Growing up in blue-collar West Linn, Oregon, Chael Sonnen may not have had the red and yellow flare or colorful slogans, but he sees a parallel between himself and his childhood hero Hulk Hogan.
“I see myself as the good guy of the sport,” says the 32-year-old former U.S. Olympic wrestling alternate. “You’ll find 20 scumbags before you find a Chael or a Rich Franklin somewhere in the bunch. Every time I have to hang out with a group of fighters, it’s the most miserable experience there is. As much as I’d like to leave this sport and do something else, I have a moral obligation to society to beat up a few of these pricks.”
Wrasslin and Wrestling
The son of a plumber and a housewife, Sonnen would say his prayers, eat his vitamins, be true to himself, and be true to his country. He adhered to the Hulkamania doctrine. Sonnen eventually got involved in youth wrestling, although it was nothing like he expected. One tap on the mat by the referee ended his first wrestling match.
“I threw a fit in protest because the only wrestling I had ever watched was Hulk Hogan,” says Sonnen. “I was trying to explain to the ref that I got my shoulder up before the three count.”
When Sonnen figured out Hulk Hogan’s wrestling was different from amateur wrestling, he began excelling. Sonnen met mentor and fellow Oregonian wrestler Matt Lindland when he was 17 years old. NCAA All-American status at the University Oregon followed. National championships and an alternate spot for the 2000 Greco-Roman Olympic team meant Sonnen had become one of the elite wrestlers in the world.
“After the Olympic trials, I showed up for practice one day and Dan [Henderson] and Randy [Couture] were wearing MMA gloves instead of wrestling singlets, so I just found a pair of gloves and joined in,” says the 34-fight veteran. “I couldn’t have been more excited, and I can’t even tell you how tough I felt when I put the gloves on. I felt like I instantly knew how to fight, which I quickly found out was not true.”
Paying Your Dues
Sonnen’s current position as middleweight contender in the UFC hasn’t been without its hardships. It’s part of doing instead of dreaming. In his first professional fight, Sonnen battled future star Jason “Mayhem” Miller on March 30, 2002.
“After a takedown, Mayhem disappeared,” says Sonnen. “He had fallen through the ring because it collapsed, and he was being held up by the ring apron. The promoter told us to stay on the other side of the ring so the fight could continue.”
The pains of progress persisted as Sonnen arrived for his first stint in the UFC in late 2005. A triangle choke by Renato “Babalu” Sobral was the black cloud on his debut, but Sonnen “wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” He wasn’t even deterred by his 1–2 UFC record.
“I’ve lost to Jeremy Horn three times,” says Sonnen. “I’m better than Jeremy Horn. That sounds ridiculous. Look, he can beat me three separate occasions, but I’m telling you, just go watch the film and tell me which guy you’d rather be.”
After his departure from the UFC, an undefeated run through Bodog and a resurgence in the WEC brought Sonnen major success. He defeated world ranked Paulo Filho in a bizarre non-title affair resulting from Filho missing weight.
Sonnen promised his father on his deathbed that he’d be a UFC champion someday, so when the WEC’s 185-pound class collapsed into the UFC’s, Sonnen had his second opportunity with the organization. However, Demian Maia tapped Sonnen in less than three minutes upon reentry to the UFC.
“There’s no room for error,” says Sonnen. “I’m not making any more mistakes—I don’t have that option.”
Sonnen’s corrected any mental lapses that kept him from performing to his potential en route to a current two-fight streak in the UFC over tough and talented middleweights Dan Miller and Yushin Okami. Gunning for Anderson Silva’s 185-pound crown, Sonnen asserts his wrestling can seize the belt from “The Spider.” If he doesn’t get it, he can live with that too. But good old-fashioned American drive to be the best and a passionate promise keeps him on Team Quest’s wrestling mats and in the Octagon.