1 on 1 with Chael Sonnen: The Serious Side of the UFC's Most Polarizing Fighter

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1 on 1 with Chael Sonnen: The Serious Side of the UFC's Most Polarizing Fighter
(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Chael Sonnen is the most polarizing man in all of mixed martial arts.

To some, he's a folk hero, a refreshing blast of bravado who makes the UFC a little more fun with his over-the-top interviews and microphone mastery. To others, he's a racist dirtbag, the worst thing that could have possibly happened to a sport still craving legitimacy.

Neither of those, however, is the real Chael Sonnen. That's a version of himself he keeps close to the chest. Until now.

All too human after all, Chael sat down for a candid conversation about aging, going through the motions and why his appearance on The Ultimate Fighter opposite Wanderlei Silva won't be about him at all.

 

Bleacher Report: Everywhere I turn, Chael Sonnen is there. On television. Booked for fights before the ink on your current fight contract is dry. Newly married. New gym. Feeling overwhelmed yet?

Chael Sonnen: I hate downtime. I hate it so much. I like to relax like anybody else, but I hate not doing anything. In my life I'm either going full speed or I'm at a stop. Because I don't have kids and I only recently got married, outside of my dog I don't have a tremendous amount of responsibility. 

If I had nothing to do and I wanted to sit in a dark room and relax, I could at times. But to be busy is very nice. To have things to do and have a schedule...yes, I've been busy. But I'm very grateful to be.

 

B/R: For some people, married life might make them a meaner fighter. For others, it's hard to be mean when your life is such bliss. You're still in that newlywed stage, so maybe you're not there yet either way. Has life changed much?

CS: I don't know if I'm any meaner. I'm going through the motions. I'm at practice every day a couple of times a day and I'm working very hard. That's really it. There definitely comes a time, and you'll hear everybody say it, there's a point where it becomes mundane. And you just have to go through the motions.

At the same time, a disciplined athlete will go through those motions. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, more the reality of doing the same thing for so many years. Especially at this point, where I have what? Eight hard days left? That's 15 or 16 workouts. It's just a matter of checking them off.

 

B/R: Has being with a new camp and a new team decreased the monotony at all? Has Dan Henderson's Team Quest kind of spiced things up a bit? Or is it "same thing, different gym?"

CS: It's been nice. I don't do well on the road. I never have. Even as a wrestler, when we'd have to go overseas—I had to train in Poland for a month once. I've had to train in Turkey. I've had to train in Japan—it's hard for me.

It was good though. The work was very hard. The new partners were very nice. The new coaches brought great perspectives. That was fresh and new. 

 

B/R: Walk me through a training camp and what a fighter does to prepare for a fight, like your bout with Rashad Evans at UFC 167. A lot of us are familiar with a season, preparing your body for football or basketball. But you have games all the time. You aren't preparing for one particular game, one single 15-minute block. 

What's the difference between you the night of a fight and if they just called you up on a random Tuesday and asked you to "come on down" Bob Barker style?

CS: I completely understand your question. Because I went through a change in my life and my career where I finally understood how to train and prepare. I finally understood what it meant, and I've had so many fantasies about being able to go back and be 16 again. And redo parts of my high school career. Redo all of my college career. Redo my attempt to make an Olympic team. 

I look back on that, and I worked hard all through high school and college. But not hard enough. And I was not as efficient as I could have been. 

 

B/R: What's the difference? What have you learned?

CS: To answer your question, it's really the level of intensity. I go to practice every day. I really don't have a training camp. You'll hear guys say that. In the boxing world, and that's where that came from, almost every time a guy would get out of the ring and he wouldn't break a sweat again until he went to his next training camp. He would do absolutely nothing until he started training for the next fight.

 

B/R: But that's not you?

CS: I go to practice each and every day, but my intensity is not the same. If I get tired, I'll go sit down. If I want some water, I'll go drink it.  When I'm in training camp, I don't. I've got to push through being tired. I've got to push through being uncomfortable.

