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At the current time in mixed martial arts, there is perhaps no fighter more polarizing than "The Gangster from West Linn." The former middleweight and light heavyweight contender has risen to become one of the most visible and outspoken figures in the sport and accomplished these feats with his blue-collar efforts inside the cage and his sharp tongue behind the microphone.
The Oregon native balances his MMA career, where he has remained a perennial contender in multiple divisions, with knocking out his analyst duties for UFC on Fox broadcasts and as a co-host for UFC Tonight on Fox Sports 1.
He is currently preparing for a showdown with former light heavyweight champion and fellow analyst Rashad Evans at UFC 167 on Nov. 6 in Las Vegas. Despite a hectic schedule, Sonnen made time to break down and chop up the action that will take place at Fight Night 29.
The main event between Demian Maia and Jake Shields is interesting on several levels. On the one hand, they are two of the premier grapplers in MMA, and on the other, there is possible title contention on the line. What is your take on how the fight could go down, and what do you believe is at stake?
There are two things here. First off, if you had a son and your son wants to be a fighter, and you had a genie in a bottle that would give you the skills of either one of these guys, tell me which guy's skills you would choose. It would take you a day or so to respond. These guys are so close in every area. All the way down the line they are close. This is just such a close match.
Almost every fight is put on for the fans and that is the whole point. Every now and then, a fight is put on for the industry. A fight is put on for the guys in the locker room and the people that work in the business, and we want to see a certain fight really bad. That's what this is. This is a fight that has the locker room and the roster so excited. We are all trying to figure out who is going to win. I was just in the gym today and we were sitting around stretching and warming up. The coach asked who was going to win this fight and we all had different opinions.
The other thing that is going on here; Demian Maia is so clearly approaching a title shot with St-Pierre and nobody seems to be talking about it. I suspect that will change and Dana is going to get asked those questions as the press picks up for this fight. Demian Maia ran through Rick Story and Story is the only guy to beat Johny Hendricks. He ran through Jon Fitch. Jon Fitch is the only guy to win a round against GSP for a meaningful amount of time. It's a big deal for Maia to win because I do believe he will become the No. 1 contender if that happens.
Let me ask you about Maia. Fighters changing weight classes when they hit a wall like he did is common in MMA. That being said, what seems so unique is that he put the idea he had to become a great striker behind him and got back to what he does best. What are your thoughts on his resurgence?
There is a tremendous misconception in this sport that you need to be well-rounded. Mixed martial arts means you can be and you can do a number of things. However, being well-rounded is a very fancy way of saying you suck at a whole bunch of different things instead of just sucking at a couple. It's always better to specialize. Orville Redenbacher said it best, "Do one thing and do it better than everybody." That is what Maia needed to do.
Again, I was in practice today and was talking to my coach. He used to train with Demian Maia and said his Jiu-Jitsu went down tremendously because he just began focusing on his boxing and kicking skills. When he moved down to 170 pounds, he went back to what got him there, which are the submission skills and the Jiu-Jitsu attacks. The proof is always in the pudding and, in the end, we'll see how that works out for him. I personally like it. As a coach, I personally like to focus on strengths as opposed to trying to strengthen your weaknesses. But that's a calculated move. You have to make that choice and it depends on the athlete. For him, it's been working out.
As one of the best wrestlers in MMA I have to ask you this question. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ruled the sport back in the early goings until wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Randy Couture came along. Maia brought BJJ back in a strong way. What do you think makes him so successful against wrestlers?
I spent a lot of time thinking about that, especially after I got in there and felt Maia, but even more so as I stand back and watch him. His matches with Story and Fitch really stand out with me. The techniques he used to dominate the wrestling in those fights are not traditionally what you would teach people. His positioning was bad.
His technique was off. However, he is so resilient and determined that he will hit those same techniques—whether they are sloppy or not—over and over until he's in the position he wants to be in. He is a consummate competitor. This guy will compete so hard, but again, I could say the same thing about Shields. The strongest thing Shields has is an iron will to win.
The reason some guys transition from Jiu-Jitsu into MMA and some guys don't all comes down to mindset. It never comes down to technique. A lot of reporters and analysts like to talk like it is. I go on UFC Tonight and I talk about it as well, but it's just not true. Some guys have the mind for it and some guys don't. Technique comes so far down the list of what matters and what a guy needs to become a successful fighter. But as reporters and analysts, we act like it's the main thing. How is his training going and who is he training with? What's he working on? That is a bunch of crap.
In weighing out this matchup in the bigger picture, it feels as if the fight is more crucial for Shields. He came to the UFC with a lot of momentum but just hasn't been able to solidify himself at the level he was at pre-UFC. Granted, he has had a title shot under the UFC banner, but weight-class jumping, a short suspension and a few super-close fights haven't made a very strong case for him being a rock-solid contender. Would you agree or disagree?
No, I don't know if I would agree with that. This is a big fight for both guys and there is no way around that, but Shields is going to have a place for a while. He has a lot of laurels and a lot of things he's accomplished.
If you throw out the GSP fight because nobody has beaten GSP, and you throw out him getting caught by [Jake] Ellenberger, because that's what happened—he got caught, and the guy hasn't lost in seven years. If you include those two fights, he's only lost two fights in seven years. Either way you want to say that, it's impressive.
He gets criticized at times for his style, but his style is very effective. He has some skills that guys need to copy as opposed to criticize. I really think the way Maia matches up, excitement is not going to be a problem. I think these guys are going to get after it and it's going to be a very fun fight to watch.
