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And Away We Go - Chael Sonnen Returns

“People like respect and I’m the only respectful fighter in the whole sport. A lot of other fighters have a real misunderstanding that lying and dishonesty is respectful." - Chael Sonnen

When you hear Chael Sonnen describe life as a middleweight contender in the UFC, it’s almost as if every day is Groundhog Day.

“In my life, nothing changes,” said Sonnen, who returns to the Octagon after an absence of more than a year to face Brian Stann at UFC 136 this Saturday night. “Every fight I do the same thing. I do the same thing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all my practices are the same, I work out with the same guys, and I’ve got the same coaches. Take running for example – I run the same distance and I try to beat the same time every single time. Every step I run, I try to get up those steps a little bit faster regardless of who the opponent is. I’ve never looked at opponents. I’ve had people ask me ‘what’s your strategy?’ And I’m not even looking at him. It could be anybody. I’m just looking at myself. How fast are my hands, how many punches did I throw today, did I eat the right things, how many hours of sleep did I get last night? I only look at myself. The Octagon’s the same size, Herb Dean’s hair is just as bad, Bruce Buffer’s in the shark suit either way. Nothing changes for me. The rules are the same, the rounds are the same, and my life is the exact same. My money’s the same, I wear the same t-shirt, I’ve got the same cornermen, and they can call it a title fight, they can call it a main event, they can call it an undercard – my life is no different. When that same music hits those speakers, I’ll make that same walk, put that same mouthpiece in, and do everything I can to win, regardless of what’s riding on it.”

Oh yeah, the man is back, and it’s a welcome return, not just because he’s one of the top 185-pound fighters on the planet and the lone man to push champion Anderson Silva to the brink of defeat, but because he’s one of MMA’s most intriguing figures. No one sees the game through the looking glass quite like the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn,” and watching his every move has been compelling viewing for a few years now. But only before his bout with Silva in August of 2010 did the rest of the world catch up.

“I’m not doing anything different,” he said. “The media has found me, I didn’t come find them. I didn’t create a persona or sit around and come up with things to say. I don’t have any idea what you’re gonna ask me, or the next guy or any of the fans at a Q&A. I’m just up there with a microphone and doing my level best. But I haven’t changed anything; they’ve just come to me. I was the top draw when I was with Bodog, I was the top draw when I was with the IFL, and I was the top draw when I was in the WEC, and for all these same reasons. They just didn’t have the platform that Zuffa has. So I’m not doing anything different.”

In his second stint with the UFC, Sonnen has pulled off the rare trick of being a must-see athlete in and out of the Octagon. From his trio of wins over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami, and Nate Marquardt, to his stellar effort against Silva and his incendiary comments about anyone and everyone in the fight game, if you don’t know who the 34-year old Oregonian is yet, you just haven’t been around the MMA world.

Yet after a suspension by the California State Athletic Commission following the Silva fight for having elevated levels of testosterone (a result explained by his being diagnosed with hypogonadism, a condition which requires synthetic testosterone injections), and a plea bargain in a mortgage fraud case, many questioned whether he would ever fight again.

Sonnen wasn’t one of that crowd.

“No,” he quipped when asked if he ever thought that he had fought his last fight. “They can do all they want, but you can’t keep a good man down.”

It was a trying time to say the least though, as he spent more time in a suit defending himself than in his gym clothes preparing for a fight. You could say that he needed the break after a pretty hectic fight schedule over the last couple years. Again, he wouldn’t agree.

“I didn’t need any breaks, I never need a break,” said Sonnen. “You only do this three times a year anyway. It’s like you’ve got all these crybabies out there talking about ‘my wife really wants me around more.’ What a ridiculous statement. What do you mean ‘around more?’ It’s three hours a day and three weekends a year. There is no around more. You couldn’t possibly be around more. So no, I definitely don’t need a break from three hours a day and three weekends a year. I was just the opposite. I was like a good cowboy that just wants to jump back on the horse.”

So when he was greenlighted to resume his career and given a fight with the streaking Stann, who has finished all three of his fights at 185 pounds, Sonnen was ecstatic to get back to his form of normal.

“I like the whole process,” he said. “I don’t have any hobbies and I don’t have any friends, so all I have is practice. All I have is going in and training and looking forward to a date and a new challenge and stuff like that, and it was all gone – I didn’t have any of it. So I missed the whole process more than anything; I missed being one of the guys and having a goal and something to look forward to.”

You’d be surprised at how badly you can miss your routine when it’s taken away from you. For Sonnen, every minute away from the gym was another minute the rest of the pack was catching up. So going through the daily grind – even if it is only three hours a day – was like Christmas for him. Well, maybe not, but let’s just say getting the chance to do what he has done for much of his life again was a good thing.

