The Prodigal Sonnen
Chael Sonnen has returned to the top of the contender list for the UFC’s middleweight division. Is he the man to put an end to Anderson Silva’s reign? There’s no doubt in his mind.
Fall in West Linn, Oregon. Patrick Sonnen is dying of liver cancer. His son, Chael, sits bedside making promises. Among the last words Patrick will ever hear are his son’s oath to win a world championship.
“October, 13, 2002,” Chael Sonnen says, the date etched permanently in his mind. “I think about it all the time, for sure.”
Sonnen’s voice becomes low and measured. “It’s the only promise I ever made to him that I haven’t fulfilled.”
This is the serious side to Sonnen, one of mixed martial arts’ chameleons. His self-made image is inflammatory and contradictory, the All-American boy who will tell a lie to get a laugh. But beneath his often-playful facade lies a deep well touched by tragedy, doubt, and irony.
After Anderson Silva’s bizarre destruction of Demian Maia at UFC 112, Sonnen appears to be next in line for a UFC middleweight title shot, but he isn’t holding his breath.
“Before the fight, they told me I would get the winner,” Sonnen says with a knowing smile. “A lot has to happen. You have to do your part. The other guy has to do his part.”
Sonnen has been chasing championships most of his life. As a high school wrestler, he was a state runner up. At University of Oregon, he was the Pac-10 runner-up twice. He was an Olympics alternate.
Fighting out of Team Quest in Portland, Oregon, Sonnen had two title shots in MMA. In WEC 31, he was beating Paulo Filho—then widely considered the second-best middleweight in the world. The fight ended in controversy when the referee believed Sonnen verbally tapped to an armbar.
The two were supposed to rematch at WEC 33, but Filho backed out days before. When Sonnen finally got Filho to a rematch at WEC 36, Filho failed to make weight. They fought anyway and Sonnen won easily, but the feeling of victory was as strange as the match itself. Though Sonnen is one of few challengers to beat the champion, he didn’t win the belt.
Soon after, the WEC dropped the middleweight division. Moving to the UFC, Sonnen was choked out by Demian Maia and any hopes of a title shot seemed to evaporate. But consecutive and dominant wins over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami, and Nate Marquardt moved Sonnen back to the top of the heap. Sonnen’s defeat of Marquardt at UFC 109 really opened eyes. Other than Anderson Silva, no one had beaten the former top contender so completely.
“I’ve always wanted Joe Rogan to interview me,” Sonnen says.“I’ve won three fights in the UFC and he never interviewed me. As I was leaving the cage after beating Marquardt, I was saying that I was upset that Joe didn’t interview me. Well, he did. I was just so stunned I didn’t remember it.”
After his Marquardt victory at UFC 109, Sonnen was promised a title shot. Ironically, the victory cost him a title shot, too.
“It was a painful fight,” Sonnen says. “I was so physically sore that I couldn’t put my socks on. That night I had to go pee and I couldn’t get out of bed. I had to roll back and forth until I came out on my feet. It was just miserable. It was the worst it’s ever been. I got hit by a loaded gravel truck about seven years ago, but this hurt worse. It hurt much worse, actually. It was horrible. It was a very painful fight.
Soon after the win, Vitor Belfort pulled out of UFC 112, leaving Anderson Silva without an opponent. The UFC asked Sonnen to fill in.
“I was suspended so I couldn’t train, and I had 15 stitches in my head,” Sonnen says. “I couldn’t even practice until March. I was suspended by the commission until March 9. That would have left me three weeks to train. I was dog-tired after 15 minutes. I couldn’t get ready for 25 minutes in 21 days and cut weight. At least I am finally in ‘The Spot’ and it feels good. First you’ve got to get in the UFC, which is so hard to do. Then you have to get the fans and wins behind you to push up the card. Then you have to get to the main event/title fight status. And then, even when you are granted that, nothing is guaranteed.”
Mind & Muscle
Beginning in 1996, Patrick Sonnen drove his teenage son to boxing workouts. After being dropped off, Chael trained until his father returned.
“After a while, I realized he was going to the tavern next door,” Sonnen says. “Sometimes he’d invite his friends and lose track of time. It was kind of funny, but it made for some long days.”
Sonnen had already spent countless hours wrestling. His extended boxing training helped plant the seed for a move into mixed martial arts. Sonnen had watched his mentor, Matt Lindland, move into the cage and decided to follow suit.
