Fighters tend to get excited when it’s time to walk out to the cage and test themselves against an opponent. It’s what mixed martial arts is all about, isn’t it? They’ve prepared themselves diligently — training mind, body and spirit for months on end — in anticipation of a brief moment when they’ll be locked in a cage with an equally-skilled opponent also looking to make a name for himself.
They know things could end badly, but it doesn’t deter them in the slightest. It’s what separates these athletes from those of us sitting in the crowd — the willingness to put their bodies on the line in order to accomplish something great.
Chael Sonnen sees things a little differently.
“I never get excited to fight. It’s probably one of my least favorite things to do. But I don’t need to be excited,” Sonnen says. “We all have a job, and I don’t think anybody is excited to go do it, but we do it anyway. There are a lot of emotions, but I can tell you that excitement isn’t one of them.”
Sonnen’s rise to stardom over the past eight months has become the stuff of legend. Victories over Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt cemented his status as a contender in the division, but it was his electric insults of UFC 118 opponent Anderson Silva that put him in the brightest spotlight of his career.
Opponents rarely have anything bad to say about Silva, mainly because he’s one of the best fighters on the planet and has the ability to make you look foolish if he so chooses. Demian Maia found that out the hard way during his UFC 112 title shot against Silva in April. Apparently feeling disrespected by Maia’s comments about his jiu-jitsu skills, Silva chose to dance around the cage while openly mocking Maia and avoiding any kind of real conflict.
It was a performance that caused outrage, both at cage-side and around the world.
“I didn’t watch the whole fight. I don’t really know anybody that did. The UFC president didn’t even watch the whole fight,” Sonnen says. “The part I did see was really bizarre, but I left there going ‘that guy is really good.’ Demian Maia is a very good fighter, and it didn’t appear as if Anderson was even trying. He still dominated him. “
For all of Sonnen’s bluster, he’s acutely aware of Silva’s status as a fighter. “If Anderson says that Maia didn’t belong in the ring with him because he disrespected him, then I don’t belong in the same galaxy,” Sonnen says.
But even in the midst of respect, Sonnen still can’t resist getting in a dig at the champ.
“I don’t know where this street lingo comes from. This whole thing about respect? That’s how gangbangers talk. This is serious. Kids are killing each other in the streets, and when the police ask them why they did it, they cite respect. Nobody is owed respect — especially some rich jerk like Anderson. We don’t need to respect him,” Sonnen says. “He doesn’t owe me respect. I don’t even fully know what respect means. Some rapper with gold teeth sang about that when I was in middle school, and somehow it made its way into the mainstream. Who cares about respect? Screw Anderson Silva. If he’s got a problem, get in the cage on the 7th and do something about it.”
These are the kinds of verbal blasts that have turned Sonnen into something much more than just another Silva punching bag. He’s still a decided underdog going into the fight, but he’s done something that was considered impossible just a few months ago — he single-handedly made people forget about Abu Dhabi. They’ve forgotten about the performance against Patrick Cote. They’re overlooking the holier-than-thou attitude Silva tends to assume when one of his performances is criticized.
They want to see Silva fight, and it’s almost exclusively due to Sonnen.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Mixed martial arts is a complex mixture of sport and business, and each side needs the other to survive. Sonnen, who briefly trained to be a professional wrestler at the WCW Power Plant after the turn of the millennium, is portraying what amounts to an old-school wrestling heel. He’s the bad guy standing in the center of the ring making outlandish statements, doing his best to make people open up their wallets and pay to see him beaten.
It’s a formula that worked well for heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar — at least until his recent conversion to humble, hard-working champion with enough heart to overcome adversity — and made him the sport’s biggest star. It’s working for Sonnen, but with a slight wrinkle: Silva’s current standing with mixed martial arts fans is shaky enough that people are latching onto Sonnen as the middleweight savior of the moment. He’s brash, he’s cocky and he’s entertaining.
Sonnen realizes that he’s facing a monumental task. Dethroning the man many believe to be the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet won’t be an easy task, but the severity of the challenge won’t deter him from giving his best effort.
It also won’t stop him from taking one final shot at his opponent.
“The guy has lied to a lot of people for a long time. He lied to the whole world when he said he would show up in Abu Dhabi and fight. He didn’t. He showed up and took their fifty bucks and he didn’t go fight,” Sonnen says. “I’m from the country. I’m not from the city like him, and we’ve got a way to deal with thieves in the country. To me, he’s a liar and he’s a thief, and I will deal with him on August 7th.”