“I don’t know if that (the routine) is the appeal, but it’s certainly the reality,” said Sonnen. “And it’s real important to keep that in mind. You’ll see so many fighters come off title fights and great performances, and in their next time out, they just look awful. You can’t get roped into any of that. I know I’m the best fighter in the world, I proved it in my last fight, and there’s nobody even close to me. The current champion isn’t even within a mile of my ability, but if I don’t do everything right, those abilities are gone overnight. The one time I quit caring about my run, the one time I quit hitting the steps, the one time I let the diet go, I’m the best, but I’m only the best by an inch. And I can go from the top of the pack to the back of it overnight. Guys do it all the time. We just saw a Hall of Famer (Matt Hughes) get destroyed in the first round by a guy with bleached hair (Josh Koscheck). Even the best guy – me – is only the best by a little bit, and you’ve got to make sure every single thing is in line every single time. That’s the hardest thing about our sport. There are so many elements and you can’t overlook any of them, and the one time you do, you gotta start all over.”

14 months is a long time in this game too, and it could be easy for many to forget August of 2010 and Sonnen’s brilliant performance against the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in Silva. For nearly five rounds, Sonnen put on the best fight of his career and dominated Silva throughout.

“I expected more resistance everywhere from him,” said Sonnen of Silva. “From the grappling to his striking, his strategy, I just expected more resistance everywhere. So yeah, I was surprised at his lack of resistance.”

Like all great champions though, Silva had something left in his back pocket to pull out when he needed it most, and at 3:10 of the final round, a triangle armbar ended Sonnen’s night and, for the moment, his championship quest. If not for his suspension and legal issues, an immediate rematch might have been in the cards, but for now, it’s Stann.

“This is what it is,” said Sonnen. “Brian Stann is next, and that’s fine. Look, if I had won the championship, I’m not sure Brian Stann wasn’t next anyway. He’s certainly arguable. There’s several guys that can fill that spot, but he’s definitely one of them, so no, it doesn’t make a bit of difference to me.”

And the goal?

“There is no other goal than the championship.”

Since the bout, Silva has looked to be in better than ever form in knocking out Vitor Belfort and Okami, but obviously, the marquee bout for “The Spider” is a rematch with Sonnen should the Milwaukie native get by Sonnen. And Sonnen hasn’t let up with his verbal assault on the champion as we wait.

“He’s a punk and a bully, he really is, and now he’s out there trying to be me,” said Sonnen. “He’s doing everything he can to copy me. He’s wearing masks to weigh-ins and yelling at guys at press conferences, and doing everything he can do to be me. So good for him. It’s like Marshall Mathers once said: ‘they may walk like me, talk like me, dress, act, not give a dang like me, and they just might be the next best thing, but they’re not quite me.’”

Sonnen has even widened his trash talking range to encompass not just one Brazilian (Silva), but a whole bunch of them, including Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and the Nogueira brothers, among others. He makes no apologies though, and is far from shocked that fight fans have gravitated to him.

“People like respect and I’m the only respectful fighter in the whole sport,” he said. “A lot of other fighters have a real misunderstanding that lying and dishonesty is respectful. They love to bow to your face and stick a knife in your back the first chance they get. I don’t. I’ll tell you like it is to your face and then I’ll stick the knife in your back because I told you that if you turn around I’ll put a knife in your back. And that’s the difference with me. I’m honest and I’m respectful. And these guys love to say ‘Chael doesn’t have any respect.’ Well, check your dictionary at the local junior high that you flunked out of. I’m absolutely respectful and absolutely honest as well. You guys are a bunch of liars.”

“People hang on every word I say,” Sonnen continues. “People are always disappointed when I’m not talking. I do an MMA show on ESPN and they blow a fit when I’m not on there. People are throwing a protest right now online that the UFC put out their commercial for the next event and they show the two title fights and they didn’t show me and Stann. Of course people would be upset, and I don’t blame them – I’m upset too. I like hearing myself as well.”

There has been one fighter who has escaped Sonnen’s verbal wrath though, and it’s the man he’s fighting this Saturday. That’s not surprising considering that it’s almost impossible to dislike Stann. He’s also earned his place in the spotlight with his recent performances, which include knockouts of Chris Leben and Jorge Santiago. And when you hear Sonnen assess his foe, it’s clear that he has a healthy dose of respect for the “All-American.”

“He’s a tough guy in front of everything else,” said Sonnen of Stann. “He’s a real brute. He’s big and strong and he’s got a big heart, good cardio, and he can punch hard. I also think he kicks really well. He fought Santiago, who sucks, but he buckled him with a kick, and I’ve seen him use those big, powerful kicks to soften other guys up too. He used them well in the WEC back when he was kinda green. He was green in the WEC and he still won the title. So he’s absolutely a natural in there, but if I had to describe him in a word, it would probably be ‘brute.’ He’s that big, strong, tough guy that comes to fight.”

Sounds like the perfect dance partner for Sonnen’s return.

“It’s almost the opposite of the last guy I fought,” he said. “The last guy I fought was a little dancing chicken, and this guy’s more of a man that will come out and draw a line in the Octagon and say put your toe on it and let’s go.”

Admit it, you’ve missed Chael Sonnen. Well, now he’s back, and he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

“I don’t ever want to be done,” he said. “I’ll never quit this sport. I’ll never be done with this business, but at some point, this business will be done with me. I’ll be one of those last guys that hangs on past the time that he should. I like it, it’s what I want to do, I do it because I choose to do it, not because I have to do it, and there is no life after this. This is what I want to do with my life.”