Over the last three years, Chael Sonnen went from midcard journeyman to main-event draw, all because he figured out how to catch lightning in a bottle.
When I first interviewed Sonnen in 2006, he was 25 fights into his professional MMA career and was generally regarded as a solid middleweight, but by no means a top-tier fighter. He was 16-8-1 at the time, hadn't really beaten any big-named fighters and was mostly known for tapping out in a submission quicker than Calista Flockhart at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It was ahead of his bout against Alexey Oleinik in a Bodog Fight that I first spoke to Sonnen, and back then he was a well-spoken fighter, knowledgeable on the sport, but not the promotion machine that fans have come to know in the last few years.
In that first interview back in November 2006, Sonnen was competing in Bodog Fight's middleweight division, and when a controversial subject came up during our chat, he said something nobody that's followed his career lately would recognize.
"I feel like sometimes I'm stepping on eggshells," Sonnen told MMAWeekly Radio in 2006. "I don't want to say something that sounds as though I'm belittling or being condescending."
That statement is a pretty far cry from the Sonnen of 2013, but even back then there were shades of the "American Gangster" from West Linn, Oregon who came through every now and again. It's just back then, not as many people knew Sonnen, but he was always smart and forthcoming with his opinion.
In this case he was speaking about former UFC champion Bas Rutten, who was being billed as a "living legend" for his return bout in World Fighting Alliance in 2006. Sonnen said Rutten was "a legend in what?" That may have been the most controversial thing he had ever uttered to date.
His next comment may seem even funnier, however, given what Sonnen would go on to say in many of his fights in the UFC over the last few years.
"It's not to poke fun or create some heat with Bas Rutten or whatever he's accomplished," Sonnen said in the interview. "I think certainly the term is getting thrown around a little bit easy. I don't have a beef or any intent of taking on Bas or any of the dinosaurs from that era."
Tossing in the word "dinosaurs" was probably a good sign that Sonnen always had the gift of gab, but needed the platform to unleash it to be truly recognized as one of the best promoters in the game.
Fast-forward to January 2010, as Sonnen was preparing for his bout at UFC 109 against Nate Marquardt, where virtually all of the talk before the fight was about his opponent earning a rematch against UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva with a win.
My interview with Sonnen that time around went much differently than the one in 2006. When the subject of Silva came up, Sonnen unleashed a venomous tirade that left me with eyes wide open, wondering where did this come from? Via MMAWeekly Radio:
"I would imagine, who knows what Anderson’s doing. At the end of the day, who cares. If he wants to leave the division, leave the sport, who cares. Beat it, nobody tunes in to watch him anyways, and his little fake ‘I don’t speak English.' You want me to let you in on a secret? Anderson Silva speaks perfect English. He just has such a low amount of respect for you and all the rest of the media that he pretends he doesn’t. I’ve had conversations with Anderson Silva in perfect English, and on top of that he’s so boring to listen to that he and his rocket scientist manager Ed Soares, who is also about as exciting as watching grass grow, have decided that Ed is better on the mic than Anderson, so just let Ed do the talking."
Whatever flip got switched in that moment, Sonnen wasn't backing down and had a clear plan for what he was going to do next. He ended up mauling Marquardt for the better part of 15 minutes and earned his shot at Silva at UFC 117 in August 2010.
Sonnen backed up his talk for four rounds against Silva, but still fell victim in a triangle choke in the closing minutes of the fight. He also lost a subsequent rematch with Silva two years later. Still, Sonnen managed to become a top-five pay-per-view draw with his outlandish trash talk and unusual ability to work anybody—fan, fighter or journalist—into a frenzy over his latest comments.
Did Sonnen ever cross over the boundaries in what's perceived to be good taste?
Of course he did. His comments about Brazil and Brazilians routinely crossed the line:
As far as my impression, it's a lot like America...when I was a little kid, I'd go outside with my friends and we'd talk about the latest technology, in medicine, gaming and American ingenuity--and Anderson and the Brazilian kids are sitting outside playing in the mud.
Sonnen saw a line in the sand when it came to bringing an opponent's family into the pre-fight chatter and walked over it without batting an eyelash:
You tell Anderson Silva I'm coming over and I'm kicking down his backdoor and patting his little lady on the ass and I'm telling her to make me a steak, medium-rare just how I like it.
UFC President Dana White constantly tells his fighters to stop trying to be comedians on social networks like Twitter or during interviews, but Sonnen's brash behavior was embraced by the promotion.
Sonnen became one of the most requested interviews in the entire promotion. His fights were some of the biggest pay-per-views in UFC history. Every word of his would be quoted and reported on by MMA media outlets and mainstream sports journalists all over the world.
On Saturday night at UFC 159, Sonnen's mouth and willingness to fight anybody led him to a showdown with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. The fight was a complete one-sided beatdown, with Jones taking Sonnen to the mat repeatedly until he finished the fight with strikes towards the end of the first round.
The loss moved Sonnen to 2-3 over his last five fights and 0-3 in UFC title fights. It all but signified the end of Sonnen as a title contender, unless he decides to put on a few pounds and start calling out Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight title (I wouldn't put it past him, honestly).
Everyone wondered at that moment when Sonnen felt the brunt of the attack from Jones and the referee stopped the fight: Would he announce his retirement?
Sonnen has already created a life for himself outside of fighting that would never require him to get punched in the face again.
In addition to his fight purses multiplying with every incendiary interview he conducts, Sonnen also serves as a host on several UFC programs airing all over the Fox family of networks. White has said that Fox loves Sonnen so much that he may be a featured analyst on the network for many years to come, and his future could go beyond talking about MMA.
"He's made a lot of money. He'll make a lot of money tonight. Fox loves him," White said about Sonnen on Saturday. "He's Fox's No. 1 guy. I think this guy's going to cross over into other sports, not just MMA."
Sonnen stayed noncommittal when it came to the conversation about his retirement, despite a whole lot of people believing the writing was on the wall.
Despite three title-fight losses, there are still plenty of big fights for Sonnen if he chooses to stick around. He could finish longtime grudges with Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort, who are both stuck in similar situations as Sonnen with no title fights on the horizon.
Sonnen could easily become the biggest Chris Weidman fan in the world, because if he beats Anderson Silva at UFC 162, the middleweight division is open wide once again to a slew of contenders who all fell at the feet of the longest-reigning champion in UFC history.
Or Sonnen could just walk away from fighting altogether and be an analyst for the UFC on Fox and their huge list of shows dedicated to the sport.
No matter what happens next, love him or hate him, Chael Sonnen proved that a career can literally be built over the span of just a few years. If he never fights again, Sonnen's three-year rise to the top of the UFC (despite never actually being a champion) should serve as a lesson for every fighter currently sitting with a mediocre record and a vanilla personality.
Dreams can come true.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted
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