(Image Courtesy Josh Hedges/Zuffa)
Chael Sonnen is the talk of the mixed martial arts world this week, and for good reason. In the weeks leading to UFC 109, the 32 year old Oregon native established himself as one of the best speakers in the game, a fearless trash talker with an affinity for building fights on par with greats like Tito Ortiz and Frank Mir. He seemed to come out of the void into instant stardom, but Sonnen says he’s not doing anything differently than he has in the past. “I’m still the same old me doing the same old things,” Sonnen said. “I wasn’t aware that anything had changed.”
Sonnen is now the number one contender for the middleweight championship and, should everything play out according to plan, could be facing Anderson Silva in the most anticipated middleweight title bout in years. He ran through Nate Marquardt in dominating fashion, a result that only Sonnen could’ve seen coming. He took plenty of punishment in the bout, enough to earn a one-month suspension.
“I’ve never been in so much pain in my entire life. Everything hurts. I can barely sleep at night. My mouth is so cut up that I can barely eat,” Sonnen said. “Other than that, I’m getting by just fine.”
Sonnen’s place as the top middleweight contender is ironic when you consider that his Team Quest teammate Dan Henderson left the UFC and signed with Strikeforce last year due in part to not getting the title shot he felt he deserved. Sonnen cracked on Strikeforce at the UFC 109 post-fight press conference, but says Henderson likely has no idea he even made the comments. “I don’t think Dan watched the press conference, and I know he doesn’t read, so I’m going to assume he has no idea,” Sonnen said. But Henderson was well aware of the stakes leading into Sonnen’s fight. “Dan told me that if I KO’d Nate, he’d give my campaign $1000. He said if I only won the fight, he’d give me $500. If I lost the fight? I’d owe him money.”
Sonnen’s surging popularity is due in part to his refreshing honesty. Ask any fighter about his upcoming opponent or his training camp, and nine times out of ten you’ll get a version of the same answer. Not with Sonnen. He tends to speak from the heart, without a filter, which makes him an entertaining interview and a polarizing figure. But Sonnen says that fighters don’t shoulder all of the blame for bland interviews.
“Interviewers ask boring questions. They ask the same question over and over with no thought put into it, with no commitment to excellence,” Sonnen said. “If the interviewer has such a low bar for questions, they should expect a low bar for responses. And the misquotes and things taken out of context in this industry can make any athlete reluctant to speak.”
Reluctance to speak isn’t the only thing that makes Sonnen different than the majority of “full time fighters” in the sport. He also holds a full time job, which very few top-level fighters in the UFC can claim. Shane Carwin, the erstwhile UFC heavyweight championship contender, holds a full time job as an engineer in Colorado. He trudges to work each day because he enjoys it and because he wants to be a contributing member of society.
Sonnen is cut from the same cloth. He hasn’t given up his job as a real estate agent and has no plans to do so. “Look, able-bodied men need to contribute to society. That’s just a reality. Sure, you can slip through the cracks and let the rest of us pick up the slack, but that’s not what I want,” Sonnen said. “I don’t think my neighbors should all get up and go to work while I sleep at home. They get up and go to work, and so do I.”
Sonnen is going to work in more ways than one. On the day before his fight with Marquardt, Sonnen announced his campaign for State Representative in Oregon’s House District 37. He’s launched a website at VoteSonnen.com where fans and constituents can read more about his campaign and contribute to his cause.
Instead of simply voicing his opinions on political matters like UFC champ Brock Lesnar, Sonnen is going to do something about it. But that doesn’t mean he believes more fighters should go into politics. “No. Don’t be silly,” Sonnen said.
Sonnen’s respite from the cage is a well-earned one. Having been granted the next middleweight title shot, he’ll await the winner of the Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort bout in April. Silva’s manager, Ed Soares, said recently that he believes that Sonnen should have to face Demian Maia to determine the number one contender. It’s likely just another piece of gamesmanship from Soares, but Sonnen won’t be deterred.
“Ed is a friend of mine. But you have to understand that he’s not with the UFC. He is not under contract as an employee or an athlete. He’s never gotten a check from the UFC,” Sonnen said. “He couldn’t get Dana on the line if his life depended on it. What is his relevance? Dana White and Joe Silva decided it, and that’s it.”