The A-Z on Chael Sonnen: 26 Things You Need to Know About the UFC 148 Contender
Chael Sonnen is one of the most controversial fighters in the short history of mixed martial arts. It's easy to read that broad statement as hyperbole—until you spend a moment perusing message boards or Twitter. After five minutes you'll quickly understand that Sonnen provokes emotions like few fighters ever have.
You'll find no indifferent fans when the conversation turns to Sonnen. He is either beloved or cursed; there is no middle ground. And Sonnen works very hard to keep it that way.
Much of the Sonnen chatter centers on things outside the cage—his legal misfortunes, allegations of drug use and scathing trash talk are typically the first topics of discussion. His talents inside the cage are an afterthought. In many ways that's a true shame.
While Sonnen is undeniably charismatic and verbose, both a masterful planner of material and quick on his feet, his skills in the cage at least equal his gifts outside it.
Sonnen is one of MMA's best wrestlers, in part because of the completely fearless way he closes the gap between himself and his opponents. He's willing to eat a punch or kick to get into the position he needs to be in, a sacrifice of self that has paid dividends.
What makes this man tick? A man who can discuss politics in an even-handed and intelligent way one minute and the next pretend he thinks they haven't yet introduced soap to the Brazilian people. A man who is a mat master, except when it seems to matter the most.
I've compiled an A-Z list of what makes Sonnen such an interesting man. Together let's take a look at one of the UFC's most compelling and controversial fighters.
A: Anderson Silva
It all comes back to Anderson Silva. Sonnen and Silva will dance together into history, locked in an epic embrace of violence, pride, passion and pain. How can it be otherwise? The two had what many consider the single best fight in UFC history.
The story has been told many times—how Sonnen fearlessly attacked a champion who left many quaking in fear. How he took the fight to Silva, beating him to the punch, tossing him to the mat, beating him for more than 20 minutes.
Then, for Sonnen and his team, disaster struck. Silva locked in a triangle choke—Sonnen's bane.
As he tapped out in that final round, Sonnen didn't just lose a fight. He lost an opportunity to rewrite his own career, to make up for moments in the past where he failed to make the most of his prodigious talents. All washed away with one win that just wasn't meant to be.
In the end, only the result matters. For all his success during the fight, the outcome of a fight is a binary result—a last-minute submission made Silva the winner.
Now, jokes aside, Sonnen looks for redemption. For every joke about how he's the "real champion," there have been 100 sprints. For each appearance carrying a replica belt, there have been countless sparring sessions, each one an opportunity to right the wrongs that Silva capitalized on.
Because Sonnen is serious about one thing—taking the middleweight title from Anderson Silva. His career comes down to this. On July 7, 2012, Sonnen fights for his place in history. I can't imagine being anywhere else.
B: BoDog Fight
BoDog Fight came at the perfect time for Chael Sonnen. Bounced from the UFC by his nemesis Jeremy Horn, who all told beat Sonnen three times, he was a man at a crossroads. Approaching his 30th birthday, Sonnen was a certified journeyman; a record of 15-8-1 pointed at potential squandered.
While he regrouped and prepared for a final run to the top, he needed some place to ply his trade. And there could certainly be worse ways to spend his time than hanging out at the beach with the BoDog babes and billionaire playboy Calvin Ayre.
Today, his gambling empire has been seized. He's been indicted. The house of virtual cards has come tumbling down. At the time though, Ayre was an unlikely billionaire, a self-made man willing to drop millions.
When a regular guy gets interested in fighting, maybe he heads to Vegas to check out the action with his friends. Ayre wasn't built that way. He was all in, seemingly creating a fight show of his own just to hang out at the beach with Royce Gracie and check out some fights, his lavish parties still discussed on slow nights in the MMA community.
For Sonnen it was a time to rebuild his career. He won all four of his fights in the promotion, three of them decisively. Just as importantly, he began to embrace the camera, to consider for the first time, that much of the fight game happens outside the gym, in front of the media and the fans. Chael Sonnen was preparing to become "Chael P. Sonnen," the most talked-about fighter in the game.
After his suspension in 2010 following the first Silva fight, a product of a testosterone/epitestosterone ratio above what was legal in California, Sonnen had to earn his way back to the top of the pack. He wanted Silva again, needed that chance to do what he now knew could be done.