His first fight was in front of a tractor-pull crowd at a fairground. “I thought, ‘Well it’s a fight so I have to get angry,’” he says.
“I wanted to be as hotheaded as possible. I was walking around huffing and puffing—which is all an act. Then I got out there and the adrenaline was debilitating. I was exhausted in a minute. I won, but it was a nightmare. I needed two days to recover from exhaustion.”
He has since learned to calm himself, but that knowledge didn’t come quickly or easily.
“I just didn’t know how to train or how to peak,” he says. “I was 29 or 30 years old before I got that part down. There was something happening mentally. I would be winning, but then start looking for a way out.”
Admittedly, his greatest obstacle was himself. Sonnen began his career 5-0, but struggled against elite competition. The low point: a third loss to Jeremy Horn at UFC 60. At 14-8-1, Sonnen questioned whether he could continue as a mediocre fighter.
“I was absolutely devastated,” Sonnen says. “I needed professional help. I’ve never been knocked out, never been TKO’d. I‘ve never been dominated, I‘ve never had anyone throw me down and beat me up, I‘ve never been out-struck, I’ve never been out wrestled, I‘ve never been out-anything. But somewhere in the second round, I’d check out. I’d start questioning myself. ‘Do I have enough energy? Can I go on?’ Stuff everybody has to deal with, but I wasn’t dealing with it right.”
Sonnen sought the help of local sports psychologist Ed Versteegand was shocked to discover his self-doubt was normal.
“I thought I was weird,” Sonnen says. “I used to think I was the only one that would hear a negative voice in his head. That’s why I would never talk about it. I started reading and learning that everybody has second guesses. I’m not the only one that gets scared.”
The results were immediate. Sonnen won five in a row before the Filho loss. He is 10-2 since 2006.
“I’m not the same person I was,” Sonnen says. “I have a different mindset. I used to worry about my opponent. Now I just focus on myself. There was a 50% stress release right there. At this level every opponent is tough.”
As the pressure increased, so did the quality of Sonnen’s performances.
“Something has changed in him,” Team Quest coach Robert Follis says. “Healways had the skills, but he is one of the nicest guys I know and sometimes he was a little too nice. I have sparred with him for 10 years and he never hurt me when he hit me. Now, he is just laying into guys. He has a legitimate chance to be a world champion.”
With three consecutive UFC wins, Sonnen moved to the main card, then the poster, and his next bout will likely be as a headliner.
“How am I going to handle the main event? How will I handle a title fight?”Sonnen asks. “I don’t know. Maybe I will blow the whole thing, or maybe I’m really good under pressure. We’ll find out.”
MINUTES & MAYHEM
Two days before UFC 112, Sonnen was in a van with 15 wrestlers on a 10-hour drive to Reno, Nevada. The van was part of a 35-wrestler contingent from Sonnen’s All-Phase wrestling camp in West Linn, Oregon.
“Allll-Phase! Allllways!” he says.
Sonnen juggles coaching his club team with a full-time job as a realtor and a bid for state political office. He also runs one of the most successful amateur MMA promotions in the Northwest.
“I have the real estate and I promote the shows, and the shows are getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “I have to push both of those aside to focus on campaigning. And I never miss a practice.”
Instead of praise, his tireless schedule has drawn criticism.
“People say I’m not a full-time fighter,” he says. “The truth is, there is no such thing as a full-time fighter. There’s really lazy guys who just fight and pretend they are full-time fighters. In reality, I go to Quest every day and it’s a good hard workout, but with my warm-up and with my shower, it’s two hours. I’m there at 3 p.m. and I’m back on the highway by 5 p.m. My other workout is an hour. So that’s three hours a day plus drive time. I have friends that spend more time playing golf each day or some people surf the Internetor play cards or play video games. So that leaves me with another 21 hours in the day. If you sleep seven or eight hours what are you going to do for the rest of the day? What else are you going to do? I only need three hours to compete at a high-level in MMA.”
In fact, Sonnen has done as much for MMA in his home state as anyone. He began the Full-Contact Fighting Federation in January 2002. At the time, MMA was struggling with the stigma caused by years of backroom tough man competitions and was not yet considered a sport.
He testified before an Oregon state subcommittee arguing that while mixed martial arts is barbaric (“What could be more barbaric than locking two men in a cage?” he asks), it should be legal (“No holds barred competitions are banned, but as soon as you bar one hold, you take yourself out of that classification,” he says).
They changed the law seven times. Nearly as often, state officials burst in the doors with a restraining order just before the opening bell. Sonnen persisted.
