JS: Hi Brian, many thanks for affording me the opportunity to conduct this interview. You seem to have a new lease of life at middleweight. Do you now feel in retrospect that MW has always been your natural fighting weight?
BS: Yes. I had been told several times by my cornermen that I would end up being a middleweight. When I was in the WEC, I hardly had to cut a single pound. I would arrive in Las Vegas weighing 206, or 207 lbs. When I initially made it over to the UFC, I would actually try to lift more weights to put weight on, because I had zero experience in cutting weight, and I preferred not to deal with it. I had never experienced any issues strength-wise up til then, with any Light Heavyweight I had ever fought, so it wasn’t really an issue. But as I continued to fight better wrestlers, it became more difficult, especially against the top level guys who are cutting significant amounts of weight. When fighting at 205lbs, on the morning of weigh-ins, I would consume a sizeable breakfast, which is virtually unheard of.
JS: And do you dislike the much-maligned weight-cut as much as other fighters?
BS: Actually, I find it ok. It is what it is. It’s four days of just sucking it up. I don’t have an easy cut by any means but I have a great nutritionist George Lockhart who handles my diet, and forms an integral part of my entourage for fight week. We make it work, and it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to compete in the greatest sport on the planet.
BS: No, I don’t feel any pressure. There are so many critics out there that remain sceptical of my abilities. And even though this next fight with Chael is a number one contender bout, nobody is giving me a prayer in this fight, I’m more than a 2-1 underdog. So really all the pressure to perform is on the other guy. I can go out there, fight 100 miles per hour and fight to the best of my abilities because nobody is expecting anything from me in this fight.
JS: Ok, and not wanting to look past Sonnen, but who else in particular excites you in terms of future UFC middleweight competition? Silva? Bisping? Belfort? Munoz?
BS: Yes, there’s a lot. Obviously, the champion excites me. Everyone wants to be the first middleweight to beat him. I know I certainly do. Chael obviously excites me because he arguably can be the best middleweight in the world. We all saw what he did to Anderson. You watch Chael’s fights and he really takes it to some top level guys. Michael Bisping excites me, he puts on exciting fights. Same with Mark Munoz. So all those guys in the top 6 or 7 of the weight class are so close in their skill-sets and abilities that any of the fights would be razor-thin, and little things would determine the winner. Who executes better, who’s in better shape, who enjoys a little bit of fortune on the night. All these things are factors, and any one of us could beat the other guy on any given night, and that’s what makes this sport so special.
JS: Great, and what are your thoughts on my compatriot Michael Bisping, obviously quite a polarising figure within the MMA community?
BS: I’ve made the mistake in the past of judging guys based on what I see in articles or TV. I promised I would never do that anymore. Honestly, I have never met Michael, I can’t tell you anything about him, aside from the fact he’s a very well-rounded fighter who’s constantly improving in all facets of the game. I’m sure our paths will cross in the future. But for me to judge him outside the cage based on interviews or articles would be a mistake. Often when fighters talk to the media it’s right before a fight so your mindset is different, or it’s right after a fight. This isn’t necessarily always an accurate portrayal of the person.
JS: Obviously you’re hugely popular within the organisation. What did you make of it when Wanderlei Silva declined an offer to fight you on the basis that he didn’t want to fight someone so popular in the US?
BS: I really didn’t make a big deal out of it. I knew asking to fight him was a long shot anyway. He is a true legend of the sport, and he is at the point in his career where he can pick and choose his battles. For guys that have that many fights and have worn that many belts, there’s nothing left for Wanderlei to prove in this sport. It’s very similar to where Randy Couture was at the twilight of his career, where it was more about the matchups that excited him rather than the titles. The matchup with me didn’t excite Wanderlei that much, and he didn’t want to deal with some of those things that he discussed. He was very respectful in doing so, and I hope that I’ve been equally as respectful in understanding. I’ll always be a Wanderlei Silva fan irrespective of whatever happens.
BS: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re really close friends. We don’t talk very often, but there is a mutual respect there. I trained with Chael years ago, before he became very outspoken, before he fought certain guys that ignited that style of marketing, so I feel I know Chael aside from the media and he’s a good guy. He has always been very respectful, kind and helpful towards me, especially when I trained in Portland for a week with Chael and Matt Lindland a while back. After that, we really didn’t communicate much at all together except for the fact that we shared a common mentor in a gentleman by the name of John Bardis, who has been a mentor of mine for several years now, and who is also the chairman of the board for Hire Heroes USA (http://www.hireheroesusa.org/). John has effectively been my boss at work, and he is also very close with Chael. Other than that, we don’t talk on a regular basis. We don’t call or text each other every day.
