Battling to be the Best
Tualatin native Chael Sonnen is determined to win the UFC middleweight world championship
TUALATIN - It was a rare moment of relaxation for Chael Sonnen.
Drenched in sweat after an intense workout Friday at the Team Quest facility in Tualatin, Sonnen sat down in the training ring, leaning up against the padding in the corner of the squared circle.
The 35-year old Tualatin native, and West Linn High School graduate, smiles, jokes and laughs with those around the ring.
But, even through his jovial nature of the moment, it's easy to tell that a fire is burning inside.
It's a fire, a fury, whatever you want to call it, that won't be satisfied until Sonnen wins a world title - an Ultimate Fighting Championship world title.
'I've dedicated my whole life to it,' Sonnen said. 'I'm after the belt. It's no secret. I'm so grateful for all of the opportunities I've had, but, if this ends without me becoming a world champion, then it's all been a colossal failure.'
Sonnen will get the chance to make his world championship aspirations come true when he faces UFC middleweight champion Anderson 'The Spider' Silva in the main event of UFC 148 - a mixed martial arts event that will be held July 7 in front of a sellout crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, not to mention a world-wide pay-per-view audience.
'Seven/seven at 7 p.m.,' Sonnen said with a smile, referring to the date of his title bout with Silva. 'It's going to be the biggest fight in UFC history. It's going to break all of the records, and that's fun.'
Fun, well, OK. But it also could be brutal, and that's all right with Sonnen - as long as he comes away as the world champion.
But, don't say he's focused when it comes to the upcoming title match. He doesn't like that word when it comes to athletics.
'I hear athletes say that they're focused on something, and that just isn't true,' Sonnen said. 'I'm not going to say I'm focused, but I have mental discipline. I'll always be at practice on time. It's been that way since I was 9-years-old. I will never miss school and I will never miss work. I don't have something that anyone else doesn't have, but I show up every day.
'I'm after the world championship. I'm after the accomplishment - not the fame or money.'
GROWING UP GRAPPLING
You could say that Sonnen was born into wrestling.
'I come from a wrestling family,' he said. 'My father wrestled, my uncles wrestled and my cousins all wrestled.'
That's not entirely true. One of Sonnen's uncles, Mel Counts, played in the National Basketball Association.
'He always gave me a hard time about wrestling instead of playing basketball,' the 6-foot-1 Sonnen said with a laugh. 'That was until I was about 12. Then he said it was OK.'
Sonnen, a 1995 West Linn High School graduate, wrestled for the Lions under the guidance of coach Dave Sanville.
'He's in the Hall of Fame,' Sonnen said of Sanville. 'At that time, I thought everyone had a Hall of Fame coach. I didn't know the impact he had on me. Looking back as an adult, he not only was a great wrestling coach, but he also helped teach me to be a man, to set goals. I never thanked him.'
After graduating from West Linn, Sonnen went on to wrestle for the University of Oregon. While wrestling for the Ducks, Sonnen earned All-American honors while also graduating with a degree in Sociology.
He also won a pair of national championships in Greco Roman wrestling competition.
After college, Sonnen trained with Randy Couture and Dan Henderson in an attempt to make the 2000 U.S Olympic squad.
'I latched on with those guys,' Sonnen said.
Sonnen was chosen as an alternate for the 2000 United States Olympic Team.
'After the Olympic Trials, I showed up for training, and those guys were wearing boxing gloves,' Sonnen said. 'We started fighting instead of wrestling. I'm glad it worked out.'
While Sonnen will by vying to represent the world as the UFC middleweight champion in July, Oregon will always have a special place in his heart.
'I was born in Oregon and I will die in Oregon,' said Sonnen, who grew up in a home with a Tualatin address. 'This is home and I'm happy to be from Oregon. I even don't like people who move away from Oregon.'
More specifically, Sonnen smiles with pride when he talks about the local area.
'I have the unique opportunity to take not just Oregon, but my hometowns - Tualatin, West Linn, Wilsonville - with me when I fight that night,' he said. 'I think about those things on fight day - the teachers, the policemen, the community - they'll all be with me.'
And Sonnen has been giving back to the local community, mainly by starting the West Linn-based All-Phase Wrestling Club for youth wrestlers, back in 2001.
'I've been coaching a kids team at West Linn with Kevin (Keeney) for about 10 years,' Sonnen said. 'It's an opportunity to give back. I sacrifice everything to be with those kids. I never thanked Dave Sanville, but this is how I honor him. I hope he knows I'm paying him forward.'
Sonnen's talent and interests certainly venture way beyond the UFC octagon.
He recently became a partner in a new pizza restaurant, Mean Street Pizza, in West Linn.
