Is Chael Sonnen MMA’s Muhammad Ali?
The UFC held a news conference at the United Center in Chicago 10 days ago to announce the next UFC on FOX event. The expectation might have been for a big fuss to be made over headliners Rashad Evans and Phil Davis, or for a lot of talk from UFC president Dana White on just how big of an event this will be for FOX — three fights with big names on a tripleheader broadcast.
Those things still happened, but make no mistake — this press conference was Chael Sonnen's party, and he wasn't going to let anyone crash it.
Sonnen built his reputation as the biggest talker in mixed martial arts in the months leading up to his August 2010 middleweight title fight against Anderson Silva at UFC 117, and for more than four rounds he had more than a few jaws on the floor as he backed it up — handing Silva the biggest beating anyone had seen him take, right up until he had to tap to a comeback-of-the-year armbar-triangle.
Sonnen's problems after that fight are well documented, including a suspension for elevated testosterone levels during the fight and a guilty plea in a real estate money laundering case.
And while those things may have quieted him for a while — and his last win over the well-respected Brian Stann didn't give him much reason to trash talk the way he still does toward Silva — Sonnen was in Chicago, more than anything else, to remind everyone he's still here, and he's going to entertain.
At the press conference, Sonnen hit on everything from accusations that Silva is currently faking a shoulder injury to implying he tried to hit an illegal move in a college wrestling match against Mark Munoz, his opponent at UFC on FOX: Evans vs. Davis, next month. But through all of it, he was a natural promoter, constantly selling the show and his brand.
"I think everybody up here is grateful to be on FOX," Sonnen said of the dais of Evans, Davis, Munoz, Michael Bisping and Demian Maia. "They say, 'FOX, thanks.' Everybody but me. I would say, 'FOX, you're welcome. You've been telling people for years you've got the American Idol and now you finally do."
Over and over, Sonnen's responses to questions both from the media and fans drew the loudest cheers. If Sonnen is MMA's "bad guy," as he proclaims, then the fans have indeed come around to loving a villain. Even when Sonnen bashed Silva, the consensus No. 1 fighter in the world, he was greeted with roars from the crowd.
"I really don't care about Anderson Silva," Sonnen said. "I truly don't. How hard is it gonna be to become world champion beating up math teachers? I don't understand it. Give Anderson Silva my schedule and see how well he does. Yeah, I think he's ducking me."
And though White says Silva faking an injury to duck Sonnen is far from the case, he told HeavyMMA after the press conference that in all his years in the business, in all his years watching sports in general, Sonnen is in an elite class when he has a microphone in front of him.
"(I've never seen) even anywhere near him," White told HeavyMMA. "Seriously — and everybody's going to go crazy over this — but I've never seen anyone who can talk like this guy can since Muhammad Ali. Seriously, since Muhammad Ali. The stuff that just comes right off the top of his head, and is hilarious, and you don't know what's real and what's not real."
"Not real" might be Sonnen's response to Munoz saying the kneebar and heel hook Sonnen attempted while wrestling for Oregon against Munoz and Oklahoma State was forgiven. Munoz is on record saying he was beating Sonnen in their college wrestling match, and Sonnen threw up a pair of illegal moves to gain some ground.
"Mark's explanation of heat of the moment, I appreciate that," Sonnen said. "But I assure you, it was a calculated and premeditated event — and I offer no apology. Secondly, I don't even remember college. I'm driving around in a car with no insurance, a pocket with no money and the biggest thing on my mind was which kid to sit next to on exam day. So as far as a wrestling match, that was the fourth thing on my mind."
If Sonnen does win, he has been promised a second shot at Silva. And with all signs pointing toward Silva being ready to fight by June, and all signs pointing toward the UFC going back to Brazil around June, and a few other signs pointing toward the possibility of a massive event in a soccer stadium in Sao Paolo, a Sonnen win sets the table for Silva-Sonnen II on what could be the UFC's biggest event ever.
But Sonnen's trash talk of Silva, and of Brazilian fighters and Brazil in general, has left him no fans in South America. And there could be very real danger in him fighting on a card in Brazil — something White acknowledges.
"We've already started worrying about security for him," White told HeavyMMA. "We will have presidential-type security down there for him. The biggest fear would be should Chael win that night, we'd have to dig a tunnel underneath the Octagon (to get him out)."
And that would probably be just fine with Sonnen — one more feather in his cap, one more notch on his belt for building what has become the most dynamic persona in the sport. Like Tony Soprano, or Vic Mackey on "The Shield," Sonnen has become the heel many fans are loving to cheer for.
"I assure you, on Jan. 28, I will be ready," Sonnen said. "It will be one more in the win column, one more above the mantel and one more for the bad guy."