In a fight career spanning 20 years, Chael Sonnen has fought Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Shogun Rua, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz, all of whom have at some stage held a UFC title.
But the man he has wanted more than anyone is former Pride king Wanderlei Silva. That fight, he says, is the one that would have really lit a fire under him, given him reason to get out of bed, seen an extra 10% added to his game.
It nearly happened at UFC 173 in 2014, of course, when the pair were contracted to fight following a stint as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. Silva, though, pulled out injured. Then, later, Sonnen failed a drug test.
So now, three-and-a-half years later, the pair look to go again, this time at Bellator’s first ever event at Madison Square Garden, New York, on June 24. And Sonnen, 40, couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.
“It’s the only fight I’ve wanted for the longest time,” he said on Tuesday. “It isn’t just about those four years. That’s just when I had a signed contract to compete with Wanderlei. But I’ve been wanting to fight Wanderlei since he was in Pride. I’ve been wanting to fight Wanderlei while I was still fighting at the dog park in front of my mum and dad and aunt and uncle and nobody else was there.
“I’m watching this guy on TV and I’ve just always wanted to fight Wanderlei Silva. I’ve been poking my finger in his chest before anyone else. Wanderlei, for a very long period of his career, was the scariest guy out there and nobody ever called out Wanderlei. I was calling out Wanderlei back then, back when it was unfashionable.
“It’s the only match I want. I love to participate in this sport, and will go out and compete against anybody, but they’re not always ones you want to fight. That’s just the match you have in front of you. I want to fight Wanderlei.”
The four years that have passed since they appeared on The Ultimate Fighter seem to have done nothing to mellow either man, nor simmer their feud. If anything, it seems to have only intensified; press conference no-shows on the part of Silva were, we’ve been told, due to his fear of being stuck in the same room as Sonnen and doing something to the American he’d later regret.
“I don’t like Wanderlei Silva,” said Sonnen, 29-15-1. “Everybody who is going to be watching this has somebody in the office they would like to take outside and get into a fight with them. Everybody on the job site has someone they would fight if they could. I’m just in an industry where we can do that. I don’t like him, he doesn’t like me. I don’t see what the difference is.
“Wanderlei Silva, if you attack me, I’m going to do some very bad things to you within the rules. If you attack me in front of my wife, there are no rules.”
There’s typically always a smell of the gimmick or the show whenever Chael Sonnen talks about a fight. He gets it. He knows how to push buttons; he knows how to sell. But this one feels different. This one feels real.