If there's one thing I've learned over my short tenure as a mixed martial arts (MMA) journalist, it's that when Chael Sonnen offers you an interview, you take it.
When I approached the self-described "American Gangster" about the possibility of doing an interview, I was thinking maybe he'd find time in his hectic schedule to grant me a brief chat sometime closer to to his fight with Rashad Evans at UFC 167 next month.
Imagine my surprise when he wrote me back a few minutes later with an email that read, "I'm free now."
Not being one to ignore the sound of journalistic opportunity knocking, I hastily assembled a list of questions. What followed was a near half-hour conversation with Sonnen, during which he discussed his take on everything from his upcoming bout with Evans, his advice for fighters looking to become bigger stars, his dislike of the term "selling fights," as well as whether or not he would be interested in reprising his role as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) to build a potential match up with Wanderlei Silva.
Check out part one of our conversation below and watch for part two of my interview with Sonnen over the coming days.
(Note: Portions of this interview were edited for concision's sake)
Steve Borchardt: You're fighting Rashad Evans, who you've worked with as a broadcaster for awhile now, at UFC 167 next month. Is there any difference in your mindset heading into a fight with someone who you get along with outside the cage?
Chael Sonnen: There is, but it's not significant. The significant difference comes in the preparation. As human beings, much like with what you do, I'm sure that you struggle with motivation at times.
If you have some type of animosity [toward] a different opponent, it's sometimes a little easier to get out of bed in the morning and put on your running shoes. There's a little bit of a barrier there [with Rashad]. We still have to get up and do it, but it doesn't mean it's as easy.
Borchardt: What specific challenges do you think Rashad poses for you?
Sonnen: Well, Rashad's got a couple. The first of which is, a lot of my strengths are what he's good at stopping. A lot of what I do, he does. So in some ways it's kind of like looking in a mirror. I feel like Jake Shields and Demian Maia were just faced with this. [When] you fight a guy who fights very similar to you, now you've got to go to Plan B.
We all have a Plan B, we just don't show it until we have to. There are fighters who get labeled as one dimensional, [but] what people fail to realize is, that fighter is going to continue to use that dimension until he's forced to go on to Plan B, to the next dimension. We see that with a lot of strikers.
I know Chuck Liddell went through that for a significant period of time. The reality was, he was a college wrestler, he wasn't a college kickboxer. He had scholarships in wrestling. He just never used it, because he didn't have to.
So this is one of those fights where, at least for me, where I'm going to have to dig into my repertoire and bring out new things.
Sonnen: First off, I am such a supporter of Maldonado and everything he does in that ring. They guy has the heart and the mind that athletes should aspire to. The guy wants to win, period. You really get behind a guy like that as a fan. I know Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a company, we certainly have, starting with our President Dana White. He just loves the guy because of his heart.
That was his night. I thought it was very generous of him to bring me into the spotlight when I didn't deserve it. It was his 15 minutes. I was flattered that he said that, and I fully support it.
Borchardt: Wanderlei Silva has obviously been trying to draw interest in a fight with you, and there have been rumblings of you coaching TUF: "Brazil" opposite one another. Would that be something you'd be interested in, living in Brazil for a month-plus and filming a show with him?
Sonnen: Wow, I heard the rumors, but you're the first to tell me it was rumored for Brazil. I thought it was rumored for the traditional TUF here in America, in Las Vegas. Which would make sense, since that's where Wanderlei lives. I can tell you I've never talked to him about it. I had a great experience on TUF, but I believe my TUF days are behind me.
Borchardt: I want to touch on the interview you did last week where you mentioned how you think many fighters are missing the boat when it comes to marketing themselves and giving fans a reason to invest in their fights. What specific advice to you have for fighters who are looking to become more marketable names?
Sonnen: There is no right answer when you're asked a question. And so many times athletes as a whole, but particularly fighters, give the answer they feel they're supposed to give. Such as the typical, "I'll fight whoever they want me to fight, I'm honored to be here, I want to thank my trainers."
There is no wrong answer, but make sure that you're yourself. That's the advice that I would give. Be yourself. If you are that guy that bows ... if you want to put your gi on, if that's who you are, go ahead, do it. But, don't think you have to do that.