That's really it. It's largely a mentality. You kind of flip that switch and turn your intensity up. Your heart rate goes up. Your reps go up. And you start to get in the frame of mind.

 

B/R: The frame of mind to step into the cage?

CS: If you add a diet to that, that's when you really know you're in preparation mode. Your body starts to look a little bit different, and the struggles increase. When you're exercising at that level and you begin to lack nutrition, because you're cutting out food...and you're getting up pretty early?

All of the sudden you're not sleeping enough, you're not eating and you're exercising a lot? It's the perfect petri dish to get sick. That's how you get sick, and we do those three things to ourselves on purpose. Any time you're in training camp, you're going to get sick. You're going to get a cold. There's really no way around it.

So when you feel that feeling, you know you're sacrificing. You're getting prepared to fight.

 

B/R: You're doing all that while working a full-time television gig. Do you find that being around other fighters and at the fights is helping you? Are you watching other fighters and how they do things and picking anything up that you can apply to your own game?

CS: I definitely am. For several years, I was really hitting my stride. I was in my best shape, I was feeling my best, my attitude was at its best. And about six weeks in, after I'd upped my intensity and really had my eye on the ball, I'd feel my best. Then I'd start to deteriorate. I was getting worse.

I always noticed that, but I never said anything. That's just how it was done. And then I did a workout with Georges St-Pierre. When the workout was over we talked for a half hour, and he was telling me that the same thing had been happening to him.

 

B/R: So you weren't alone in the world!

CS: He told me that when he's training for a fight, he goes to bed a little earlier and he cuts the fast food out of his diet. Otherwise, like me, he was working out the same way, with the same people, every day. He was working with (boxing trainer) Freddie Roach, who told him he cut Manny Pacquiao's training to five weeks.

Roach with Manny

Pacquiao is one of the few boxers who works out every day, and Freddie was saying Pacquiao did his best work five to six weeks into an eight-week camp. Then he starts to decline too. I didn't say anything. I was just listening to Georges talk and thinking, "Man, that's what I've been going through for years."

Georges told me he was thinking of changing his training camp from a 10-12-week period to a seven- to eight-week period. Again, I didn't say anything, I just listened. But inside I was thinking, "This is exactly what I'm going through." But I just always thought it was supposed to be 8-12 weeks.

 

B/R: Did you make that change?

CS: I haven't made any changes—yet. I was still in the training cycle for this fight. But I keep a heavy workload of television and travel in part because it forces me to take a little break. It allows me to do that two-and-a-half- to three-month camp, but to still miss enough days and get enough rest that I'm not declining as much as I have in the past.

 

B/R: Do you think it's just the power of tradition that has prevented you from cutting down to five or six weeks earlier? Because it's always been done that way?

CS: That's the reason why for me. And, listening to Georges, and to Georges talk about Pacquiao, it is just tradition. As athletes we constantly second-guess ourselves. We constantly wonder, "Have I done enough? Have I outworked my opponent? Is there more that I could have done?"

And more is always better than less. Not only mentally, but in reality too. As soon as you hear a fighter say, "I'm working smarter, not harder," you always want to bet against that guy. That mentality does not work. You have to work hard. And sometimes that means you are going to work too hard. You are going to decline. You are going to tear down your body and your muscle fibers. You are going to get sick.

 

B/R: It sounds like you are struggling with this idea a little bit.

CS: You're right. I haven't done it, but I believe it would be better if I did. It would be better for me personally if I did a five- or six-week camp. But I haven't done it. I haven't wrapped my brain around it yet. I can't justify to myself working less, even if you get more out of it. Even though, in practice, it does seem it would be better for me personally.

 

B/R: I like that you're still learning. We may be getting older, but we aren't too old to change. Are we?