But it wasn't going to be easy.
Standing in his path was Michael Bisping, the former Ultimate Fighter champion who had gone on to a successful career in the UFC. Like Chael, Bisping had the gift of gab. It had made him one of the UFC's most enduring villains—and a very rich man.
The impassioned fanbase that loathed Bisping's television character tended to underrate the fine fighter he'd become. He was an outstanding striker, mobile and aggressive, and over the years had worked hard to repair the cracks in his game's infrastructure.
If Sonnen's weakness was submissions, Bisping's was wrestling. Unlike other strikers who were content to complain about an opponent's unwillingness to play into his hands, Bisping worked to fix his own problems instead.
By the time he met Sonnen at the second UFC card on Fox television in Chicago, Bisping's takedown defense was among the best in the division. He made Sonnen work for everything he got, turning a fight many expected Chael to breeze through into a grueling war of attrition.
Sonnen had his hand raised in the end. But he would never forget Chicago and a harrowing night with Michael Bisping.
D: Demian Maia
To get back to the UFC, Sonnen first had to show himself worthy in the WEC, the promotion's little brother that had become a proving grounds for hungry middleweight and welterweight fighters and a place to showcase the sport's best little men.
Sonnen passed the test, but his UFC return was not the glorious triumph he had anticipated. Instead, Sonnen became just another victim in Demian Maia's rise to stardom. The Brazilian submission specialist had four UFC fights before meeting Chael at UFC 95 in February, 2009, each of them ending with a submission.
Chael made five.
For Sonnen, it was a clear sign that nothing would come easy in the UFC, where each and every fighter carried the genetic gift for violence.
E: Extreme Challenge
Jeremy Horn, a throwback to MMA's early days, grew up in the sport fighting in warehouses, basements and in promotions small and large throughout the country and the world. The UFC, Pride, Rings—Horn had passed through them all, facing the sport's best fighters and some of its dregs as well.
To Horn, it made little difference. He didn't have training camps or spend weeks preparing a game plan for each opponent. He just showed up and fought. A veteran of more than a hundred bouts, he's seen it all—including Chael Sonnen three times.
In truth, losing to Jeremy Horn is absolutely inexcusable if you are Chael Sonnen.The wrestler is a better athlete, faster, stronger and more agile. But Horn had a working knowledge of submissions, an innate ability to know when to relax and when to strike.
He was, despite his lack of imposing physique and athletic prowess, the perfect fighter to take advantage of Sonnen's weaknesses. They just so happened to coincide with, to match perfectly like a puzzle piece, with his own strengths.
Horn beat Sonnen in May, 2004, at Extreme Challenge 57. He proved it wasn't a fluke four months later with a guillotine choke. Two years later, this time in the UFC, little had changed. No matter what success Sonnen goes on to achieve, there is one man he can never say he mastered. Jeremy Horn had his number.
F: Fihlo, Paulo
Paulo Fihlo allowed Chael Sonnen a chance at redemption. Like Anderson Silva, Fihlo had managed to trap Sonnen in a submission. Like Silva, Fihlo allowed Sonnen a rematch. Sonnen smashed the Brazilian in the return bout. Will history repeat itself?
Sonnen, despite his win, was never officially the WEC champion. Fihlo, the title holder, shockingly didn't make weight for the rematch. Sonnen beat him from pillar to post but was never crowned because the bout was technically at light heavyweight when Fihlo couldn't quite make it to the middleweight limit of 185 pounds.
Nevertheless, the belt hangs on the wall in Sonnen's Oregon home. Fihlo, embarrassed by his loss and his failure to make weight, mailed the belt to Sonnen in an act of contrition. His name won't go down in the history books, but Fihlo understood Sonnen to be the better man.
Past is prelude: Sonnen, the undisputed and uncrowned champion of the WEC.
G: Graham, Billy
For years Chael Sonnen fought outside of the spotlight. He had 32 fights but was mostly anonymous, just another cage fighter at the tail end of his career. But when opportunity knocked at his door, when he finally put together the tools he needed to make it to the top, Chael Sonnen was ready.
