Before there was Conor McGregor, there was Chael Sonnen. And in 2010, no one made more headlines in the sport than the “Gangster from West Linn,” who came within one minute and 50 seconds of defeating Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title.
It was one of the most dramatic and memorable title fights in MMA history, and no one who ever saw it could forget it, let alone one of the principals.
“I remember it, too,” said Sonnen. “I remember it like it was this morning.”
Up four rounds to none, Sonnen had touched up the previously untouchable Brazilian and was on his way to a stunning upset victory before Silva pulled a submission out of his bag of tricks in the fifth and final frame.
It was a crushing defeat for Sonnen, but he was able to make light of it during the press conference for their UFC 148 rematch nearly two years later, claiming with a straight face that he didn’t know the rules, assuming that if he tapped out, he only lost the round, not the fight. I asked him about that moment, and with a straight face, he responded:
“It turns out that the fight in its entirety comes to a conclusion. I didn't know that. It's like nobody mentioned it to me or something. I don't really know what happened. I have no idea.”
Now 43 years old and as busy as ever thanks to gigs with ESPN, his Submission Underground promotion, and his work as the proprietor of Bad Guy Inc., the former middleweight contender has lost none of his edge, humor or wit since his last fight in 2019, and when ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reposted the aforementioned press conference clip recently, all those memories of 2010-2012 came flooding back, with the main takeaway being how he deadpanned all those classic lines.
“A lot of that stuff was practiced,” he admits. “If you knew you were going into something, I would always prepare. Sometimes I would have my naysayers say, 'Oh, he had that line planned.' Like I was up there in a wit contest where you had to think of it on your spot freestyle or something. Guys, I would never go into a test without studying for it first; I would never go into a fight without training. I will always prepare for whatever I can reasonably assume the conditions of this are. Yes, I am going to have pocketed lines. You bet I am.”
Practiced or not, when Sonnen began his verbal assault on Silva, going from the blue-collar veteran to the most quotable man in the business, he captivated not just the MMA world, but the entire sports world. And everyone, whether you loved or hated him, was on board for the ride. That, Sonnen explains, was the whole point.
“It's always tough to get somebody to understand that this is the sport of MMA, but it's a business, and it's a business of entertainment,” he said. “Conor McGregor has done his finest work outside of the Octagon. He's also done his most work outside the Octagon, just to use him as an example. He understood that this is entertainment and I want people to watch and I want people to care and I want people to come along for the journey. A fighter's only commodity in his mind is his performance, but he's wrong, and a fighter is also wrong if they think that the greatest spot that you can achieve in the sport is to be the champion. That's not. The greatest spot you can achieve is where the outcome no longer matters. You could win or you could lose, and if you can still be a main event and fill up an arena three months later, you are now in that special spot. But the only way you can get there is to get people to come along for the journey. And it's not about the punches or the kicks, it's the journey.”
Sonnen lost his first UFC title shot to Silva in August 2010. He fought six more times in the Octagon, challenging for the title twice (in the rematch with Silva and against Jon Jones) and headlining in three of those bouts. Call that mission accomplished for a fighter the fans wanted to see, either to watch him win or watch him get beat. The way Sonnen saw it, whether he was fighting Silva, Jones, Michael Bisping, Brian Stann, “Shogun” Rua or Rashad Evans, there was a story there, a reiteration of the adage that it takes two to make a fight. And build one.
“I remember when I was going through my period with Anderson Silva and it was a genuine hate,” recalled Sonnen. “I would try to explain to Anderson when there were no cameras or lights that, 'Hey, I know you don't like me. But we're partners, and we're going to do business on one night. And we both understand the rules and the stakes, but we're partners, either way. So if I'm coming at you and it's making headlines and you think the way of showing me the martial arts correctness of honor is to be silent and do nothing, you're missing that we're partners. I'm about to change your life and you're about to change mine. We can hate each other all we want, but if we don't appreciate that one concept, we're leaving a lot on the table here.' It's a tough one because as much as that makes sense to me and I feel like I'm even rhetorically eloquent when I say it, they look at me like a deer in the headlights. They don't know what I'm saying.”
Sonnen knew the business, though. He knew how to get a reaction and he knew how to market himself. He was also more than accessible to the media, something that the great Muhammad Ali always was. Ali would invite reporters to his Deer Lake training camp and never saw a microphone or pad and pen he didn’t like. Sonnen repeated this philosophy, and while he wasn’t the first in sports to do what he did, he may have been the first to take it to mixed martial arts.
“The biggest thing I had was I was the first to do it,” he said. “I realized that guys had talked before - Stone Cold (Steve Austin) and The Rock were there, and you can go back to Muhammad Ali or John McEnroe - so I didn't reinvent the wheel, but in our sport, I was the first.”
He may have been the best, too, until Mr. McGregor came along and made press conferences must sees as he worked his way up to two divisional titles in the UFC. Sonnen watched “The Notorious” one do his thing, yet he makes it clear that if today’s fighters want to match what the Dubliner has done, they have to tell their own story and follow their own path, not his.
“Attention is more a byproduct,” said Sonnen. “Your real goal is just to stand out. It's very, very hard to stand out. When we're all doing the same sport, in similar weight classes under the unified rules, how do you stand out, how do you do things different? So I think that's a little bit of what people should spend some time on, and when you say a guy can't be another Conor McGregor, you'd be stunned at how many guys don't understand that concept. Conor starts wearing suits and a bow tie; now we've got other guys showing up in suits and bow ties. No, the bow tie market has been taken...by him. It's little things, but if you're trying to do gimmick infringement and be like some other guy...there are ways you can rip somebody's gimmick off. You just have to put a number of years in between, then you can go ahead and do it.”
Sonnen laughs, but this is all serious business, and hearing him talk about it is a fascinating look into one of the great storytellers the sport has ever seen. And that’s the secret right there, as far as he’s concerned. Tell the story and the rest will follow.
“If I had two messages, neither one of my messages would be to go out there and talk trash,” he said. “And I know I got known for that, but that's actually not what my goal was. That was just how I went to obtain the goal. The goal was, number one, to tell a story. That's what promotion is. And number two, understand that we might be in the sport of fighting, but we're in the business of entertainment, so go out there and entertain.”
Chael Sonnen entertained us for a lot of years, but it may have been ten years ago that he first struck a nerve in the fight game. So how does he remember 2010?
“If I had any regret of my time in the sport, it was that I never enjoyed any of it,” he said. “And I look back now, and go, 'How did you not enjoy that?' It was so much fun, and my girlfriend at the time - who is my wife now - would come with me on all those things and we had so many great memories. But at the time, we never enjoyed it. It's very stressful in that sport, it's extremely hard work, and the more directions you're pulled in just means the more random places you have to find a gym to get your workouts in, a random place to get some food, to sleep in a bed somewhere. It was just one of these things where, looking back I'm so grateful and I never even realized all the opportunities I had or maybe some opportunities that other people didn't have. I thought everybody had a similar schedule, and I never enjoyed it. I look back now, and I would do anything to be back in some of those spots. I never realized what a rare experience it was that is never gonna be duplicated.”
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