CS: It's one of the reasons, when there is a short-notice fight, I always raise my hand. I always say, "I'll do it." And I always get all this credit. All this street cred for being such a tough guy who's willing to fight at any time.

But the reality is, I do it out of selfishness. I believe I'll be better if I take it on short notice. So, it's a bit of an experiment, but I like fighting on short notice without going through the entire preparation process. Because there is a major decline.

You get these masters like Randy Couture who were so good at peaking at the right moment. And I'm not there yet. I'm just not.

 

B/R: And it's got to fluctuate too, right? You aren't the same guy you were in 2007?

CS: That's the problem. As soon as you think you've got it all figured out, it changes with age. You get a little bit older and that number of workouts, that number of days in training, changes. So there's no perfect answer. You've got to listen to your body, notice some trends in yourself and do the best you can to be ready when that finish line approaches.

Chael talks TRT and more.

 

B/R: Last time you and I talked at length, it seemed like retirement was on your mind. What's changed? Is the money better? Have you found a new passion for doing this? With the physical and mental risks, what keeps you in this game?

CS: I love it. And I don't know any other game to play. This is the only sport that I know the rules to. It's the only sport I really enjoy and like to watch.

I don't really have much of a choice. It's also a lifestyle. What else would I do all day? That's what keeps fighters in this too long. Fighters stay in this sport too long, almost every time. And the same thing goes in boxing. I can't think of a guy who got out when he should have. Or got out early.

 

B/R: Even better.

CS: There's nothing wrong with that either. As far as my body and health, I'm doing the same stuff in practice now that I was doing when I was younger. In a lot of capacities I'm doing it better now.

Running is a great exercise because you can actually quantify it. That and weightlifting. How far did I go and how long did it take me to do it? And I'm running the same times now that I was many years ago. When that deteriorates, that's when you have to sit down and have some hard conversations with yourself and your team. I'm not there yet.

 

B/R: As we hinted at earlier, you are in such demand that the UFC booked your next fight before you had even finished preparing for this one. Tell us more about The Ultimate Fighter with Wanderlei Silva. My understanding is that it's in Brazil, but I can't seem to figure out much more than that.

CS: Here's how it came about. I've never been asked to coach that show. No one asked me if I would. I got told, personally by Dana. He made an announcement on TV while I was interviewing him.

We just weren't getting any scoop and I was kind of joking around with him. I said, "Hey man, I need something. I need a scoop today." It sounded like I was joking, but I was serious. It was in a playful manner, but we need some ratings here. So tell us something big. And he did. He paused for a second and he just told us.

 

B/R: That was it?

CS: That was it. That's how I found out. So when we got done taping, I asked him a couple of questions, and I didn't get great answers. Because I believe those details are still being worked out.

Here's my understanding—it will only be aired in Brazil. The content will be owned by the UFC and Globo TV. The relevance there is that I don't know how distribution works, and I don't know if they are going to share that with any American markets.

My other understanding is that the show will have purely Brazilian contestants. That's a little different than in America, where we bring in competitors from all over the world. I know on my last team we had a gentleman from England. I had a gentleman from Jamaica. I had a gentleman from Sweden. All on one team. But when we take the show to a foreign market, we seem to only build talent from that market. It's a bit of a different formula.

 

B/R: Wouldn't it fit the theme of your conflict with Wanderlei better if you had a team of American scoundrels with you?

Sonnen with Rogan

CS: I just talked to Joe Rogan in an airport coming back from England, and Joe said he thought it was going to be 16 Brazilians who would fight each other. The eight remaining would be on Wanderlei's team. There would be 16 Americans. They would fight each other, and the eight remaining would be my team. There would be no picking teams, and it would be America versus Brazil.

 

B/R: I like that.

CS: I said, "Joe, are you sure?" Because I haven't heard that. And he said, "No, I'm not sure." He said he read that somewhere. That's a lot of detail. If he had just said it was America versus Brazil, I would have chalked that up to the rumor mill. But he had the details of how many and how it was going to go down. Maybe Joe picked up some inside scoop that I haven't.