A long-time pro wrestling fan, Sonnen borrowed heavily from that "sport." As "Chael P. Sonnen," he became one of the most enduring characters in all of sport. This new Sonnen was cocky, brash, arrogant and, whether you loved him or hated him, hilarious.
Sonnen's longtime coach and mentor Matt Lindland told Bleacher Report:
Coming from a wrestling background, he tried to take a more humble approach. Over the last couple of years he's taken a little different approach... Whether they hate him or they love him, they know who he is.
They want to see him fight either way. I think it's important that he learned how to do that. This is what it takes in this industry. It's an entertainment industry. The promoters decide which fights are going to sell more tickets and those are the fights they put together. It's about building hype and putting on a show."
Some of Sonnen's material is an homage to wrestling's greats. Listen to the above promo with "Superstar" Billy Graham, and you'll hear Sonnen's famous post Bisping interview with Joe Rogan, in many places word for word:
Joe Rogan tonight is not about questions for me. I want to know how you feel about being inches away from greatness. I want you to tell everybody how it feels—are you not mesmerized? Do you not have chills for the first time on FOX for you to be here, holding Chael's microphone, interviewing Chael?
While you're thinking about that, remember this—when you're the greatest fighter in the world today, they have a name for you. They don't call you a great fighter, they call you Chael Sonnen. Beat me if you can.
Hey, if you're going to lift something from someone, why not steal from the best?
2010 was a bad year for Chael Sonnen. He lost his title fight to Anderson Silva. He was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission for his use of Testosterone Replacement Therapy. And, worst of all, he pled guilty to charges of money laundering, torpedoing a promising political career.
In Sonnen's new book, Voice of Reason, he talks about the charges for the first time. It turns out the deal in question was only the third sale of his real estate career. But it ended up costing him not just that license, but his opportunity to participate in the political process:
And destroy me it did. It was a deal I barely understood. It involved a technicality I couldn't have identified even if I suspected it was illegal...
But that didn't change the fact that the deal and I are now handcuffed together like two brawling drunks in the back of a paddy wagon. There are no keys to this pair of cuffs. There is no way out from this whole mess. I am connected to this mistake for life.
Chael Sonnen, no matter how improved his striking and submission games, makes his money as a wrestler. A power double leg, honed at the University of Oregon, and a clinch game perfected in the gym against Olympic caliber training opponents, remain Sonnen's key to success in the cage.
Sonnen, who started his standout wrestling career at the age of nine, is more than an All-American level wrestler. These days, guys like that seem to grow on trees. Sonnen took his game further than that. He was a two-time University National Champion and journeyed into international waters (h/t themat.com):
Chael Sonnen (Eugene, Ore./Dave Schultz WC) won a silver medal at 187.25 pounds, leading the United States to a fifth-place finish at the World University Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships in Tokyo, Japan, November 8.
Sonnen qualified for the gold medal match by pinning Serkan Ozden of Turkey in 1:42 in the semifinals. He was defeated in the gold medal match by Toomas Proovel of Estonia, by a razor-thin 6-5 margin. It was a rematch of a first-round bout, won by Sonnen in a 1-0 referee's decision...
Sonnen had an impressive 4-1 record in the tournament. He was the only U.S. wrestler to qualify for the medal rounds and compete on Wednesday. Sonnen owns a No. 3 national ranking in the United States and is a member of 2000-2001 Greco-Roman Team USA.
There's a reason everyone he steps into the cage with ends up on his back. Sonnen didn't just start wrestling in order to further his MMA career. It's a lifelong passion, a skill he's devoted decades to mastering. And it shows—when it comes to pure wrestling, few in MMA are better than Chael Sonnen.
J: Jiu Jitsu
Superman had kryptonite. Jon Jones fears fire. For former President Bill Clinton, and Captain James T. Kirk, it was women with teased hair and a loose attitude.
Every man has a weakness. For Chael Sonnen, it's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Of his eleven career losses, eight have come by submission. It's an issue that won't, and didn't, go away on its own. To take his career to the next level, the championship level, it's an issue Sonnen must confront.
How well he's able to combat his arch nemesis will decide how he's remembered: champion or chump. The middle ground is nonexistent.
Chael Sonnen has never been knocked out in a fight. Over the course of a decade, in 39 contests, no one has ever turned his lights out.