Eventually, the names changed at the top, and the money Sonnen could generate in taxes and fees became more alluring to the state than moral ambiguity.
Now instead of battling the system, Sonnen wants to join it. The Republican is campaigning for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives.
Methods & Madness
“Campaigning never ends,” Sonnen says. “It’s a full-time job in itself.”
Sonnen knows the pitfalls of politics. Lindland’s unsuccessful bid for the Oregon Senate in 2008 was highlighted in a documentary film.
“Politics is way worse than MMA, because MMA has rules,” Lindland said.
A semi-public figure before the campaign, Lindland ran on the Republican ticket and was vilified as a right-wing zealot and, falsely, as a felon. Sonnen has faced the same criticisms, but in a more intimate way. As a real estate agent, he has been promoting his personal phone number in print, billboards, and the Internet for several years.
“I am getting calls: ‘You right-wing piece of blah, blah, blah,’” Sonnen says. “Most of the time they just hang up. They think it’s an office phone or something, and I think they get flustered when they find out that, yes, I answer my phone. I am a Republican, but I don’t know how much of a right-wing nut you think I am. I never have a chance to defend myself.”
One person sent hate e-mail.
“I wrote back and said that wasn’t a very nice e-mail and that’s all I said,” Sonnen recalls. “He wrote back and starts talking cap and trade, gays in the military, and all this federal stuff. I’m running for a really small district to do what I can to help my community. But I’m thrown in with these evil guys in Washington.”
Questions about politics put Sonnen in an oratory mode. The news on the day of this interview was about gay rights. Admitting he will be labeled by his party affiliation, Sonnen spoke to the subject.
“Why is everyone picking on the gays?” he says in a hushed tone. “If they want to go get married, let them get married. Or call it something else. There’s this big definition of marriage. These right-wing people are like, ‘Marriage is a reserved trust. Let them have a union, but it’s the same laws, just different words.’ Is that really what you’re thinking about? Do you know what’s going on in Haiti? Do you know the real problems in the world? And you’re complaining because these two people fell in love? What are you talking about? How is that your thing? That’s your issue? These people getting married?”
MOUTH & MEDIA
While Sonnen doesn’t want to play the villain in politics, he plays the heel in MMA, turning interviews into his personal playground, popping insults and one-liners like a professional wrestler.
Exhibit A: Before fighting Paulo Filho in WEC 36, Sonnen had this to say.
“A guy goes to fight in Japan, gets an inflated record, comes to America, and he’s the incredible shrinking man. You’ve got to pee in a cup and all of a sudden things are different. You can read into that what you want. I understand that’s almost a flagrant statement. I make no apologies.”
As Dan Hardy’s rapid rise to a title shot showed, the ability to sell a fight can be far more important than the ability to win one. “No one can sell a fight better than Chael,” Lindland says, laughing. “He has a special talent for it.”
Sonnen blasts everyone, friends and foes alike. He once goaded his friend Trevor Prangley by insulting his manager Bob Cook. Later, Prangley and Cook had several fighters hold Sonnen down and gave him a noogie while taking pictures.
“I still have it on my wall,” Prangley says of the photo. Sonnen admits a personal favorite was saying he had a picture of Filho in his shoe so that he would step on the Brazilian’s face with every step.
“Saying stuff affects you,” Sonnen says. “Once you say it, it becomes real. Before UFC 109, I said one thing about how Anderson Silva speaks English. Then, every interview I did was, ‘Well, you’ve been very outspoken about Anderson Silva,’ but I hadn’t been. All I had said was he speaks English and pretend she doesn’t. But every time I did an interview, they would take it there, so finally I steered into it and unleashed. Then it ended up working out. Dana saw someone who could finally promote a fight with Anderson.”
Sonnen’s recent success has led to an overwhelming amount of interview requests and photo shoots.
“You want to do the media thing until you have to do it,” he says. “It seems like a big, fun deal to have the attention around you until it finally happens. The next thing, you are on a plane to do a radio interview, and all you really want is to be home on the couch.”
Couch time could be at a premium as Sonnen’s political, professional, and coaching ambitions grow along with his MMA stature.
“Am I ready?” Sonnen asks. “You are never really ready. It’s like the day of the fight. The one question everyone asks you is, ‘Are you ready?’ I hear it a hundred times from fans, friends, the UFC. Are you ready? No. I’m not ready. It’s just my turn. Let me know when I’m up. I’ll walk out there.”