So I guess my answer to you is, "I don't know."

 

B/R: That's a long way around to revealing that, even as a principal in this, you know less than Joe Rogan's airport fantasies.

CS: It's one of those deals where it's a work in progress. I would really like to see Joe's hypothesis come about. One: to give an opportunity to Americans. Two: to have it be more of a global tournament. And three: ultimately, it could then be aired in both countries.

I don't think you could air the all-Brazilian version on American television. There would just be so many subtitles. I just don't think that it would work.

 

B/R: Does the language barrier concern you at all as a coach? I know you've worked with Yushin Okami quite a bit, but that's one guy and not eight all looking at you with blank stares.

CS: With Okami it was just Okami. It was very easy. After a couple of weeks we had all our signals down. I could raise my right hand and let Okami know I wanted a jab, I could raise my left hand and let him know I meant cross.

We'll be dealing with all new guys, and the attention won't just be on one guy. So my attention will get divided by eight. So it's going to make it a little tougher.

Now, with that said, I speak a large amount of Portuguese, and I'm boning up on it every day. I'm going to do my best to make sure I'm a good communicator when I'm there. One of my coaches, Vinny Magalhaes, is fluent. So, we'll get it done. That's our job.

Our job is not to come in and complain. The athletes can complain, but we can't. We're the coaches. We've got to have the answers, not the questions. When we show up, we'll show up ready to coach.

 

B/R: Will this see the return of, to borrow some pro wrestling parlance, the heel Chael? You were the good guy when you did the show with Jon Jones. But that's going to be a tough act to pull off in Brazil with some of the things you've said. Are you ready to ramp up that part of your personality?

CS: Well, my fiduciary duties won't change. I'm not there for me or to promote myself or my fight with Wanderlei. I will be there solely to coach. I want these guys to feel comfortable. They are very out of their comfort zone.

The Ultimate Fighter is truly the toughest tournament in sports. And it's not just tough from a physical standpoint. It's very tough emotionally and mentally. Your ultimate goal, to be in the UFC, is in sight. You can almost touch it. It's almost like being in a championship fight. You can lose and leave that experience without the championship. That's a reality.

A lot of guys are going to leave there without achieving their goal. And so, emotionally and mentally, especially when you live with your competition and are shut off from your outside world and any outside support, any shoulder you have to lean on is gone. You've got to deal with that stuff alone, on a bunk bed, sleeping above or below the guy who just beat you.

That's what makes this so unique and so difficult. As a coach, I am that shoulder. I am that person that they can come to and they can confide in. If you're going to coach, whether it's this or a kid's wrestling team, I need to be there for them. I believe that, and I'll do that.

 

B/R: I think that most fans were surprised at what a sensitive guy you turned out to be as they watched you coach on The Ultimate Fighter. Your opponent, Rashad Evans, has been on both sides of that, as the hero and the villain on reality TV.

I guess that brings us around to the two of you. What went through your head when they told you that you were fighting Rashad, who you've worked with quite a bit on Fox?

CS: It's just a reality. I've been competing my whole life, against teammates and everything else. To bring it back to wrestling, I'd be in the practice room every day with the guys I'd have to compete with on Saturday. If you want to make a varsity lineup, you have to have a wrestle-off. That's against your teammates in your own practice room. Your own buddies you go to class with. It could be a roommate. And you've still got to compete for that spot.

Rashad and I have both been through this. It's the way that it goes. And we're both veterans in this sport. It's incumbent on us to set the example. It would not be a good example for leaders like Rashad and I to refuse a contest against each other.

The sport and the industry would come to a standstill if fighters started picking their own fights. You've got to compete against everybody. If Rashad and I can set an example for other guys and let people know you must go compete, that's our role. We're in a leadership role, at least with the guys in the back, so that's what we'll do.

