EXCLUSIVE – Chael Sonnen: “I’ve spent 26 years towards this one night.”
Chael Sonnen attempting WWE in UFC - can he solve the over-saturation issue? : Credit: Esther Lin
There is no way to look at this weekend’s UFC middleweight title rematch between Anderson Silva and the perpetual thorn in his side, Chael Sonnen, and not see the animosity that exists between the two.
Over the last week and change, the animus between champion and challenger has intensified, with Silva shedding his stoic, calm demeanour in favour of delivering promises of a violent bout to Sonnen during the UFC 148 media call.
Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas, he continued to promise Sonnen a beating, just as the challenger promised to once again take the fight to the champion like no one else has in the UFC.
When stood for the traditional staredown, the arch rivals had to be kept apart by UFC President Dana White and various staffers who surrounded the stage.
While this a side of Silva we’re seeing in earnest for the first time – he showed glimpses in his fights with both Demian Maia and Vitor Belfort – the man who will be standing across the cage from him on Saturday night inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada has been at this for this last couple of years steady.
After being the one who delivered the vast majority of the promotional sound bytes during that time, Sonnen’s happy to see his chief rival finally stepping into the fray.
“I was on a conference call with Anderson (last week) and he blew up,” began Sonnen, speaking with The Roar following Tuesday’s UFC 148 press conference. “Everybody thought, “What’s your reaction to the blow-up?” My reaction is that this is great; he’s finally being real. The real guy is finally come through. He’s a scumbag. He’s a lowly cage fighter – just like me – and there’s no point in pretending that we’re anything different.”
Fans and critics have accused Sonnen of pretending a great deal over the last two-plus years that he’s been engaged in his feud with Silva. Though things certainly get cranked up a notch or seven when the cameras are rolling and the tape recorders are on, the way Sonnen sees it, he’s the only one who is pretending.
The 35-year-old from West Linn, Oregon has pulled no punches when it comes to sharing his opinions on Silva, the way other fighters approach the Brazilian star both inside and outside of the cage, or his ambition to take over the top spot in the UFC middleweight division, and he’s not going to start any time soon.
“Everybody should aspire to be champion, but they don’t,” asserted Sonnen.
“So many people are willing to side-step. So many people are willing to look at Anderson and ask him for an autograph – guys within our own division; I’ve seen (them) taking photographs with him. That makes my stomach sick.
“This is competition, and you hit it on the head – everybody should aspire to be champion, and nobody should have to think about respect or anything else. They should think about winning, but they don’t.
“I’m the one guy – people like to say that my fight with Anderson was so close, but the reality was that was the only fight he’s ever had. I’m the only guy that went out and fought him.
“I’m not enamoured by him, I’m not impressed with him; he’s a human being, and he’s going to get beat up on Saturday night – again.”
There is, however, another side of this altercation that hasn’t gotten much mention, if any, in the time since Sonnen got back into the win column at UFC 136 and issued his famous challenge to Silva from the center of the Octagon.
While everything about this contest has been built around the bad blood between the self-appointed “bad guy” and his Brazilian nemesis, lost in the pomp, circumstance, and palpable tension is the fact that for Sonnen, this is his second, and perhaps final chance to capture UFC gold.
If this were any other 35-year-old veteran, the lead narrative heading into Saturday’s contest would be able the ups and downs of a lengthy career that could come to defined by one fight, Saturday’s fight. Because it’s “The American Gangster,” his unlikely rise from middle-tier middleweight to first-rate challenger, and ability to get back to the fight everyone has wanted to see since UFC 117 has mostly been skimmed over.
Should Sonnen once again be unsuccessful in his attempt to wrest the title away from Silva, there will surely be legions of detractors ready to take their best shots at the boisterous and brash championship contender. That possibility doesn’t trouble Sonnen; it’s how he’ll respond to winning the middleweight title on Saturday evening that he’s unprepared for just a few days before the fight.
“One of my heroes is a guy named Les Gutches. He’s one of the baddest dudes I’ve ever met in my life; he’s a world champion wrestler. Les is from Oregon, my home state, and I watched him grow up; I watched the dedication and sacrifice that he had. He won his world championship, and he told me that the very next day was one of the worst days of his life because – he won it when he was 27,” he said.
“I worked 27 years to win this. I had a goal for 27 years, and I woke up not knowing what to do. Not knowing what’s my goal now? What’s my purpose in life now that I’ve achieved the one and only goal I had?” I’m going to have to deal with that because I don’t know either.
“I don’t have a goal to defend it; I don’t,” Sonnen continued, “Salesman Chael” replaced by a reflective veteran trying to wrap his head around what it would mean to accomplish his ultimate goal.
“I will want a goal, and I’ll need to change, but I’ve spent 26 years – since I was nine-years-old – towards this one night, so I don’t know. I need to figure out how to reset and look at defending the championship.
“There’s a saying that you’re not really the champion until you defend it, and that saying is a bunch of crap. If you win the belt, you’re the champion. It’s going to be hard for me I fear, and maybe it won’t – maybe I’ll instantly be motivated to go out and defend it, I don’t know – but I’m very worried how I’m going to respond to reaching my goal.”
For all the bravado and professional wrestling-inspired deliveries that have come to epitomize Chael Sonnen over the last few years, when you strip it all away, he’s just another fighter on a quest to become champion; to have his hand raised and the belt wrapped around his waist in the center of the cage.
He was denied that opportunity after defeating Paulo Filho in their second meeting in the WEC, as the enigmatic Brazilian missed weight, turning the bout into a non-title affair.
Though he earned the victory – and was later sent the belt by an apologetic Filho – Sonnen was robbed of the chance to be called a champion.
That opportunity is once again before him on Saturday night. All it will take is getting through a man regarded by most as the best fighter in MMA history.
For all the extended monologues and inflated commentary Sonnen has offered over the last couple years, it’s how few words he can muster when asked what it would mean to be crowned UFC middleweight champion on Saturday night that says what is really most important to him about this fight.
“Man listen,” he began, pausing to find the right words. “It’s my whole life, man. It’s everything I’ve worked for, and uh… that’s it.”