Things were very different just three years ago. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was universally considered the best 205-pound fighter in the world, and Chael Sonnen was a quiet journeyman just trying to gain a foothold in the UFC. Their paths seemed never destined to cross. Yet Saturday night, under the intense spotlight of the opening night of FOX Sports 1, they will stand across from each other in the main event. And surprisingly, Sonnen will be the favorite.
Despite the fact that Sonnen has never beaten a former UFC champion — he has career losses to Forrest Griffin, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones — despite the fact that Rua has rebounded six straight times from losses with knockout wins, despite the fact that it’s Sonnen fighting above his usual weight class, Rua walks into the TD Garden as an unexpected underdog.
How did we get here? That’s a long story best told with a beer and a burger, but it involves injuries, a controversial drug therapy, and the brashest personality this side of Dana White.
Sonnen’s fame, or infamy, depending on your point of view, turned out to be a drawing card for Rua, who has had uneven fight results in the UFC, going 5-5 in 10 bouts, including a brief stint as the light-heavyweight champion.
"I think [Chael’s] a famous guy and for sure I think a victory over him will give me one more step towards the belt so that’s what my goal is," Rua said through an interpreter on Wednesday.
After all this time, after all those wars, it’s still the gold which pushes Rua forward. Still just 31 years old, he’s engaged in several thrillers. Rua knocked out Rampage Jackson and Alistair Overeem, ended the short-lived Lyoto Machida era, and co-wrote one of the sport’s all-time masterpieces of violence with Dan Henderson.
Some of those battles have taken a piece of him; his physicality has also been chipped away by injuries, particularly recurring problems that have plagued his knees and led to multiple surgeries and rehabilitations. The timing of the knee issues corresponds with his cage troubles. But the proud Brazilian has never shied away from facing top opposition. In his 10 UFC bouts, he’s fought five former UFC champions (including two twice), a two-time PRIDE champ, and a No. 1 contender.
The fight with Sonnen doesn’t have anything tangible at stake; Sonnen has already said he will drop down to middleweight afterward, while Rua stands behind several contemporaries including Gustafsson, Phil Davis and Glover Teixeira on any depth chart of contenders. For him, there is still an uphill climb on those rickety knees. Still, he walks on, undaunted.
"Since I started fighting PRIDE I always fought the best guys there," he said. "My main goal right now is fighting for the belt again. I’m going to be always looking to fight the top guys. They’re going to take me there again.”
For Sonnen, the fight has some personal meaning. He’d like to beat a champion, but if he can’t, he’ll settle for a former champ for now. It’s something he’s yet to do. It also helps that Rua is a fighter for whom he has a deep respect.
After two straight losses, it won’t exactly be good for Sonnen to add a third while trying to build a case for yet another title shot.
"We’re coming off a loss of a title fight. We need this win if he wants to reclaim this position of another title fight," Sonnen’s coach Clayton Hires told FOX Sports. "It’s all about being the champ. Of course you can always fight for money, but do you want to be champ? Why are you fighting if you don’t want to be the champ?"
That is essentially the same thing Rua belives, but he has extra motivation. He recently found out that his wife Renata is pregnant. It will be his second daughter, and they have already named her Yasmin. Motivation can only take you so far. In the end, the winner will simply execute better than his opponent did when it mattered. And Sonnen’s supporters believe that his stamina and pronounced wrestling edge — Sonnen historically hits 60 percent of his takedowns, while Rua defends only 44 percent — will carry him to the win.
Who could have seen that coming all those years ago, back when Rua was on top of the world, and Sonnen couldn’t break through his own glass ceiling? This is how they meet now, two men crossing paths, only one leaving in his intended direction.