Borchardt: You said to be yourself, and obviously you've taken a little bit from pro wrestling in the past. One of the mantras among successful pro wrestlers has been "be yourself with the volume turned up to 11." Do you feel that's something people need to be taking more consideration of: being themselves, but in a more interesting way?
Sonnen: I like what you just said. To be yourself with the volume turned up to 11, that's really good advice.
For me, I am myself. Now, I have to do some stuff that's gimmicky from time to time where I gotta put out a rhyme or put out a poem here or there. I had to get into that simply because I have a tremendous workload put on me in front of a camera or in front of a microphone, where I've only got so much material. It's kind of like music: There's only so many notes.
When people are waiting for that sound byte, to produce it organically is always the best. But, even I struggle with that because of the amount of media that there is.
At times like that I will get into some cross marketing. For example, I used a rhyme recently that was done by a gentleman named Billy Graham a number of years ago. However, Billy Graham -- three days before I used it -- had gone on his social media and promoted not only me, but our event as a whole on FOX Sports 1. So as a way to pay homage back to him for him helping us, we kinda co-promoted in that fashion.
That stuff is fun, I don't mind doing that. But as a fan, and even as an athlete, it's not my favorite. The real great stuff comes when it's just yourself with the volume up. I run into a conflict with that on my own because of my workload, because so much is expected of me. I've got to produce.
Borchardt: One thing I've noticed watching your interviews over the years, it seems like with your first interviews about Anderson Silva, and even the ones heading up the the second Silva fight, they seemed to be a little more organic and less rehearsed, but as time has gone on it seems like you've gone to a lot of the same sound bytes, do you think that's a fair assessment?
Sonnen: I think that's a very fair statement. [With the] Anderson Silva fight specifically, so many times I was asked, "Hey, do you want to take anything back, do you want to give an apology?" Never in a million years would I say I'm sorry, because I'm not. I'm a grown man, and I say what I mean, and I don't apologize for any of it.
Now, please understand ... if I was after a fight, for example, that would be more of a time when I would say something from an entertainment aspect. That would be a time where I may give a rhyme or a riddle or something like that, because then I'm not selling anything. I do not like it when a fighter attempts to sell me something.
Mike Tyson is probably the best example. He does this huge build up for Lennox Lewis. He bites him at a press conference, he talks about his children. The second the fights over he takes the microphone and he's apologizing saying, "I didn't mean that, it was all hype." And I'm sitting there going, "Well, you owe me $50. You stole it. I paid my $50 for what I now know is fraud."
And that's wrong. That's wrong to do, and I would never do that. If I don't mean it, I won't say it.
Now after the fact, when there are no tickets for sale, when there are no pay per views up for grabs, that's where I will go and [be more] of an entertainer.
Borchardt: So when you are leading up to a fight, to draw attention to yourself and what you want, you go for more of those gimmicks?
Sonnen: I don't like the term "sell fights." I just don't like it. Now if you want to inform somebody about the fight and then let them choose to buy it, then that makes a lot of sense. I love when people tune in. I love to be on top of a card that sells out in two or three days. I love to break break pay per view records. None of that is that is a secret, that's just the business we're in.
However, to do that, all I do is let people who I'm fighting when and where. I say it over and over, I say the date, I say what time it's on, and I say what channel they can find it at.
If [I say something] about the actual fighter to pick a fight, that's between me and him. If the fans get in on it then fine, but I don't make it up, ever. And there's a lot of times where it just doesn't exist. I do not manufacture that stuff, and I hate it when other people do because it's dishonest.
Steve, you can't do that in any walk of life. Imagine a car lot, A guy sells you a car, promises you all sorts of stuff, you buy the car and he goes, "I only told you that so you would buy the car. I didn't mean any of it." Well, the attorney general is going to have a tremendous problem with that car dealer. It's illegal.
I've seen fighters do it, and it's the lowest, most awful thing.You can't sell somebody something that isn't true. I've never done it and I never would. But, somewhere in the fight business, that's okay to do. I've seen these boxers do it and it's fake.
Pro wrestlers don't do that. Pro wrestlers tell you, I'm about to have a conflict with this guy, but it isn't real, it's all for entertainment. Now I can decide as a consumer whether I want to buy it or not.
