When Chael P. Sonnen talks, you listen. Sticking to this MMA rule of thumb, Gareth A. Davies sits down with the most outspoken man in MMA to talk about putting MSG on the map, fighting Chuck Liddell and his plan to buy the WWE.
Chael Sonnen is in a typically ebullient, and rather amusing, mood when speaking to Fighters Only. Pronouncing himself to be on “a legends ass-whupping tour” after it was mooted that the Oregon MMA veteran may up next against another MMA legend in Bellator, he also reveals that his heroes in promoting fights are politicians instead of “scum of the earth” sports stars and who is, equivocally, the best fighter in the world. In short, a typically firebrand and fascinating interview with the ‘American Gangster’ from the meanest streets of West Linn…
Question: Looking back on your fight with Wanderlei Silva at Madison Square Garden, which you called “a dusty, decrepit” place, was it a significant moment in your career?
Chael Sonnen: It’s a great memory. The crowd there – and the card – was so wild. The Mitrione and the Fedor double knockdown – wow. But you know, the problem with me is my career will end the same way it started, which is as a fan. I just love the sport. I love watching it. Being a main event is such an honor but it’s a tough spot for me because I’ve got to focus on what I’ve got to do, but I always want to see those matches before me. I’m so curious. I get involved in the build-up and I fall for all that stuff. I want to know who is going to come out on top. It’s always a hard spot to finish off the night when you’re me, when you’re just a passionate fan that has a hard time separating the two.
Q: Have you changed your mind about the iconic old venue?
CS: They’ve been telling everybody for years that they’ve got stars and now they finally do. That would certainly change the mystique of any decrepit facility.
Q: Was it good to put a five-year blood feud to bed?
CS: The truth is I haven’t talked to Wanderlei before or after. In fact, the last contact I had with him was him shoving me in the cage after the fight. And I still don’t know if he said a single thing. I didn’t hear him, I didn’t see the shove coming. I just got shoved. I haven’t talked to him. He didn’t come to the press conference, I didn’t run into him at the hotel.
Q: Will you ever be friends, you and Wanderlei?
CS: Who knows. I could go either way with it. I’m not one of those guys who has to get along with everybody. Some of these guys get their feelings hurt and some want to be friends. I’m not one of those guys. If he wants to continue being upset with each other, sign me up.
Q: So, onto your next challenge. They are saying it could be a Chuck Liddell fight
CS: I believe the rumor. I don’t come with any evidence I just believe it. I know Chuck is training and I know he wants to come back. I know he was in talks with Bellator. If you connect those dots, I think we’re going to see Chuck again, I really do.
Q: Will you be the one lining up to face him?
CS: Oh yeah. If Chuck comes back, it would be me and Chuck. I’m on a legends ass-whupping tour. He would fall right in line with that.
Q: Ok, so what about a fight with Randy Couture? You’ve gone on record as saying he is the only fighter who has truly bested you in the gym?
CS: I don’t think he’s going to do it. He’s a hard one to figure out because he’s always in the gym. He’s practicing and he stays in great shape. But I’ve asked him flat out before, ‘Hey, you thinking about coming back?’ He always shoots straight with me, I’ve known the guy 25 years, and he said no I’m not. I said, Randy you go to practice every day, how can you say your body can’t do it when you are doing it every day? He just said it was a different. I asked him in a private setting when it was just the two of us and I took his word. I don’t think we’ll have the pleasure of seeing him in there again.
Q: Growing up, your father, Pat Sonnen, dedicated himself to bringing your wrestling to the fore. Will you be any different with your son Thero, who has already traveled to your fights?
CS: The word that I would use is encouragement. There’s things that come along with that, like work ethic, and you start to learn discipline and the value of following through with your word and being places on time every time and showing up every day. If a kid wants to do something, you want to put him into a situation where he has the best success. That isn’t always pleasant.
Sometimes a kid gets distracted and they want to do something else and you have to get them back on track… Thero certainly doesn’t have to be a wrestler. He can be whatever he wants. But I will encourage him, whatever he wants to do. Much like wrestling, it’s important to have more points than the other guy when time runs out. Whatever it is in life you’re going to do, whether it’s business or relationships or sports, you’ve got to have more points than the other guy or you are not playing the game right.
Q: A few years ago, there was a story that you were bringing together a plan to buy the WWE. How far down that road did you take it and will you ever appear in the WWE?
CS: I had $80 million raised for that. Do you know what the controlling share of the WWE was at that time? $456 million. My little statement was nothing more than a statement. I had no shot at it. But I sure as hell meant it at the time and I found investors that I was pushing and I had my entire plan laid out. But, no, I won’t have anything to do with the WWE that I could possibly think of. I’ve had talks with those guys but a lot of it was for announcing and some other things like that. It wasn’t actually in-ring work. Now they’re on the UFC network and aren’t even with Viacom anymore. If you’re not with Viacom, I’m not with you.
Q: What are the differences in Bellator and the UFC, from a fighter’s perspective?
