Who is the real Chael Sonnen? Impersonator, con man or champ?
As Sonnen prepares to fight Anderson Silva in UFC 148, many wonder who he is
Sonnen nearly shocked Silva in 2010; he gets a rematch on Saturday in Las Vegas
Sonnen often rubs people the wrong way with a boastful WWE-type of persona
Nobody knew where Chael Sonnen had gotten that fake championship belt. Did he buy it off the Internet? Did he convince a UFC employee to dig through a closet and give it to him? Did he stand in line at a UFC event and buy it just like any other fan? He wouldn't say. Or rather, he would say, but the explanation he gave -- he claimed to have taken it from UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva "like a gangster in the night" -- was obviously a lie.
"Undefeated and undisputed," he shouted, holding it up at a pre-fight press conference in Chicago. It got a laugh from fans and reporters, though everyone in the room knew that neither claim was anywhere close to true. He'd been defeated plenty of times -- 11 to be exact. He'd even been defeated by Silva, the pound-for-pound top-ranked mixed martial arts fighter in the world, who Sonnen was once two minutes away from beating when he lost it in the final round. And yet here he was with a fake belt, insisting it was the real thing.
"Chael's nuts," said UFC president Dana White.
That's one way to think about it. Another is to acknowledge that Sonnen knows exactly what he's doing, and it's working. If anything, it's working a little too well. The pro wrestling-style persona, the lies, the aggressive public image campaign designed to ensure that, whether fans love or hate him, they all feel something? It's officially a success. It's brought him fame and money. It played a pivotal role in earning him a rematch with Silva at UFC 148 in Las Vegas on Saturday night. It accomplished everything it was supposed to. In exchange, all he had to sacrifice was his credibility and his name. Was it worth it? Even Sonnen can't say for sure. He isn't done paying for it yet.
He wasn't always like this. You go back three, four, five years and look at old interviews on the Internet. You see the same broad, flat face. You see the wide shoulders. You see the icy blue eyes that seem to drain of all pigment as they fix on you. But when he opens his mouth, you hear a completely different person. Nice. Humble, even. If you believe Sonnen -- a big if that permeates every aspect of this story -- that was the act. That was him trying to be the down-to-earth pro fighter that he thought people wanted. What we see now is the real deal, he claims -- unfiltered and uncensored.
"I do not agree that there is any persona whatsoever," he tells me when I ask when he decided to adopt the WWE-style routine he now regularly employs. "I'm surprised you said that. I'm not sure where that's coming from. What [you] see is what they get with me."
According to the people who know him best, that's almost true. The insulting, sarcastic loudmouth we see in pre and post-fight interviews? That's not so much a character, they say, as it is his true personality amplified. Confidence becomes arrogance. Self-assured becomes smug. A biting wit becomes flat-out mean. The difference between the real Sonnen and the character is a matter of degrees.
"Sometimes I don't know if he knows the difference," says his brother-in-law, Clifton Molotore, who describes family dinners with Sonnen where the fighter will occasionally break into impromptu rants in the midst of conversation. "Then he'll look around and say, 'So what'd you think?'"
The consensus among family members is that he gets it from his father. When Sonnen's father told his then 25-year-old son that he was dying of colon cancer, he did so with all the sensitivity of a father ordering his child to go mow the lawn. Chael had already heard the news by that point and he employed the line he'd been working on in his head for weeks.
"I said something like, 'Hey, you're going to beat this thing,'" Sonnen recalls. "He just kind of looked at me and said, 'Get out of here!'"
Sonnen went outside and sat in the big Ford truck his father had recently bought, then he put his head down on the steering wheel and cried. He was crying so hard that he didn't hear his father's approaching, didn't even notice him standing there until he heard his old man's voice say, "I see you're admiring your new truck."
Just before his father died, Sonnen sat down at his bedside and laid out some future plans. It wasn't so much promises, but more like "letting him know what he was going to be up to." Some of Sonnen's plans were vetoed on the spot, like when he said he planned to marry the girlfriend he was dating at the time. Others were more serious, such as when he vowed to become the UFC champion by beating light heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz.
That was 2002, a different era for the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts. What Sonnen soon found was that, even for a former All-America wrestler from the University of Oregon, just getting noticed by the big show was no easy task. Three years would go by until he got his first shot with the UFC. He'd end up losing that fight via second-round submission to Renato Sobral. Two more fights and one more submission loss later, he was bounced out of the big time and back to the small circuit. He was closing in on 30, and then he was on the wrong side of it. He still hadn't won any title, much less the UFC belt. Time was running out. Something had to change.
Sonnen found out where he stood with the UFC almost by accident. He made his way back to the organization after the UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, bought the lesser-known World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) organization and absorbed its higher weight classes. Upon his return, Sonnen again lost via submission, this time to Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia. He would rebound with a decision win three months later, then signed on to face top Japanese middleweight Yushin Okami in the fall.
But the UFC had an event scheduled for Portland that August. A month before the fight one of the light heavyweights on the card withdrew with an injury. Sonnen figured he might as well volunteer to be the replacement. The fight was right in his backyard, after all. He didn't mind fighting someone bigger if it got him noticed by the powers that be. So he texted UFC matchmaker Joe Silva with an offer to fill in on the Portland card. He received a three-word response: "Who is this?"
"It was a little bit of an eye-opener," Sonnen said. He knew he'd exchanged calls and text messages with the UFC matchmaker before. He knew that at some point he'd likely been saved as a contact in Silva's phone. That meant that somewhere along the way, the man who decides the fates of UFC fighters had gone through his phone, seen Sonnen's number, and thought, well, don't need that one anymore.
Sonnen eventually got on the card and showed up in Los Angeles that October as a nearly 2-1 underdog against Okami, a massive middleweight who was on a three-fight winning streak in the UFC. To the surprise of many, Sonnen throttled the Japanese contender for all three rounds before winning a unanimous decision. His next fight was even bigger, a showdown with top contender Nate Marquardt. The winner would get the next shot at the champion. This time Sonnen was an even heavier underdog, but still he outwrestled Marquardt and survived a late submission scare to win another unanimous decision. In less than a year he'd gone from the verge of unemployment to a title shot against the top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
But even before the Marquardt fight, Sonnen had set his sights on the biggest names. He'd successfully generated headlines for himself by taking aim at the champion, claiming that Silva -- a Brazilian who regularly conducted interviews through his manager and translator Ed Soares -- actually spoke perfect English. He took aim at Silva's character and his manhood, calling him a "fraud" and a "coward."
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