Sonnen and His Successful Side Job

Dec 11, 2007
Welcome to hell, snowball.

On Wednesday, most mixed martial arts fans expect Chael Sonnen (Pictures) to melt in his fight with Paulo Filho (Pictures) for the WEC middleweight title in Las Vegas (Versus, 9 p.m. ET).

The undefeated Filho (15-0) is a monster while Sonnen (19-8-1) seems like a guy who sells houses for a living -- which he does.

In fact, Sonnen took his laptop to Nevada to work the phones between training sessions. When not making deals, the Team Quest fighter is preparing his own amateur MMA promotion, the Full Contact Fighting Federation (www.thefcff.com), for a show in Portland, Ore., on Saturday.

"I am a full-time real estate agent and real estate takes precedence over fighting," he said. "Training only takes a few hours a day. A lot of guys just train and that is all they do. I think most of those guys are lazy. People have hobbies -- like golf -- that requires several hours per week."

On one hand, Sonnen makes sense; but on the other, the 30 year old sounds like a guy about to get his head handed to him. As dichotomous a figure as MMA has to offer, he is an athlete, promoter, capitalist and philosopher whose convictions could be considered sacrilege by fans and fighters who dedicate their lives to the sport. He is also so witty, articulate and thoughtful that it is difficult to imagine why he wants to be punched in the face for a living.

"People are led to believe that sports are this sophisticated thing where you have to focus your mind on it at all times," he said. "In reality, it's about the most unsophisticated thing you can do.

"Right now, I know at one point on Wednesday night, a man will tell me it's time to go. I will put my mouthpiece in and go out to fight. Twenty-five minutes later, I will grab my mom and girlfriend and go out to eat."

Sonnen's casual attitude runs counter to the fact that, for most intelligent people, fighting Filho is the stuff of nightmares. Undefeated with thick traps and a pit bull skull, the 29 year old is built like a Minotaur or a Uruk-hai out of "Lord of the Rings."

"We had trouble finding an opponent for him," said Loren Mack, WEC public relations director. "No one wanted to fight him, but Chael stepped up."

In fact, Sonnen had to get out of a lucrative contract with Bodog to fight Filho.

"Sometimes it's fun to be the underdog," Sonnen said. "But I don't think that much about who I am fighting. He could be anybody. When it's time to compete, I only think about myself."

Like many, Sonnen decided he wanted to get into MMA the first time he saw Royce Gracie (Pictures). A strong wrestling background, including All-American honors at the University of Oregon, made for an easy transition.

"If you are a wrestler, this sport is very seductive," Sonnen said. "If you lose in wrestling, you go home with nothing. I lost (a fight to Jeremy Horn (Pictures)) and still had a paycheck waiting for me."

Sonnen began training boxing when he was 19. One reason his father pushed a particular gym was its proximity to a favored watering hole.

"He'd drop me off and go drink with his friends," Sonnen said. "I had to train at the gym until he came back. Sometimes it was hours depending on how much fun my dad was having at the time."

Sonnen's mother also played a key early role in his career. She drove him to his first MMA fight -- at a fairground in Washington state.

"I thought, well, it's a fight so I need to be angry," he said. "I wanted to be as hot-headed as possible."

So Sonnen conspired with his mother to get mad.

"I was walking around huffing and puffing -- which was all an act," he said. "I won, but surviving the adrenaline surge was a nightmare. I needed two days to recover from exhaustion."

Sonnen vowed to never get emotionally involved in a fight after that. He admits his clever smack talk about Filho was merely for the cameras.

"I don't really have a picture of him in my shoe," he said. "I don't spend any time thinking about my opponent. I just try to get myself ready."

Sonnen began to climb the MMA ladder as a fighter at the same time he was promoting fights on the side. He created the FCFF and battled the then-backward Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commission for several years (Oregon only recently acknowledged that pro wrestling was merely entertainment and therefore not in need of stringent drug testing), winning several lawsuits and testifying before a state subcommittee. He has also been a ringside announcer for Matt Lindland (Pictures)'s Sportfight promotion.

"Chael's time is coming," Lindland said. "He has put his time in."

As a fighter, Sonnen has been on the fringe of mainstream success. He went 1-2 in the UFC between 2005-06, sandwiching losses to Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Jeremy Horn (Pictures) around a win over Trevor Prangley (Pictures). He then signed with Bodog, eventually commanding $35,000 per fight.

"When I began, my goal was to make $10,000 a year and that would have had to be in five or six fights," he said. "So it was a pretty good deal."

But Bodog was unable to create compelling matches, and Sonnen's public image began to fade.

"In this sport, name recognition is important," he said. "Sponsors are where the money is at."

Enter the WEC, desperate for an opponent to fight Filho. The organization approached Sonnen while he was still under contract with Bodog.

"I jumped at the chance," Sonnen said. "I didn't want Bodog to think I was being disloyal or inappropriate. They were good for me. But this is a real opportunity."

Bodog released Sonnen, and he promptly signed a four-fight deal with the WEC. The first will be the biggest of his life.

"People talk about pressure, but I don't know what pressure means," he said. "I've never felt pressure in one competition over another. What is pressure? A lot of people try to make money on books about managing stress and pressure. I don't believe these things exist. They are just things in your head. They certainly don't exist in my life."

In the cage, Filho presents a variety of problems. He will be stronger, smothers opponents by pushing the pace and has formidable jiu-jitsu. Sonnen counters with wrestling, outstanding conditioning and an unflappable approach.

"Bruce Lee said having no way is a way," Sonnen said. "He was not that great of a fighter, but he was a great philosopher. That is my plan against Filho -- to have no plan.

"I'm just going to go out there and fight."
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