CS: That’s one of the hardest questions I get asked. I could make more comparisons than I could differences. I can tell you as an athlete, the rules are the same. We go under the unified rules and you’re out there in a cage and you recognize the same referees and you get the same judges making the decisions. You get the same fans cheering or booing you. There are more similarities. As far as the office goes, there’s a little different feel and energy. A lot of the athletes are the same too. You see a lot of the guys Scott Coker (Bellator CEO) is signing and they did time in Vegas before they ended up in San Jose. From my perspective, it’s close, man. I want guys to fight wherever they want to fight. I don’t want guys to fight in the UFC if they want to fight in Bellator and I don’t want guys at Bellator if they’d rather be in the UFC. Go where you want to go, be loyal to yourself and do the best you can and let everybody grow.
Q: Is it a healthier sport, a healthier time in general for fight sports right now?
CS: It’s such a good time right now to be a fight fan. I love that Mayweather and McGregor had their fight. I love what Vince McMahon is doing. I love what Scott Coker is doing, two shows a month, and I love what Dana White is doing, a show every week. It’s a fun time to be a fight fan.
Q: Where did your ability to sell a fight and promote yourself come from?
CS: I was basically a student of the sport. I didn’t have a ton of influences in terms of fighting. I’m actually not that big of a wrestling fan. A lot of what is close to me is politicians. Everybody hates politicians… I’ve been more influenced by watching politicians go around the country talking than I have anything else. I love the gamesmanship, I love the fact only one person can win the stage, I love the fact it’s an attack and a fight and a battle and they never put a hand on one another. A lot of people find that boring but I find that fascinating. I’ve never been a sports guy. I despise sports. I find most athletes to be the scum of the earth. Outside of the Olympics every four years, I don’t watch it.
Q: You are 40 now. What are you going to do when you stop fighting?
CS: I’m 40 years young. It’s not how many miles a car has done, it’s how many miles a car has left. I hate free time. There’s nothing I hate worse than a day off. The worst word you could ever say to me is vacation. You might as well send me to hell or New York City. I do not want a day off and have to put my feet up and have time on my hands. I’ve got five jobs right now and if I could have six I would take another one. There’s no such thing as an eight-hour work day with me and there’s no such thing as eight hours sleep at night. I don’t know what I’d do, but I don’t look forward to retirement or downtime.
Q: What are your five spheres?
CS: I’m an employee with ESPN, I’m a commentator for Bellator, I’m a fighter, I have an MMA promotion company out here doing submission grappling with the guys at Flo Sports, and I have the number one podcast in the state/space.
Q: Is being a fighter the toughest or the most rewarding sport on earth?
CS: It’s really tough. Physically, I think we know how tough it is. I’ve seen from my peers how tough it is on some of them emotionally. I’ve seen people do something we call ‘mark out for your own gimmick’. They get so used to reading these headlines that are saying these wonderful things about them that when the tide turns they don’t know how to deal with it. You see people go to drugs and alcohol. You see fighters talking about suicide. I’m like, ‘Hey guys, none of this is real.’ Those ‘friends’ you have out there in the Twittersphere aren’t really friends. Those people writing those headlines aren’t friends either. There’s only two things in this business that are real – the money and the miles. You’re going to make some money, try and save a little bit of it, and you’re going to put a lot of miles on and travel around and not have the comforts of home. Those are the only two things you can count on. I only need the approval of one American and his name is Benjamin Franklin.
Q: We’ve just seen the return of Jon Jones. You fought him. Is he the best ever in MMA? (Note: This interview was conducted before Jon Jones did a Jon Jones and yet again failed a drugs test.)
CS: It’s shocking to me when that debate comes up. There’s not even a close second. The guy’s a knucklehead so people try to hold him down. That’s not going to change. He is a knucklehead. He wants to be a role model, but he’s none of those things. He’s an idiot. But as far as his skill set there has never been anybody that’s as good as that guy. It’s not even close. As far as his persona, I’m glad he’s finally embracing it. Jon, don’t try to fool us, you’re not smart enough, man. You’re a dumb-dumb and we’re not. We’re going to see right through your crap every time. But go ahead and be a punk kid that also happens to be the baddest dude walking the planet. Enjoy it. It’s going to be over soon. He burst on the scene and he was 24. He’s 30 now. It seems like he just broke out yesterday and was beating up Stephan Bonnar and doing all that stuff we saw him do. But he’s halfway through his career or more. Jon, just enjoy it.
Q: Finally, what’s the greatest change you’d bring in to MMA if you had a magic wand?
CS: This is only a fantasy, it could never happen, but there has got to be a ‘forfeit club’. I’ve never seen a sport in my life where you can just pull out or not show up on game day and have no repercussions. The date of the Super Bowl for 2018 and ’19 and ’20 is set. That’s the way sports work. We’ve got all these fake tough guys. I’ve never been in a sport with more wimps than MMA. This did not used to be the case when I started in the 90s. These were legit tough guys. Now it’s a bunch of wimps. This sport is about finding out who is the toughest guy under a specific rule set at a specific time. If you can’t meet that requirement of the time then it’s not you. You lose your place.
*** This feature appeared in the November 2017 issue of Fighters Only magazine ***