 

B/R: I'm always curious where the line is for each fighter. You'll fight Rashad, despite being friendly. Is there a guy they could point to and you'd say, "That's too far." Like if Randy Couture came back or they asked you to fight Dan Henderson. Is there anyone you'd draw the line with?

CS: You have to understand this. Matt Lindland, Randy Couture, Dan Henderson...these are the guys who trained me. These are the guys who gave up their time, away from their families, away from their own hobbies, to prepare me.

To ask a teammate to fight a teammate is one thing. To ask an athlete to fight his coach has never been done. I don't believe it ever will be done, and it's a totally different thing. Two workout partners is different than competing with your coach. It's significantly different. I highly doubt, without a title on the line, that the UFC would ever ask an athlete to do that.

 

B/R: Everyone has a line they won't cross. It's just in a different place. With Rashad, the sport is so incestuous; I was trying to figure out if the two of you have ever trained together before. It seemed likely, but I can't quite put the pieces together.

CS: We haven't. One time I was in a parking garage at Fox, and Rashad was showing me two different techniques for a fight I had coming up that he thought would work. That's the most I've ever grabbed a hold and worked with him.

We were in our street clothes and quite literally on the concrete floor of the parking garage. He showed me some great stuff, and I remember thinking while he was showing me, "Jeez, he's strong. He's really strong." Then we went upstairs and did the show. That's the closest I've ever come to working out with Rashad.

 

B/R: Have you ever fought a wrestler of his standing or talent in your career? Will he be the best wrestler you've competed with in the cage?

Evans on top of Davis

CS: On paper, I don't know if that would be true. Rashad beat a three-time NCAA champion wrestler in college. He's beaten some excellent wrestlers in the UFC. But his college career was largely detoured because of the weight class he was in.

They had him cutting so much weight. He was a 174-pounder in college. And he didn't always get the results that he should have gotten. His results didn't reflect where he was at athletically.

So, on paper, I've fought guys with better wrestling results. But in MMA, Rashad's as good of a wrestler as you're going to see. You don't have to look any further than his fight with Phil Davis where he completely dominated the wrestling. And Phil's as decorated a guy as we've got in the UFC.

Phil Davis is right up there with Dan Cormier or Johny Hendricks when it comes to wrestling accomplishments. And, boy, against Rashad, it didn't even look close.

 

B/R: I was with Rashad's team for that fight, and they were really confident he could have his way. And in traditional sports that happens too. Tom Brady wasn't the best quarterback in the world coming out of college, but he grew as a professional. It can work the same way for fighters.

Now, this fight can go one of two ways. It can be like Randy Couture and Mike van Arsdale and we'll see some really interesting exchanges, or you could negate each other and wind up in a kickboxing match. I hate this cliched question, but how do you see it playing out? Are you ready to fight a guy who knows all the same tricks that you know on the wrestling mat?

CS: When I got into this sport, wrestlers were dominating this sport. When I was in college, people would ask me what I wanted to do, and I'd say, "I want to be in the UFC." I would tell them my major and then tell them I was going to go into the UFC.

So all the way back then, the whole reason I learned how to box, the whole reason I studied Muay Thai or Jiu-Jitsu, was in case I ran into another wrestler. In large part, I've been training for this specific fight my entire career. I've been getting ready to fight another wrestler since the first day I walked into a boxing gym.

 

B/R: It won't be easy.

CS: It's not what you want to do. It's very difficult to fight a guy with the same style. We just saw it with Jake Shields and Demian Maia. It's a really tough proposition. At the same time, it's one I've had in my mind dating back to the '90s.

I'm more than prepared. But it's an experiment. I don't know how it will turn out. I know I've dotted my i's and crossed my t's. But the actual result? I'm as curious as anybody.

 

Chael Sonnen takes on Rashad Evans in the co-main event of UFC 167 this Saturday in Las Vegas. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of three books about MMA and wrestling.

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