Two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) No. 1 Middleweight title challenger, Chael Sonnen, takes on mixed martial arts (MMA) wunderkind and dominant Light Heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, in the UFC 159 main event this Saturday night (April 27 2013) at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
For a long time, Sonnen was considered a journeyman, failing to ever acquire a major world title or even cracking the Top 10. And a quick submission loss to Demian Maia in his Octagon return in 2009 seemed to secure Sonnen's role as gatekeeper.
Then, it all changed.
Shortly thereafter, Sonnen dominated three straight opponents, two of them Top 10 Middleweights at the time (Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt). The streak earned him a title shot at 185-pound kingpin Anderson Silva, and he made the most of the opportunity, trash talking like no other right up until fight night at UFC 117 in Aug. 2010.
Sonnen somehow managed to back most of it up before losing to "Spider" via triangle/arm bar combination in the fifth and final round. Two more subsequent wins earned Sonnen another shot at Silva at UFC 148 in July 2012, as well as another loss.
These high-profile setbacks ruined the 36-year-old's chances at 185-pound UFC gold because it was unlikely he, like Rich Franklin before him, would ever receive another title shot.
However, the bum knee of Dan Henderson's changed all of that when 11 days before his fight with Jones at UFC 151, Sonnen's good friend and long-time training partner was forced to withdraw. Sonnen volunteered to fill in on ridiculously short notice, but Jones declined and the rest is, well, history.
Now, seven months later, Sonnen will get his third chance at a title. But, does he actually have the skills to pull off would would be considered a monumental MMA upset?
Let's find out:
Sonnen's striking serves one purpose: To open up the takedown. In that regard, it is excellent because Sonnen disguises his shot with punches better than most fighters. He is a southpaw who throws a hard right jab fairly often. Unlike most, Sonnen's jab is less of a range finder and more a damaging strike -- he puts a lot of his weight behind the strike and steps into it nicely.
In addition to following up his jab with a straight left, Sonnen likes to load up on an overhand left. Since this lowers his posture, it puts him in prime position to shoot for a takedown. As seen against Silva, this overhand is difficult to counter because his opponent doesn't want to get taken down.
One of Sonnen's better strikes is his lead straight left. Sonnen will set it up by either faking a jab or pressing forward and attempting to counter his opponents' strikes.
Sonnen frequently throws three-punch combinations. They often begin with a jab and are followed by a straight or overhand left. Then, Sonnen will finish the combination with a looping right hook or overhand. When Sonnen throw his three-punch combination, he covers a lot of distance, forcing his opponent closer to the cage.
This is pretty much the extent of Sonnen's boxing. He does throw some decent leg kicks and one spectacularly bad spinning back fist, but Sonnen isn't trying to knock out his opponent. It gets him close to his opponent, which is the important part, considering his elite wrestling.
On the other hand, Sonnen's dirty boxing is effective. Much like his ground-and-pound, Sonnen grinds away, landing uppercuts and short hooks to the body and head. Sonnen wears on his opponent until he feels an opening, then he drags him to the mat.
Sonnen earned All-American status at the University of Oregon and is decorated in Greco-Roman tournaments around the world. Sonnen has long been considered one of the best wrestlers in MMA, out-wrestling skilled grapplers like Okami, Marquardt and Michael Bisping.
Despite his Greco-Roman background, Sonnen has an excellent double leg takedown. When Sonnen is able to drive his opponent into the cage, he likes to yank his legs out from under him. Sonnen is more than willing to keep his opponent pinned against the cage for long periods of time, sapping his energy before dragging him down to the mat.
The most frequent, and best, takedown of "The American Gangster" is the double leg, driving his opponent across the Octagon and then turning the corner. Notice in the below .gifs how Sonnen's arm will lower on one of his opponent's leg and raise up on the other, depending on which direction he wants to drive.
While Sonnen can explode through takedowns, it isn't his strongest attribute. Instead, it's his ability to drive through his opponents continually. Sonnen can force elite opposition backward and maintain solid pressure until he turns a corner or hits the cage. This means that Sonnen can attempt multiple finishes to the same original shot, making his attempts much trickier. Check out this .gif of Sonnen driving through Silva even though he doesn't have his legs under him -- it takes some serious strength and will.
In addition to his double leg takedowns, Sonnen has excellent clinch takedowns. Sonnen is able to either overpower his opponent and slam him to the mat, or utilize misdirection and hit a sneaky trip from the clinch. Okami is a talented Judoka and wrestler, whose gameplan generally comprises grinding his opponent from the clinch. Sonnen manhandled "Thunder" so badly that Okami decided that training with Sonnen would be the best thing for his game.