Let's move on to the co-main event between Erick Silva and Dong Hyun Kim. Both are looking to break through into the upper tier of the welterweight division. What are your thoughts on this stylistic matchup?
This "Stun Gun" is a guy you just can't ignore. He keeps on getting it done. I believe he's only lost two fights. One was a bit of a fluke to Maia where he got hurt and, in the other, he took a knee from Carlos [Condit] that would've put a mule down. None of us could have survived that shot. This guy is very good and his confidence seems to be growing.
He claims he deals with jet lag. He claims the reason he's had trouble showing skills in some of his fights and getting tired is due to jet lag. He's still effective and still winning, but he claims he's even better and just hasn't been able to show it. I don't know how going to Brazil is going to affect him. He's a dominant grappler in some regards and good at getting to that top position, but he also has some good power, he's big for the weight class and he's a very long fighter. That protects him at times and makes up for things he's lacking in technique. His physical stature seems to compensate very well.
As for Silva, he's very good. He lost to Fitch in a fight where Fitch was in a must-win situation. You could see it. You could see his determination and Silva was a step behind the entire fight. But I thought he rebounded very well. He has a solid skill set, but if Fitch could get this guy down and keep him there, I think the "Stun Gun" is planning that same strategy. We're all curious to see what adjustments Erick Silva made.
It's a similar feeling in the bantamweight division bout between T.J. Dillashaw and Raphael Assuncao. Both have looked great as of late and both have title aspirations. Dillashaw is a young prospect with a lot of road ahead, but Assuncao has been around the game for a while and this run at 135 pounds is new life for him. Is this fight make or break for Assuncao in that regard?
Assuncao is one of the least-known fighters ranked in the top five—possibly ever. He's definitely the least-known top-five ranked fighter currently fighting. He's very good and it's a big opportunity. Dillashaw is on such a roll, and there is the story about Duane Ludwig coming in as their coach and that team being something like 13-0 under him.
On paper, Dillashaw is in a bit over his head with his ranking compared to Assuncao's, but in reality, Dillashaw is on fire. He's knocking guys out and he's on a roll right now. He's a very good wrestler. He's in great shape. He has awesome training partners.
Assuncao likes to drag guys down to the ground and I don't think that's very likely here. If he is going to win I believe he's going to have to show some different skills we haven't seen from him inside the Octagon so far.
We all love technical fights with title contention on the line, but sometimes a good old fashioned slugfest is in order. Fabio Maldonado and Joey Beltran are about to do this thing on Wednesday and the ruckus is guaranteed. What is your take on this fight and the placement of the brawl in the grand scheme of things in MMA?
I know that I enjoy a good brawl when it happens and two guys are willing to do it. It usually happens on accident more than anything. A guy ends up in a slugfest, just stands his ground and they start going back and forth. I love this fight.
You have a very proud Brazilian fighter who is arguably the toughest guy in the division with Maldonado. The shots that he takes, the heart and willingness he displays are all impressive. We all get he came from a boxing background and he needs to work on his skills, but as far as his heart and toughness...everybody admires him.
He's taking on a tough guy in Joey Beltran who is a powerful guy in his own right but somewhat new to the weight class. We'll see what happens here, but I don't see either of these guys giving up. You have a proud Brazilian fighter versus a proud Mexican fighter. I think that fight should be a little more anticipated than it is.
The co-main event for me and the match I want to see the most outside of Maia vs. Shields is Mike Pierce vs. Rousimar Palhares. That's the fight I'm personally really looking forward to. I like the stylistic matchup in this fight. It will be Palhares' first time dropping down to welterweight, and Pierce has been on a crazy run. He's won his last four fights, something like six of his last eight, and that is an impressive feat for a guy who really isn't that talked about.
You just mentioned Mike Pierce and that brings up an interesting question. He has been very successful inside the Octagon, winning eight of his last 10 showings, including his current streak where he's collected four consecutive victories. That being said, Pierce has been on Facebook prelims and undercard bouts for the majority of this run. What do you think is keeping him from breaking through with the UFC fanbase?
That's what it is, the fans. You'll either have the backing of the fans or you won't. There are a couple of ways, and nobody truly knows what makes a star. We've all got our guesses. We can all sit around and hypothesize what it will take, but no one really knows. The one thing all the stars have as a constant is they win, and Mike Pierce wins. Eventually he's going to get there. He just needs to keep winning and time will get him there. The more you fight, the more promotion, media and marketing you're going to have.
He had a big opportunity a while back against Josh Koscheck. That was a co-main event and I was in the building for that fight. Nobody agreed with that decision and that would have been his breakthrough moment, but he stubbed his toe and had to start over in some respects. But he has, and he's beaten some absolute studs in the process. Aaron Simpson is one of them. It was a come-from-behind win, and for me it was the Fight of the Night and the Knockout of the Night. I really think he's done some wonderful things.
I also understand he's had some growing pains. He's had some less-than-exciting fights, but he came into the UFC a little bit early. I think he was one of those guys that might have been drafted just a little bit early so he was trying to figure this thing out in there. And they really don't like that. You can't really figure things out inside the Octagon. There is an expectation that when you step in there you've got it all handled. But I really think those performances some label poor are distant memories. I really think they are far behind him. I look forward to this guy fighting every single time he fights. He shows up in shape. He's ornery. He takes a beating and gives a beating back. I really think Mike Pierce is the total package.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.