LAS VEGAS — Chael Sonnen faces the biggest test of his life on Saturday night when he steps in the Octagon against top middleweight contender Nate Marquardt. Marquardt is almost unanimously considered a top three middleweight and the best current UFC middleweight not named Anderson Silva. A win over Marquardt wouldn’t just give the former WEC middleweight champion his biggest career win — it would also earn him a title shot against Silva.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to compete on the same card as Randy Couture. This is a big fight,” said Sonnen. “My path was a tough one, but I made it. My opponent is very good. On paper, he wins this fight every time. But we’re not fighting on paper — we are fighting on a blood soaked canvas. Nate may have better skills than me, but we’re going to find out who the better fighter is.”
Sonnen earned his co-main event status at UFC 109 by virtue of an upset victory over Yushin Okami last year. It was a surprisingly dominant win over a fighter many considered to be one of the top five middleweights in the UFC.
“Chael looked awesome against Okami. Absolutely awesome,” said Dana White. “I went up to him in the locker room after the show and told him. It was the most impressive version of Chael Sonnen that I’d ever seen. It vaulted him into the top five.”
Headliner and Sonnen training partner Randy Couture agrees. “I’ve been very impressed by Chael. He’s really come into his own lately. He has the eye of the tiger.”
Sonnen also heaped praise on Couture. “I still work out with Randy. In fact, we worked out yesterday,” said Sonnen. “In 1998, I had a birthday coming up, and I told my Dad not to get me a present because Randy Couture and Mark Coleman were going to fight and I wanted to be at that event. I have waited twelve years for this fight. I’m really excited for it.”
Sonnen is well-spoken and intelligent, a fighter with political aspirations that stretch far beyond the world of mixed martial arts. He works with the Republican party in Oregon, the state he has called home for the majority of his life. When speaking with Sonnen, you get the sense that this is a man who is very unlike your typical fighter. He won’t give you any cookie-cutter responses about his training camp or his weight.
Sonnen will speak his mind, and it doesn’t matter one bit if you might be offended by his answer. He has grabbed headlines lately for inflammatory remarks towards Anderson Silva, Mark Coleman and others.
He finally has the attention of MMA fans around the world, but not everyone agrees with his views. “I didn’t agree with 90% of the stuff he said,” said Dana White. “Pretty much everything he said was dumb. It was crazy and made no sense. I like Chael and I think he’s a good guy, but I don’t agree with 90% of the stuff he’s been saying.”
For Sonnen, the talk comes easy. The real test will come Saturday night, when he faces an opponent who is roundly considered to be stronger, faster and better at just about every aspect of the mixed martial arts game. He’s a heavy underdog with very little chance of beating Marquardt.
But he was given very little chance of beating Okami, either. Sonnen thrives on being underestimated, and he’s looking to cement his place in the division and earn a title shot against a champion he feels is beatable. A win over Marquardt, as far-fetched as it may seem, will put both of those things within his grasp.