BURBANK — Just five days in front of what many prognosticate will be the biggest Ultimate Fighting Championship event of the year, Chael Sonnen — the No. 1 contender to champion Anderson Silva’s UFC middleweight title at Saturday night’s UFC 148 in Las Vegas — touched down in Burbank.
Regarded for his superior wrestling and ground-and-pound skills inside the cage as much as his ability to talk the talk outside of it, Sonnen, seated next to girlfriend Brittany Smith, tipped his chair back and held court among a gathering of print, Internet and television media on Monday afternoon at Morton’s The Steakhouse.
“Everything. It’s everything,” said Sonnen when asked about the magnitude of Saturday’s title rematch against Silva, ranked by most as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. “This whole process since I was 9 years old will be a colossal failure if I don’t win the championship.”
Sonnen (27-11-1) previously fell against Silva (31-4) when the two tangled in August of 2011. Silva has won 15 consecutive fights, 14 of them inside the caged confines of the UFC and 13 of them with the middleweight crown on the line. However, during a run characterized by knockout dominance, Silva was dominated by Sonnen for four-plus rounds in their first meeting before Sonnen was caught in a triangle armbar that forced the tapout.
Before that bout and since, Sonnen has drawn headlines, notoriety and driven ticket sales due in large part to his gift of gab. Thus, with Brazil’s Silva usually speaking through a interpreter and making considerably less media appearances, Sonnen has made quite a few media appearances, such as Monday’s, in the build-up for Saturday’s bout.
"[I do] the full share,” Sonnen said. “I’m expected to do that stuff. I’m the biggest draw in the UFC. It goes [UFC welterweight champion Georges] St. Pierre and then it goes me. Georges is out right now, so I’m the man. I welcome that, it’s the spot I wanted. But it comes with — I don’t want to use the word burden, cause it’s not, I enjoy talking to you guys, I’m happy to be here — but it comes with a lot of work.”
As for why Sonnen is such a big draw?
“I think because I’m the only guy that understands respect,” Sonnen said. “I’m the only respectful fighter in the organization. So many guys think that respect is to look at your face and tell you a lie, to pay you a compliment and stick a knife in your back when you turn around. I will tell you to your face that when you turnaround I’m gonna put a knife in your back and then I will. People find that refreshing. I’m not a trash-talker, I’m a truth-talker. I talk the truth. If you ask me a question, I will answer it.”
Sonnen, who joined the likes of Junior Dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir and Brandon Vera as UFC fighters to drop by Burbank’s Morton’s ahead of a big fight, answered plenty of questions and, as he’s known for, pulled no verbal punches. He referred to Brazilian middleweights and future potential opponents Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva as a “dork” and an “invalid,” respectively. He would follow by calling Belfort a tough fighter and complimented Wanderlei Silva’s tenacity and aggression.
Originally, Silva-Sonnen II was scheduled for Brazil, but the fight was moved to Las Vegas. Had the fight taken place in Silva’s native land, many, including UFC President Dana White, openly worried about Sonnen’s safety. Sonnen wasn’t one of them, however.
Still, Sonnen said there was a big difference between being in a Burbank steakhouse a few days out from his fight rather than Brazil.
“It’s funny you bring up steak, because, [what is] actually a big deal when you travel is eating,” Sonnen said. “That’s one of the hardest parts when you factor in trying to make the weight limit and eat at the same time, it’s very difficult.”
As for any home-country advantage, it was something Sonnen balked at.
“Brazil would’ve been a good neutral territory,” Sonnen deadpanned. “Let’s not forget Anderson lives in Beverly Hills. Anderson’s got a several-million-dollar mansion, he left those Brazilians just as quick as Wanderlei and Vitor did. And they go back any time they can reach into those guys’ pockets in the favelas. The reality is that they’re in America. They were made rich in America, they pay taxes in America, they were made famous in America, they’re employed by an American company. Those guys are Americans. His plane flight from Beverly Hills to Las Vegas is a lot shorter than my ride from West Linn, Ore. So good for Anderson for getting me to his home turf.”
The talk — quick-witted, often humorous, sometimes puzzling, always interesting — from Sonnen is nothing new, but roughly a week earlier during a UFC conference call, Silva surprised many with some now infamous statements.
“I’m going to break his face and every tooth in his mouth,” Silva said through interpreter Ed Soares. “I know he’s on the call listening to this and playtime is over. … I’m going to make him pay for everything he’s said about me, my family and my country. I’m going to beat him maybe like his parents should have to teach him some manners.”
Indeed, Sonnen, taking the call from his home, heard it all and said it made no matter to him.
“It was nice to see the real him come through. You know, this guy’s a dirtbag. It was good to see the real him come through,” Sonnen said. “You gotta understand, if you knew your funeral was coming up, you’d have parting words, as well.
“This is the funeral for his career, this is it, this is the end of the road.”
The end of the road is set for Saturday at the MGM Grand, with prelims airing on FX before the pay-per-view telecast at 7 p.m., which also features Forrest Griffin-Tito Ortiz III. And on that night, Sonnen, a master storyteller and thought-provoker who will just as easily engage in a conversation about politics as mixed martial arts, will get back to doing what he does best.
“This is the only game I know how to play. I’ve never seen a football game my whole life, I’ve never seen a basketball game,” Sonnen said. “I only know this sport. I only know combat.”