A couple of days before Chael Sonnen dominated an overmatched opponent in UFC 136 in Houston in October, the silver-tongued Oregon country boy stood before a scrum of reporters.
The first question came from a mixed martial arts reporter, and it was jarring. Because it wasn’t really a question at all. It was a command. “Give us the Chael Sonnen Show,” the reporter said, as if Sonnen were some monkey trained to perform.
Sonnen looked taken aback for a beat. But then the 34-year-old jumped right into character, the gem-spitting braggadocio whose bombastic remarks have made him one of the most outsized personalities in the UFC.
And, yet, as Sonnen prepares to face Briton Michael Bisping at this weekend’s UFC on FOX 2 (8 p.m. ET, Saturday, FOX) fight in Chicago, his silver tongue has turned into a double-edged sword. Because when UFC fans think of Sonnen, his outrageous peacocking is the first thing that comes to mind. They think of his mocking of UFC legend Anderson Silva. They think of his verbal barrage against the entire country of Brazil. It’s part of the Faustian bargain he’s struck to achieve this popularity: The second-ranked middleweight in the UFC might be one of the most formidable, well-rounded fighters around, but Sonnen’s fighting is almost an afterthought to Sonnen’s mouth.
A mouth that has said things like:
“(Lyoto) Machida is a gentleman. MMA is very cutthroat, and it’s sweet that Lyoto promised to never fight his girlfriend Anderson (Silva). That’s devotion.”
“I’d beat up Machida on the way to the ring to beat up Anderson, and I’ll kick (Antonio) Nogueira’s ass in the parking lot on the way to my afterparty."
"Listen Wanderlei (Silva), I will do a home invasion on you. I will cut the power to your house and the next thing you’ll hear is me climbing up your stairs in a pair of night vision goggles I bought in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. I’ll pick the lock to the master room door, take a picture of you in bed with the Nogueira brothers working on your jujitsu."
There are a few things that are true about Chael Sonnen: That his relentless style inside the Octagon makes him one of the UFC’s most exciting draws. That his smack-talking mouth makes him either beloved or hated but always, always talked about.
And that, when the next quick-witted remark shoots out of his mouth, you don’t know whether he’s simply the most forthright fighter around, a rare example of blunt honesty in a sport dominated by pre-fight hype and disingenuous trash talk — or whether he’s simply a master showman who says whatever he needs to stay in the spotlight.
“It’s just honesty,” Sonnen told FOXSports.com. “I hear those things like you’re saying about me. I feel I should say thank you because I think you mean it as a compliment. But I also resist it. I’m not performer, I’m not a promoter, and I’m damn sure not in the business of hype. But I am honest, and I’m objective. It sickens me to hear fighters say things they don’t mean. They do it and hide it under the guise of respect. It’s not respectful. Being a liar is not respectful in any culture.”
It’s a refreshing thought: Sonnen as an antidote of honesty to the Don King-like world of overpromotion.
Yet in one half-hour conversation, Sonnen referred to himself as the following: “The lyrical Lothario.” “The gangster of love.” “Chael the genius, the insightful one, the Einstein of MMA.”
It’s often funny. It’s sometimes smart. It’s always catnip to reporters. Yet it also smacks of crap, not honesty, because these are all catchphrases he’s repeated again and again.
And that’s the conundrum of Chael Sonnen, Master Self-Promoter: He could be a breath of fresh air; he could be the most calculating B.S. artist around. You just never know.
What made this sharp tongue? Sonnen doesn’t really know. He grew up in West Linn, Ore., close to Portland but never to be confused with Portland: “Portland is for hippies and liberals,” sneered Sonnen, who once ran as a Republican for the Oregon legislature. When he was growing up, Sonnen’s puritanical mother worked as a home economics teacher, his father as a quiet cattleman and horseman. The country life he describes doesn’t seem a place that breeds bombast and belligerence: stacking bales of hay, bottle-feeding calves, mending fences.
“I was never young,” he said. “I was never a kid. I’ve always been grown up.”
So where’d he get his mouth, his quick wit, his knack for self-promotion? Sonnen’s not much for this sort of introspection. “Why was Einstein brilliant?” Sonnen shrugged.
If you believe Sonnen, his hype isn’t hype at all.
“What you see is what you get,” he said. “I’m not in the entertainment business, not in the promotion business. I hear that I’m in the hype business, but I resist that claim very much. I see hype as fraud. I see hype the same as stealing . . . I’m going to tell it the way it is. I don’t use profanity, I don’t cross any lines, but I also don’t issue apologies. If I don’t mean it, I wouldn’t say it.”
He pauses a moment, searching his brain for another of his oft-repeated Chaelisms: “And if I couldn’t bite,” Sonnen says, “I wouldn’t growl.”
And that, at least, is undoubtedly the truth.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.