From face to heel: Chael Sonnen’s Odyssey

Written by: Nima Seyf

“Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!”

These were the first words out of Chael Sonnen’s mouth after his dismantling of “All American” Brian Stann at UFC 136. Not one for the standard post fight interview rhetoric, the sponsor T-shirt was not even fully on before Sonnen had thrown down a gauntlet that the middleweight division had never seen before. If Sonnen won, Anderson Silva would have to leave the division. If Sonnen lost, not only would he leave the division, but he swore to leave the UFC forever.

How on earth did we get here?

Chael Sonnen punches Anderson Silva at UFC 117

Let’s get this out of the way first. Whatever you think of Chael Sonnen’s motor mouth and general disregard of any good will towards the Brazilian nation, the man can fight with the best of them. He did exactly that at UFC 117 when he shocked the MMA world for four and half rounds, thoroughly besting Anderson “The Spider” Silva who is still to this day considered the greatest mixed martial artist in history. What made the dominance even more mind-blowing was that this was exactly what Sonnen had promised to do, harsh in his critique of the Brazilian’s ability in the lead up to their title fight. Though Chael ultimately fell against Silva he faces the champion again at UFC 148 having carved a path back into title contention leaving victims like Michael Bisping and Brian Stann in his wake.

Chael Sonnen wasn’t always this way, though. Watching an interview with the Portland native from his World Extreme Cagefighting days would make you think he’s undergone some kind of massive personality shift. Courteous and polite, Sonnen was a far cry from the charismatic joker who took a fake middleweight belt to several press conferences after facing Silva and cut promos in post fight interviews that would do Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson proud.

As the UFC’s most notorious athlete, Sonnen actually required a security squad to even set foot into Brazil for the press conference announcing his rematch with Anderson Silva would be moved from an 80,000 seating football stadium to the more familiar MGM Grand Garden arena in Las Vegas. No fighter inspires such polarising reactions and since Muhammad Ali there hasn’t been a sportsman who’s spent quite so much time muddying the images of his competitors. His targets range from Pride legends Wanderlei Silva and the Nogueira brothers to former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, and even ring girl Arianny Celeste was not free from pot shots courtesy of MMA’s clown prince. Chael Sonnen is perhaps best of all known for his mockery of all things Brazilian, managing to anger the entire population and receive several death threats in the process.

So what’s prompted this? What made Chael Sonnen go from Portland’s favourite son to Brazilian public enemy number one and pound for pound trash talking champion of the world?

Chael Sonnen, battered and bruisedMost important of all, Chael Sonnen understands hype. Much like Josh Koscheck before him Chael realises that though “skills pay the bills” so to speak, opportunities in the MMA world are far more dependent on a fighter’s ability to inspire an emotive reaction from fans or – better yet – entire nations. This is especially relevant for a fighter of Sonnen’s style. Chael has more victories via decision than knockout or submission combined and fights in a grinding fashion, utilising his strength and grappling abilities to take you down and keep you there. Though undeniably effective, such a style lacks the flair or dynamism of a Jon Jones, nor does it have the brutal efficiency of a Junior Dos Santos or Jose Aldo. On paper Chael’s wrestling and lack of a stand up threat matched up terribly with Anderson, whose “laser accuracy” (as Mike Goldberg so loves to call it) led to assured destructions of every single fighter in the middleweight division at that time, including Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson.

Chael Sonnen was to have none of this however, repeatedly saying he was going to take the fight to The Spider and that Silva would have no answer whatsoever for his grappling. For four and a half rounds, he was right. Sonnen not only took the champion down multiple times but rocked Silva on the feet, powering forward and throwing himself at Anderson in a stark contrast to previous challengers who mostly seemed so immersed into his mind games that they simply waited to be struck down. Despite this, Anderson still went on to prove why he’s the pound for pound best fighter on the planet when he strapped on a triangle armbar in the dying moments of the fifth round to force Chael into a solitary tap and end the 35-year old’s first title campaign.

Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen

Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen

Though the legitimacy of the first fight was undermined somewhat by news that Chael Sonnen had elevated testosterone levels and that Anderson Silva fought with broken ribs UFC 117’s main event still changed Chael Sonnen’s life. His trash talking justified, Sonnen enjoyed a special place in the middleweight division as the man who has taken the champion to depths that no other has been able to and for striking Silva more times in their bout than he had received in total over his entire UFC career leading up to that point.

Not only did millions tune in to watch him deliver on his previous boasts but the entire MMA world will be ready for UFC 148 on July 8th when he finally settles the score with Anderson Silva and fights for the belt that, if Chael is to be believed, he has already earned.

Anderson says the fight will be “sinister”. Chael wouldn’t have it any other way.

Author: Nima Seyf

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