No one blurs -- and crosses -- the line between fantasy and reality quite like Chael Sonnen, the brash Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight contender who has turned the art of trash talking into an almost full-time vocation.
Renowned by some, reviled by others, Sonnen has become as well-known for his fit-for-World-Wrestling-Entertainment shtick as he has for his world-class skills in the cage. His antics have largely overshadowed quality wins over Yushin Okami, former middleweight King of Pancrase Nate Marquardt, onetime WEC champion Brian Stann and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 winner Michael Bisping.
Some have felt the sting of his words more than others, but no one has experienced as much Sonnen venom as UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva -- the only man to defeat the Milwaukie, Ore., native in the past three years. Sonnen will challenge Silva in a long-awaited rematch at UFC 148 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as he tries for a second time to dethrone an all-time great who has ruled the middleweight division for 2,089 days. He scoffs at the idea that his “act” has become something less than genuine.
“I don’t do characters,” Sonnen said during a media call for UFC 148. “I got serious about this fight a long time ago.”
Those closest to him will tell you plenty of truth can be found in those words. Sonnen was the better man against Silva for the better part of five rounds when they met at UFC 117, as he took down the champion repeatedly, battered him with ground-and-pound and even connected with authority while standing. Alas, Sonnen settled too comfortably in Silva’s guard and watched his night’s work unravel in an improbable triangle armbar that resulted in his submission 3:10 into round five. He aims to finish what he started on that August night in 2010.
“All that happened was Anderson found himself in a fight for the first time,” Sonnen said. “His skills are amateur. If you walk into a fight with your fists down, that’s amateur. I treated him like an amateur the first time, and I’ll treat him like an amateur this time.”
In the wake of their first encounter, Sonnen was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission when post-fight urinalysis revealed an illegal testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. He has since been granted a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy by the Nevada Athletic Commission, which will oversee the rematch in Sin City. Controversy and rhetoric aside, he must now confront an opponent who has not been legitimately defeated since 2004.
Silva will enter the UFC 148 headliner on a 15-fight winning streak, 14 of them coming inside the Octagon. Almost universally recognized as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, the 37-year-old Brazilian has successfully defended the 185-pound title a record nine times since he took it from Rich Franklin at UFC 64 six years ago. Facts, statistics and history notwithstanding, Sonnen shows no regard for Silva’s accomplishments.
“This guy says the craziest stuff,” he said during a pre-fight press conference. “He’s surrounded by yes men. It’s unbelievable that he actually thinks like that. He talks about his legacy. He’s so close to the trees that he can’t see the forest. Come to American and ask people what they think about him. Oh yeah, this guy is the real deal. He became the number one contender when he beat the great Chris Leben. He then defended his belt against the great Patrick Cote and the amazing Thales Leites. What a star this guy is.
“What about the fact that I called him out for six years? ‘Oh, you’re disrespecting my family,’” Sonnen added. “Yes, I did, and what did you do about it? Not a damn thing, and you’re not going to do anything [at UFC 148]. Get your excuses ready now, Anderson. I told everybody before the first fight that our skills are not even close and that I’m going to destroy him, and I will tell you again now, our skills are not even close. So go to your Ed Soares School of Excuse Making and get some handy, because you’re going to need them.”
Silva and Sonnen have stayed on a collision course ever since their first matchup. The champion carved through Okami and Vitor Belfort; the challenger steamrolled Stann and eked out a controversial decision over Bisping. Their rematch was originally penciled in for UFC 147 at a soccer stadium in Brazil, but a scheduling conflict forced the promotion to move it to Las Vegas.
“It was disappointing, especially with the thought of coming to a stadium,” Sonnen said. “I was hoping to be a part of breaking that [UFC 129] attendance record.”
Still, the change in venue has done nothing to cool the heat surrounding the sequel. Silva let down his guard during an epic verbal tirade a little more than a week before the event, threatening the challenger with bodily harm. Despite all the bluster, Sonnen seems to grasp the magnitude of the situation.
“The stakes are pretty high on this one,” he said. “This is the biggest sporting event of the summer for a good reason. People have been waiting for two years for this fight. No fight in the history of this sport has had as much emotion and anticipation as this one. I’m not playing around.”