I think Chael really kept tabs on me through John, and was very proud of my development, knowing that when he had trained with me I was very raw, and most people didn’t believe I could pursue a career in MMA. He was always excited and happy to see me succeed, which is very kind of him, but when I was told by the UFC that we are scheduled to fight, my initial reaction wasn’t to question that on the basis of our relationship outside of the cage. It’s not out of lack of respect towards Chael, but I train with a lot of middleweights in my gym with whom I may have to use that “friend card” in the future.
Anyway, the UFC didn’t give me much leeway. They rang me up and told me who I was fighting, that it was the fight Dana White wanted. If that’s what the boss wants, then that’s fine. That’s who I am. If my team, or person in charge of me wants me to do something, then I’ll ordinarily oblige. It’s just one of those things. Ironically, just before the fight was proposed, Chael and I had started conversing about some of Chael’s friends in the Portland area who are veterans, and who needed help from Hire Heroes USA. He also mentioned that he didn’t have many training partners over there, and suggested that we get together. It made sense, with my striking and his wrestling it could be mutually beneficial, improving each other’s weaknesses.
JS: Ok, well you alluded to playing “the friend card”, and knowing your close bond with my native Englishman Tom “Kong” Watson, if the situation ever presented itself to fight Tom, how would you approach this sensitive topic?
BS: Well, here’s the deal. There’s only one belt, only one champion, so sometimes these scenarios crop up. If this situation arose where Tom was in the UFC, and they asked us to fight, it would be something where I’d call Tom directly to discuss it. We’d look at it both ways. Tom and I always tease each other by claiming that we’d like to fight each other, because we know how exciting the fight would be. And that statement is based on our kickboxing sparring sessions, which are absolutely exciting to watch. We beat on each other every day in the gym, without pulling punches. We know we’d get the fans on their feet. If it’s an opportunity where one of us needs that win for our career, the match is for a shot at the title, or in fact is for the title, maybe we’d have to put the friendship aside and go out there to compete with each other like we do every day at the gym. I’d rather lose to a great friend of mine than someone I’ve never met before. But in all honesty, I’d love to avoid that situation. I’d never want to fight Tom, because he’s one of my closest friends in the sport.
The thing with the UFC is that it tends to reward exciting fighters. Two exciting fighters that go at it generally both prosper, so it’s a win-win situation. Careers invariably don’t take a massive hit if a fighter delivers excitement.
JS: Ok, and you also alluded above to Chael’s current outward persona towards the media. Do you believe that his outspoken nature is primarily cultivated in order to enhance interest in his fights, therefore attributable to his marketing savvy?
BS: I know nothing for fact, but yes, I believe it is Chael’s marketing savvy. I believe a lot of it is marketing, but I also believe that Chael has a genuine dislike for some of his opponents which has led him to make certain statements. Whether that dislike is merited or not, I have no idea. I haven’t met the people he has criticised, I know nothing about it. It’s certainly not my style, and wouldn’t be the way that I approach harnessing the media prior to a fight.
JS: Conversely, what are you making of Chael’s Mr.Nice guy approach in the lead-up to your encounter? Does it surprise you at all?
BS: Not at all. In typical fashion, most people only remember the fights for which Chael was outspoken. They don’t remember the fights like against Dan Miller, Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami, for which he was very respectful. Everyone tends to remember your last fight, and obviously prior to his title fight against Anderson Silva, Chael was outspoken, so perhaps people expected him to continue in this vein against me. I never expected him to talk smack on me, unless I had done something to upset him of which I wasn’t aware. With Chael, I think he is being genuine when he claims that he doesn’t manufacture conflict, but rather he will voice his opinion against a fighter who he dislikes.
JS: Right. Chael, like yourself, is also evidently a proud American, given he boasts the US flag on his walkout t-shirt. Being patriotic as he is about his own country, do you not think he has been a little insensitive to ridicule Brazil so flagrantly during recent interviews? Has he overstepped the mark by bringing nationality into his quips?
