Chael Sonnen is covered in sweat. He’s seriously focused after Wednesday’s open media workouts at the UFC gym in Concord, Calif., twenty-minutes down the road from the Oracle Arena in Oakland, where he’ll attempt to beat UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva at UFC 117 this Saturday night.
Yet Sonnen musters up a smile and takes the time to hold a baby sporting a white UFC gym gi for a fan photo. It’s easy to see why Sonnen has run on a successful ticket in the UFC over the last year, but instead of sitting back and waiting for election day results to roll in, the would-be politician has to step up and face the best fighter in the world.
UFC 185-pound king Anderson Silva has faced a beloved champion (Rich Franklin), a pound-for-pound great (Dan Henderson) and a world-class grappler (Demian Maia), but none of Silva’s opponents have inspired the interest in an Anderson Silva fight the way Chael Sonnen has.
Whether they support him or not, everyone wants to see if Sonnen’s in-ring prowess can cash the check his mouth has been writing over the last seven months. Sonnen fans believe his talk or at least despise Silva for dancing in front of Demian Maia during his last title defense in April and for lackluster performances against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites. Silva supporters still remember the Brazilian for his unparalleled accomplishments and view Sonnen like a fighter trying to talk his way into the big leagues rather than a fighter who battled to get there.
Despite the fact that Silva will vie for a UFC record seventh consecutive title defense and 11th straight UFC victory, his stock is at an all-time low because of the Maia incident. Silva is the quiet killer type of champion and that hasn’t translated to pay-per-views equal to his skill set. Enter Sonnen, who has served as the ideal foil to Silva with his blue-collar approach to shouldering the weight of selling the fight to the public. The dynamic contrast and out of balance quotes floating around has created fantastic hype; however, it has shrouded the fact that this is an excellent title fight.
Styles make matchups and Sonnen’s power double leg game is one Silva has yet to face. The Team Quest representative was a two-time University National champion wrestler who didn’t fulfill his dream of competing at the Olympic level. After turning to fighting, Sonnen decided it was there he’d be a champion—so much so that he promised his father on his deathbed he’d win a UFC crown. Challenging a dominant force like Silva isn’t something he’s had to psyche himself up to do. Sonnen feels destined for this moment. And he refuses to let Silva prevent it from coming to fruition.
Silva—at least on the surface— is unfazed by the American’s talk and walk. The adage “you’re only as good as your last fight” has plagued no one worse than Silva as his last performance obfuscates the fact that he’s finished an unprecedented 9 of 11 UFC opponents inside the Octagon. Sonnen will be the most celebrated fighter in MMA for backing up his verbal jabs with a win; however, Silva will reap equal rewards for performing when Sonnen has guaranteed in an incredibly vocal fashion that he won’t.
Sonnen is adamant he never lost a fight he didn’t want to lose prior to Demian Maia. He admits Maia was simply the better man at UFC 95 in February 2009. The loss prompted Sonnen to correct the mental mistakes that characterized his losses, resulting in his current three-fight win streak that earned him a shot at Silva.
Sonnen has been the underdog in his last two fights and it didn’t stop him from delivering one-sided performances in his favor against Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt—both considered by many to be the second-best middleweight in the world before losing to the 33-year-old. Paulo Filho was also the second-best middleweight in the world and the WEC 185-pound champion when Sonnen out pointed him in 20008. After Filho failed to make weight, he promised to relinquish his belt to Sonnen if he lost. He never did.
Sonnen wants—and has wanted his whole life—nothing more than to be a champion. After three successful plays for number two, he gets his shot at number one, but only Saturday night will reveal what number Chael Sonnen has been all along.