That's worth considering as you make your picks for the big fight at UFC 148. I've seen plenty of pundits and prognosticators picking Anderson Silva by early knockout. It's not impossible, of course. Silva is one of the sport's best all-time fighters, a creative striker who can attack from all angles.
It's just not, historically speaking, very likely.
L: Lindland, Matt
Matt Lindland, the 2000 Olympic Greco Roman wrestling silver medalist, was a man before his time. His back-and-forth feud with Phil Baroni, had it taken place in today's MMA media environment, would have made him a megawatt star. Instead, like many from his era, he competed in the days before the sport reached a wide audience.
In a sense, Lindland got a second chance with his student Chael Sonnen. Once Chael's coach, primary training partner and manager, Lindland was able to help mold one of MMA's hottest properties. The two men realized that a fighter's success in the sport had as much to do with his appeal as it did his athleticism.
The rest, he told me in a 2010 interview, was history:
First of all, Chael's always been a big pro wrestling fan. First and foremost. So we studied that sport and the entertainment side of the business for a long time. And I have to give Chael all the credit for going out there and doing it.
Obviously he's a very intelligent man to be able to pull that off. To get people to believe it and buy into it, to actually believe it so much that they did it with their wallet. They opened up their wallets and said 'I believe in this so much I'm going to go ahead and put my money down to see you prove it.'
That says a lot. It shows what kind of salesman he is.
M: Marquardt, Nate
Coming into his UFC 109 title eliminator with Sonnen, Nate Marquardt was looking nigh but unbeatable. In his previous fight he had knocked out Demian Maia, sending the Brazilian flying, a comic book-style punch if there ever was one.
The same Demian Maia who had beaten Sonnen by submission earlier that same year. Combined with his experience training at Team Quest, where Sonnen had trouble getting him to the mat, the win left Marquardt more than a little confident going into the fight.
It turns out, training and fighting are two different things. In the cage, Sonnen had no trouble putting Nate on the mat over and over again, winning the fight and a chance to compete with Anderson Silva.
N: Nixon, Richard
Chael Sonnen likes a challenge, and in his book Voice of Reason, he takes on quite a doozy—resurrecting the reputation of former President Richard Nixon:
Nixon was a man. Not a particularly handsome or well spoken man like yours truly, but a true man who got the job done...
Nixon was put in the White House, where he belonged, and got to work. He started droppin' bombs and letting the Russians and the Chinese know that Communism had to go in Southeast Asia.
He wasn't unreasonable. He was happy to sit, talk, and try to work it out. Not on their terms, but on ours.
Sonnen doesn't just spend a paragraph redeeming Nixon. He devotes a whole chapter. It's one of the best parts of Voice of Reason. I love knowing that Sonnen is much more than a cage fighter. He's got thoughts about the world, politics, music and even diet. Just ask him. TMZ did above and they got more than they bargained for.
It started in an old barn at a used car dealership Matt Lindland owned near Portland, Oregon. Just three Olympic level wrestlers, pushing each other to the top of that sport while also trying to figure out a brand new one—mixed martial arts.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson became champions. Olympic silver medalist Matt Lindland was an enduring presence in the sport for most of the decade. All three had enduring effects on Sonnen's development as a fighter and a person.
Today, Team Quest has expanded from a single location to five worldwide—including a new location in Thailand. As MMA explodes in Asia, Team Quest will be at the fore, flying the flag for American wrestling. First Oregon, then the world.
For Sonnen, it is the only place he can imagine living. He grew up in Oregon, went to college there and still trains in the state. "I was born in Oregon and I'll die here," Sonnen told Bleacher Report. "It's home."
P: Pro Wrestling
Sonnen, as we've learned, is a long time fan of professional wrestling. He's studied its promotional techniques carefully and used them to become one of the UFC's most talked-about fighters.
In truth, it's easy to see Sonnen as a midcard regular. His fighting style, heavy on top-control wrestling and careful ground-and-pound, has left many men toiling on the undercard, no matter how successful.
Jon Fitch is the most famous example. Long considered the second best fighter in the welterweight class, he only had one chance to contend for a championship. When he failed, it was back to the end of the line.
