 14-0 in the UFC with a winning streak that extends more than six years.
If Sonnen's taunts so angered Silva that they take him out of his game, it's Victory No. 1 for the challenger.
At a workout in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday, Sonnen was amused by Silva's tirade. He once again let the champion have it verbally, but was no longer in character.
This was Chael P. Sonnen, fighter, talking.
"I got some satisfaction that the real Anderson, the real scumbag, showed up because I've been saying all that fake bowing and [humility] is a façade for years," Sonnen said. "Now he's shown up and I've been proven right. So I got some amount of satisfaction from that and, on the other hand, I've got an ego and I want to show to do well, because that's my name on the poster and I want the event to be big. So I was happy he started throwing threats around on the call, even though his threats made no sense.
"He's in a fist fight in a steel cage. He should want to break my teeth. He should want to break my face and jaw. It is a fight, dummy. If he's not trying to do those things, how is it a fight? But this is real serious to me. I'd take broken teeth, a jaw that needs to be re-set and getting carried out on a stretcher if I get that belt. … He said he will break my jaw, break my arms, break my legs, but one thing he didn't say [is that] he'd break is my will. And he won't break my will. I want this more than he does."
That remains to be seen. But, on the surface at least, the first battle of UFC 148 appears to have been won by Sonnen.
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