Once Sonnen gets on top of his opponent, he never stops working. Sonnen constantly lands small punches and elbows, relentlessly chipping away at his opponent. One of Sonnen's favorite techniques is landing a barrage of short punches before posturing up and delivering a crushing elbow. Additionally, Sonnen works to pin down his opponents' defense, either by holding the biceps or kneeling on them. While attacking, Sonnen works very hard to maintain heavy top pressure, which makes escaping his grasp very difficult.
One of Sonnen's favorite ways to land ground-and-pound is to strike from the turtle position. Instead of attempting to take his opponents' back, a high risk/high reward position, Sonnen will stay tight and shelling his opponent with small punches. Sonnen uses this technique on skilled Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners such as Marquardt.
While Sonnen's takedown defense at middleweight was excellent, it will be interesting to see how he can defend takedowns at light heavyweight. According to FightMetric, the only person to score more than a single takedown against him in his entire UFC career is Renato Sobral, a light heavyweight.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu has long been Sonnen's bane. To help fortify this hole, Sonnen enlisted Brazilian grappling ace Vinicius Magalhaes to learn him the ropes.
And he has thus far showed marked improvement.
Sonnen recruited Magalhaes after his fifth round submission loss to Silva, a fight he would've won handily if he had survived the last two minutes. In his next fight against Brian Stann, Sonnen demonstrated new knowledge, repeatedly passing Stann's guard and taking his back. Then, he took advantage of the former Marine's improper arm placement and choked him out in the second round.
Sonnen's Brazilian jiu-jitsu improvements were also displayed in his Bisping and Silva fights. After two incredibly close rounds, Sonnen finally managed to hold down Bisping in the third. However, he didn't just grind Bisping, but passed his guard. Against Silva, Sonnen had a dominant first round, passing the Nogueira Brothers-trained black belt's guard into mount. These improvements may not be spectacular, but are still quite impressive for a fighter in his mid-30s who has been fighting since the late 1990s.
Unfortunately, a year or two with "Pezao" won't fix all of Sonnen's problems. Before I delve into his flaws, it is worth mentioning that all of the people who submitted Sonnen were really damn good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Other than Trevor Prangley and Forrest Griffin, who submitted Sonnen in 2003, the list of people who have tapped Sonnen includes Jeremy Horn, "Babalu" Sobral, Paulo Filho, Maia and Silva. Horn has 60 recorded submission finishes (and probably a few other unrecorded), while the others, minus Silva, are very decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu players.
Of Sonnen's submission losses, most are finished from his opponents' guards. The reason for this is Sonnen's aggression. Sonnen allows his opponent to control his posture or arms as long as it means he can hit them. This lets them set up their submissions, and once they lock them in, Sonnen isn't very good at breaking out of holds.
Sonnen is a grinder. In fact, he's one of the very best grinders in the sport. The reason he's so successful, in addition to his fantastic wrestling background, is that he can outwork his opponents. When Sonnen is working, either for a position or with ground-and-pound, he fights for inches harder than his opposition.
While mental toughness is necessary to be a successful grinder, it isn't enough. Sonnen, like any great grinder, has phenomenal cardio. Despite the fact that he cut a lot of weight for the majority of his career, Sonnen would still be the fresher fighter at the end.
In short, Sonnen's ability to hustle has made him arguably the most successful grinder in the sport's relatively young history.
Best chance for success
Everyone knows Sonnen is a major underdog. Frankly, he deserves to be. He hasn't fought at light heavyweight since 2005 and he was never very successful there in the first place.
The biggest key for Sonnen, and luckily one of his best attributes, is to pressure the champion. It is imperative that Sonnen presses Jones with his boxing at all times. He can't allow Jones to settle in, find his range and pick him apart.
As he attacks with punches, Sonnen should do his best to land a leg kick as often as humanly possible. Jones has skinny legs, and the few times he's been kicked, he doesn't seem to like it. While Sonnen isn't a powerful kicker, it can only be beneficial to slow the champion's movement.
As he pressures Jones, Sonnen needs to mix double leg takedowns into his assault. The biggest reason that Jones has never been taken down is that no one can get close enough to take a decent shot. If Sonnen can get in deep on Jones' hips, there is a very good chance he can drag him to the ground.
From there, he should be focused on pass and submitting. Jones has admitted that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is his biggest weakness, and while he is dangerous from top position, he is nowhere near those who have finished Sonnen from the bottom before. Sonnen's best chance in this fight is to somehow get "Bones" to the ground and quickly lock up a submission. Jones is one of the best finishers in the sport, meaning the odds of Sonnen grinding him to a decision are slim to none.
Will Sonnen pull off perhaps the largest upset in UFC history or will the sport's youngest champion continue his dominance?