Sonnen has escaped from that perception, in large part because of his ability to talk up his fights in the media. Although, objectively, he and Fitch are very similar fighters, Sonnen is seen as exciting, Fitch as boring. He has pro wrestling to thank.
Since October, 2009, Chael Sonnen has fought nothing but a murderer's row of the sport's very best fighters. Take a look:
Yushin Okami: Ranked fourth in the world at the time of the fight.
Nate Marquardt: Ranked second in the world at the time of the fight.
Anderson Silva: Ranked first in the world at the time of the fight.
Brian Stann: Ranked sixth in the world at the time of the fight.
Michael Bisping: Ranked seventh in the world at the time of the fight.
Say what you will about Chael Sonnen, but you can't deny he's fought the best in the world. And, more often than not, he's come out on top.
Respect is a concept that has carried from the traditional martial arts over into the Octagon. Fighters hug and bow after the bouts and are careful about what they saw beforehand. For the most part, they conduct themselves as professionals. Chael Sonnen thinks that absolutely sucks (h/t mmajunkie.com):
I've had people come up to me and say, 'Hey, you should be more respectful.' Wait a minute. What is our definition of respect? If your definition of respect is lying to someone's face, I strongly disagree with you.
You get these fighters that come out and want to say all the nice things that are lies. They don't mean any of them. They say them because they think it sounds nice. So now they're a liar in the name of respect, and then they want to bow to you.
Look, these guys will stick a knife in your back and not even stick around to clean up the bloody mess. But apparently, in some perverse culture, that means you're being respectful—to lie to someone's face and say things that you don't mean, to behave with mannerisms that are disingenuous, is deemed respectful.
I'm not Joe Confrontation. I don't think, 'Hey, if you've got a problem with somebody, you should say it to their face.' That's not what I'm saying. You can keep it to yourself. Follow the rule: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. I believe in that. But if you are going to say something, don't come out and say a bunch of lies.
As you see, Sonnen isn't afraid to go right after his enemies, both inside and outside the cage. Just ask the Nogueira brothers:
(Anderson's) got a black belt under the Nogueira's. I think a black belt under the Nogueira's is saying, like, I got a free toy in my Happy Meal. I don’t really understand what the big deal is. One of ’em’s a punching bag, and the other one I just ignore; he’s really irrelevant.
S: Stone Cold
Chael Sonnen doesn't just use pro wrestling as a template for his interviews. Apparently wrestling superstar "Stone Cold" Steve Austin also helps Sonnen jump start his training camps before fights.
The legendary "Stone Cold" Steve Austin will serve as Chael Sonnen's Strength and Conditioning consultant for the Anderson Silva camp.— FrontRowBrian, Ph.D. (@FrontRowBrian) April 6, 2012
Although not much is known about the grinding workouts Austin puts Sonnen through, according to Chael, he's worked out with Stone Cold before each of his last three fights. So, perhaps, Anderson Silva's mentor Steven Seagal won't be the only celebrity watching the main event at UFC 148 with a vested interest.
After his 2010 fight with Silva, Sonnen was suspended for 10 months by the California State Athletic Commission after a urinalysis revealed an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio.
While Sonnen's doctor explained to the commission that he was being treated for medical issues with testosterone replacement therapy, paperwork filed with the commission by his management allowing this treatment couldn't be located.
"That's real easy to explain," Sonnen told Bleacher Report. "I got testosterone- Heres your T and here's your E. So anytime there's a discrepancy, doesn't matter if the T went down or if the T went up or if the E went up or the E went down. Anytime there's a gap, that's the ratio. People don't understand that.
"Well, I manipulated the T. I elevated my testosterone and I'm still well within the legal limits. But I don't elevate the epitestosterone. So you've got a gap. You're always going to have a gap but I did this in a legal manner...I served my punishment (but) I still challenge them to this day."
Some days the UFC loves Chael Sonnen. His brilliant interviews and devastating trash talk turn every fight he has into an event. He's so good with the media, only one name springs to mind when discussing him.
"Seriously, I'm sure everyone is going to go crazy over this, but I (haven't) seen anybody that can talk like this guy can since Muhammad Ali," UFC President Dana White said (see above). "Seriously. Since Muhammad Ali. The stuff comes right off the top of his head and is hilarious. You don't know what's real and what's not real."