In the fight world, if you don't mean it, don't say it.
At the [other] end of that argument though, Steve, if you do mean it, if you are thinking something, share it. Do not think you have to keep that inside. Do not think you have to be a nice guy if you are pissed off. You can be yourself for better or worse and I encourage athletes to do that.
Borchardt: To extend on that, you had mentioned that you sometimes say things about fighters that you mean, but somewhere along the line your mind changes. For instance, before your fight with Jon Jones you said some things that weren't so complimentary about him Twitter, then when you coached the show opposite him it seemed like you changed your tune once you got to know the guy. You have a reputation as a trash talker, but if you look at most of your recent fights you've been nothing but respectful to your opponents.
Sonnen: I don't go out of my way to be respectful, but I'm going to answer the questions that are asked of me. In anything in life, whether it's politics, religion, relationships, or fist fighting, don't be afraid to change your mind if you're confronted with new evidence. I see so many of our political leaders hang onto an ideology once new evidence presents itself. It's OK to change your mind if you realize you were wrong.
That happened with Jon Jones. The Jon Jones that was presented in the media versus the Jon Jones that I went out and coached against were two different guys. That's just the way it goes, I'll say it like it is, and in this case that's what it was.
Borchardt: One more question going back to what we were talking about earlier about what fighters can do to build up their names. Are there any specific up and comers who are doing a good job of standing out from the pack right now?
Sonnen: I think Conor McGregor has been extremely refreshing because he's doing what I'm saying. He's just a real guy. You ask him a question and you get a real answer. He's not gonna hold back and he understands we're in the fight business. It's OK. We don't have to pretend we're something we're not. His genuineness comes through, and it's very easy to get on board with a guy like that.
For better or worse do not be fake, and do not come across as fake.
I just had a run in with a guy who used to be a fighter named Wanderlei Silva. He films this run-in, he brings the camera. He tells the camera to start recording 20 seconds before he ever gets to me. [It was] a direct insult to his own audience. He believed he could fool his own audience into thinking this was organic. There's no way [this is not] a premeditated, preplanned, staged farce. He brought the camera.
If you attempt to put one over on your audience, it's not going to work. The audience are not stupid people. They know the difference between chicken salad and chicken...and I don't curse so please don't act like I did, but you get how that ends. Fighters come off like that all the time.
Nick Diaz is such an interesting person for me. And he's so interesting to the fans. For better of worse people will always listen to him because he's gonna be real. He's gonna be honest and he's gonna tell you it like it is. And that's so incredibly rare in public figures. I see it in baseball, football, and basketball. I see some of the biggest scumbags in America. There they are on television and they're smiling and they got kids buying their products, and it's like, "Man, you're a dirtbag. Just be who you are."
Borchardt: Based on what your saying here, one thing I've noticed as a fan myself over the years is that when fighters show a genuine emotion, it allows fans to emotionally invest in that fighter. I think that's what a lot of people miss out on with those canned answers.
Sonnen: It's obvious. It's very obvious when they do that.
Borchardt: Where does that attitude come from in MMA? Is it something to do with the martial arts mentality or the mentality from amateur wrestling?
Sonnen: I think that what you've just guessed is certainly a part of it. Somewhere one of the, as they like to call them "the pioneers" -- which simply means the old guys -- somebody started that phenomenon about "this is how we answer things, and this is about testing our skills" and all of that crap. The domino effect happened and 20 years later here we are still doing that. I don't get it, I don't like it.
We're not in class. You don't have to give the teacher the answer that you think the teacher wants to hear. We can have an open debate, we can have an open discussion. Just be yourself.
Every now and then in this industry you're going to run into a Shane Carwin, that just turns out he's a really nice person. But, those guys are few and far between, man.
These guys are fist fighting in a steel cage for a paycheck and the applause of a drunken audience. Don't pretend to be something you're not.
And don't bring up God. As a devout Catholic I'm tremendously offended when somebody acts as though God is playing a hand in a fistfight on Saturday night. Newsflash people: God has better things to do.
That concludes part one of our exclusive interview with Chael Sonnen. Be sure to check back later this week for the second, and final, installment.