He also recently became an author, with the publication of his book The Voice of Reason: A V.I.P Pass to Enlightenment.
'That's a very interesting business,' Sonnen said. 'You get to share your stories and do public counseling sessions for yourself.'
Sonnen set out to write a book mainly about his personally compelling views on politics.
'I wanted to explain government through the history of pro wrestling,' he said. 'When I got done going on and on about that, I had 25 pages - I had an obligation for 224 pages. So I decided to go out into other areas, and that's where it got fun.'
Meanwhile, without even stepping into the octagon, Sonnen has already won one championship this year, as he was named the victor in the 2012 Jim Rome Smack-Off Competition. The call-in 'takes' competition on the popular sports radio talk show was held May 18.
Sonnen became the first professional athlete to win the championship in the 18-year history of the Smack-Off, as he edged second-place Mike in Indy.
'It was meant to be fun, and it was a lot of fun,' Sonnen said. 'And it's always fun to win.'
Sonnen began training for the July match with Silva the same way he has for every big fight, with a month-long stay at the Texas ranch of his strength and conditioning coach, former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin (real name, Steve Williams).
'He basically tortures me,' Sonnen said. 'He puts me through 30 days of torture. I don't throw a single punch when I'm there, but I leave in the best condition.'
Now, at Team Quest, Sonnen is working out relentlessly to get down to the middleweight fighting weight of 185 pounds.
'I'm well ahead of schedule,' he said with a smile.
SONNEN VS. SILVA - THE FIRST TIME
Sonnen and Silva have clashed before.
It happened at UFC 117, held Aug. 7, 2010 in Oakland, Calif.
In that match, the middleweight championship was at stake.
And, for most of the bout, which consisted of five five-minute rounds, it looked like Sonnen was well on his way to taking the belt off the champion.
Sonnen dominated the first four rounds of the fight, and that showed on the judges' scorecards.
Sonnen also looked to be in control in the first part of the fifth round. But, with less than two minutes left in the match, Silva caught Sonnen in a triangle choke, and the challenger tapped out with 1 minute and 50 seconds left in the bout.
'I don't know a whole lot about it,' Sonnen said, looking back at that match. 'The compelling part of the story is that there was a time I didn't know what round we were in. My corner told me we were in a different round and I thought we were in a different round.'
The Sonnen-Silva match was named the Fight of the Night.
'I thought they were giving that to me out of charity,' Sonnen said. 'At the time, I didn't think it was very good. Nothing happened.'
The match was later named the Fight of the Year at the MMA Awards.
'Yeah, there was a lot of stuff happening the whole time,' Sonnen said. 'It was pretty good.'
Yes, but, if Sonnen has his way, it will nothing compared to the July 7 rematch.
Sonnen quickly gets a smile on his face and enthusiasm in his voice when he starts talking about his upcoming July 7 rematch with Silva.
'I won't be struggling for motivation,' he said. 'I want that championship, and I'll do everything I can to win it.'
Sonnen also knows that he dominated Silva for most of their previous fight, but that doesn't seem to put him at ease.
'It went well, and I threw way more punches,' Sonnen said. 'I've looked at the tape, but not closely. This is a new day, a new night and a new fight.'
And, for Sonnen, it will be a fight against a world champion who has put together an imposing record.
Silva, a native of Brazil, is the UFC's longest-reigning champion. He has a career record of 29-4 while also winning his last 14 matches, including nine title defenses.
Silva's last loss came back in January of 2006, when he suffered a disqualification setback to Yushin Okami, who also trains at Team Quest.
But, frankly, Silva's accomplishments don't seem to impress Sonnen.
'I've had to live through this since 2006 with Anderson, hearing that he's the best,' Sonnen said. 'But I'm the best. That's the fact and it's been that way since 2006. He's been ducking me the past two years, and he ducked me before that - what kind of champion is that?'
Since his first match with Silva, Sonnen has scored a submission win over Brian Stann (on Oct. 1, 2011) and he posted a unanimous decision victory against Michael Bisbing (on Jan. 28).
The two victories give Sonnen a career MMA record of 28-11-1 going into the July 7 world championship match.
Sonnen, and his Team Quest training squad, is confident that he'll come away from that bout with the title.
'I'm excited about it,' said Scott McQuary, who is Sonnen's MMA trainer and the head coach at Team Quest. 'I have no doubt he'll get it done.'
'Anderson will have to wake up Sunday morning with all of his excuses,' Sonnen said. 'He'll have to be faced with the reality that I'm the best - I won't stop saying it.'
And, for Sonnen, this doesn't seem to be just trash talk.
He's dead serious when it comes to the world championship.
'You don't retire without a world championship - you just quit,' Sonnen said.
And Chael Sonnen doesn't seem like he's anywhere close to being ready to quit.