Other times, like when Sonnen announces he's going to retire if he loses to Silva or claims he's the real middleweight champion, White spends so much time rebutting Sonnen's claims that he grows a little testy.
"I don't know if it's pro wrestling," White said after Sonnen's win over Brian Stann. "The guy's a nut. Everything this guy says is crazy. You never know what's going to come out of this guy's mouth next. I don't know anything about what he's going to do or what he's going to say."
No one knows what Sonnen is going to say or do next. Not his boss, not the media, not even his trainers and management. We are all just along for the ride. So far, it's been a heck of a trip.
V: Vinny Magahlaes
Nothing in this world is static—especially in the fight game where the pace of the sport threatens to overrun anyone who isn't constantly adapting his game. We saw in Sonnen's fight with Brian Stann that he was adding to his arsenal of submission techniques.
"I looked at the positions he was most frequently in," Sonnen's head trainer Scott McQuarry said. "A lot of times he was trying to ground-and-pound people with fairly good success. But I told him, 'We can make this a lot easier. Let's work for a submission.' He's so damn good at keeping his position or transitioning to a new position if things go awry, it was kind of a no-brainer."
For Anderson Silva, Sonnnen took things a step further. To help him combat Silva's deadly ground game, Chael brought Vinny Magalhaes out to Oregon for several weeks of intense training. Magalhaes thinks Sonnen's defensive game is improved, but stressed to Bleacher Report that he thinks the best defense is a good offense:
He's made mistakes in his careeer, but Chael's a good grappler. We focused on his submission defense, but also on his top game.
It's best not to get caught in a submission in the first place.To work on submission defense, you have to be in a submission. Chael doesn't want to get that far. So we worked on his submissions from the top. I think Chael is going to submit Anderson this time. It is Anderson who should be worried.
W: Work Ethic
At the highest levels of any sport, talent tends to even out. Everyone has it. They wouldn't be in a UFC main event without it.
The difference, then, between winning and losing can be work. Hours in the gym hitting the bag, running trails and perfecting technique.
Sometimes, when steel meets steel, the difference between the loser and winner can be so incremental, so microscopic, that it is hardly visible to the human eye. And that's why, if he can help it, Sonnen will not be outworked. Ever.
"As for Chael's work ethic he is disciplined and consistent," his former coach Matt Lindland told Bleacher Report. "Chael has a ton of talent but so do the other top guys in this sport. Anderson is a prime example of what talent is. The difference may end up being the work load and value and that is something totally with in your control. "
X: Xtreme Couture
While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is MMA's dominant submission art, it's not the only system a wrestler can use to control and finish opponents on the mat. Years before Mitsuyo Maeda taught judo to the Gracie family, years before judo even existed, catch wrestling ruled the mats in America and around the world.
Today it's an art that is all but lost. Few teach it, and those that do have rarely had the pleasure of an extended apprenticeship under a true master. One of the few who can really show fighters the tricks of the trade is Neil Melanson, the head grappling instructor at Xtreme Couture.
Sonnen had a chance to learn from Melanson during a visit to Las Vegas, and Neil also journeyed to Oregon to spread his knowledge at Team Quest.
Y: Yushin Okami
At UFC 104 Chael Sonnen beat contender Yushin Okami the way no man had ever beaten him before. He manhandled him and made him feel weak. That was a new experience—one Okami didn't like.
Instead of stewing about it, the Japanese star made the decision to put ego aside and go to Oregon to learn from Sonnen and his team. He's been back for most of his fight camps since.
It's a good partnership. Not only does Okami benefit from the store of knowledge at Team Quest, but in Sonnen, has a world-class training partner in his weight class to work with as well.
It's the number that counts the most when writing about a fighter's legacy—the number of world championships he's won. For Sonnen, that number is a very conspicuous zero.
Yes, he's won Danger Zone and Gladiator Challenge titles. Those are worth less than the UFC replica belt he carries with him to media appearances. And to be fair, he won a match for the WEC title that his opponent failed to make weight for, costing him one championship opportunity.
But the bottom line, as his friend Stone Cold might say, is that Sonnen has no gold next to his name in the history books. It's what drives him to do everything necessary to ensure success. It's this final letter that makes him the man he is today—a man desperate to make that zero go away.