BS: I do not share any of the sentiments expressed by Chael. My BJJ coach is Roberto Traven, 1999 Abu Dhabi open class champion, from Rio de Janeiro. I have a great deal of respect for that country, its people, and what it has done for mixed martial arts. When I’m in Atlanta, most of my training partners are Brazilian so I have close Brazilian friends. In terms of what Chael has said, I have no idea why he has made the remarks about Brazil, you would have to ask him that. I don’t know what it is. If I had to guess I’d say he doesn’t really mean it, and that it’s just a marketing strategy.
JS: Obviously you will have seen some of Chael’s pre-fight antics for his previous encounters. Do you ordinarily find his pre-fight banter amusing?
BS: Yes, in most cases. I don’t agree with his criticisms of fighters or countries, but there are certainly a lot of things he does that generate interest in a fight. People are really going to root for or against him. The build-up made the Anderson Silva fight even more exciting. The fight was exciting itself regardless. Organisations often attempt to manufacture some trash-talk to generate interest around a fight. It’s no secret that when two guys talk trash about each other, and there’s an apparent dislike between them, then extra interest is generated. I don’t think the sport needs it, but characters like Chael Sonnen add value and entertainment to the sport.
JS: In terms of your approach to the fight, most people believe you hold the advantage on the feet, but will you also feel comfortable on the ground in the knowledge that Chael has previously been susceptible to submissions?
BS: Well, you know, Chael has been caught on several occasions, but it hasn’t been that often during his career, so I can’t go in there and depend on catching him with something off my back. There have been a lot more guys who he has fought that have ended up on their back and been pounded for three rounds. I feel there are areas where I have an advantage, and others where he has an advantage, and really it’s both of our jobs to neutralise the other person’s advantages. The difference is that Chael doesn’t have any one way of finishing this fight at any one moment, whereas I do, and in my eyes that’s the biggest difference in this fight. I can end this fight at any moment with a number of different strikes, either with my hands, feet, knees or elbows. He doesn’t have that ability, so he has to go in there, take me down and control me for three straight rounds to win this fight. I have to ensure he can’t do that.
JS: That’s fair enough. You mention his lack of raw KO power, but you must have been impressed with how proficient he looked on the feet against Anderson Silva, even tagging him and knocking him down a couple of times?
BS: There’s nothing easy at all about fighting Chael Sonnen, no matter where the fight takes place. Just because I believe I have an advantage in one particular area, doesn’t mean that I have a mile advantage. Chael has been competing in MMA since I was in highschool. He made his pro-debut in 1997, when I was a sophomore. Not to mention all the years he has spent wrestling. Wherever we fight this won’t be a cakewalk, I’m in for a fight. However, if he finds himself trading shots with me, that’s an advantage for me. Those are the situations I’m looking to create in this fight, whereas I don’t think he wants to find himself in those situations. If he’s in those situations, he’s going to be trading punches to get out of it, set up a takedown, clench up, or fight you at a distance. He’s too smart to just trade blows.
BS: Absolutely, I can knock anybody out. I have enough power to knock anybody out. With the right punch or kick, anybody can be knocked out. There is nobody who can’t be knocked out. One of the reasons Chael hasn’t been knocked out in his career is because, one he’s tough, and secondly he’s very good at sticking to his gameplan. You watch all his fights and you’ll see that there are very few guys that can defend against his style of fighting, which is to come out, attack you on the feet, create openings for a very good double-leg, single-leg, or body lock takedown, into a very controlling and relentless top game. Chael doesn’t just lay on you, he also attacks you when he’s on top. It’s very difficult to knock a guy out when he’s on top of you punching you in the face.
JS: Right, ultimately, is this fight the epitome of a battle of wills? Neither of you tends to take a backward step. I recently saw an interview in which you claimed to have more heart than Chael, but he also prides himself on his will. How do you break Chael’s will?
BS: You just have to keep going. Sometimes you find a guy that is willing to go to the same level as you are. I’ve got to hope he’s not willing to go to the same level that I’m willing to go to that night. And if he is, then I have to find another level. In my mind, of course I’m going to think that I have more heart and more mental toughness than anybody else in this sport, and I have to approach it that way. I’d expect nothing less than for Chael to come at me for 15 whole minutes, and it’ll make it a special fight for the fans.
JS: Sounds immense, I can’t wait for it. Cheers for your time today Brian, I really appreciate it.
BS: No problem Jonny, best of luck, and I look forward to seeing the piece.