Chael Sonnen, at times, may have given off a brash persona while he was making headlines, insulting Brazilian fighters and trash talking his way into title fights as a UFC middleweight contender. But when you speak with him outside of that element, he is anything but that.
He is just as articulate and quick, very respectful, but perhaps a touch more reserved.
Now retired from competition after a run in with Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), which produced a positive test for banned substances -- which also cost him his job as a UFC commentator for FOX Sports -- "The Bad Guy" returns this coming Friday (Oct. 3, 2014) as a color analyst alongside pro wrestling legend Jim Ross at BattleGrounds MMA.
Streaming live on pay-per-view (PPV), the card will feature a one night, eight-man tournament with the winning welterweight pocketing $50,000.
In the half hour or so interview, we would talk about a variety of topics, mostly MMA related, but being a dog owner (and lover) I asked Sonnen something completely off topic. A question about a line from his book, "The Voice Of Reason, A VIP Pass To Enlightenment," about wishing that his dog could speak to him.
"I'm sitting in a chair right now in my living room and the little monster is in my lap and every day I work on his English," Sonnen said. "I'll even tell him, I'll say 'we got to work on your English. You have to learn more words.' Yeah man, it's fun. I love it when animals communicate. Even if it's my cats and they are hungry and they come and meow. If they ever communicate with me in any fashion they will get whatever they want. Whether it's a treat, inside or out, whatever they want as long as they communicate I'll get out of bed and do it for them because I just love it."
After hearing that, it's hard not to picture Sonnen sitting like a mad genius, maybe similar to how Dr. Evil sits and pets Mr. Bigglesworth as he talks throughout the interview. It would certainly befit his reputation as being one of the best fight promoters and trash talkers in the sport's history. A longtime professional wrestling fan, Sonnen often channeled his "Superstar" Billy Graham during his interviews and never failed to entertain. WWE Hall of Fame announcer, Jim Ross, a huge MMA fan, took notice over the years and requested only to work with Sonnen for the upcoming BattleGrounds event.
Ross said he wanted someone with talent who wouldn't resent him for coming over from pro wrestling.
"I was very flattered by that and really excited," said Sonnen, who will make his debut as a color analyst on the BattleGrounds broadcast. "I got to work with some great people over the years but as far as broadcasting goes, nobody even close to the experience and the knowledge that he has. He will definitely be the captain of this ship and I expect to get better at my job through working with him."
Sonnen was informed that Ross referred to him as his "Kevin Durant," saying he need only to get him the ball to make the announcing duo a success.
"Well that is nice of him," he said. "I think that is our plan. He will steer the ship. I'm just a big fan. I'm excited any time I get to watch this sport and particularly to participate. I would much rather participate. I'm just happy to do it. To work with Jim is just a thrill."
The retired fighter has excelled behind the mic whether it be live interviews, pre and post-fight shows, or co-hosting UFC Tonight with Kenny Florian. He has done as well as anyone can do in a very short amount of time, but calling the action as it unfolds live and providing expert analysis and opinion on the spot is not something he has done before. Never one to back down from a challenge, Sonnen looks forward to the experience.
"There is an excitement about that and I know the first time I went on TV I thought, 'Well this is nothing. You are just sitting here and talking a little bit and every now and then you have to look up to the camera,'" he said. "There are a lot of moving parts and there are a lot of things that happen to make sure you find those cameras and you find them on time and you get in and you get out. Hiding your excitement at times, because I am a fan and when I see something I get excited about it and I enjoy it. When I see a guy set something up and go for a specific technique and it works out."
"I think you're right, this is different. Every time you do an interview as a fighter, before the fight, after the fight, whether you are doing commentary in the studio or doing live fights. The pinnacle of live sports for this space, for broadcasting, the pinnacle of sports is to call live events. Jon Anik has talked to me about that a number of times. He's been on every side of the mic and he just says 'nothing beats a live event.' I'm looking forward to it. I don't really know how it is going to go, but I am looking to have some fun."
The one night, eight-man tournament that features Cody McKenzie, Randall Wallace, Jesse Taylor, Joe Ray, Brock Larson, Trey Houston, Roan Carneiro, and Luigi Firoravanti will be MMA's first in years. The story of one man having to best three foes in order to win and earn the $50,000 payout has already been laid out and will be a giving narrative to the brand-new announcing duo come fight night. Being a throwback from the late nineties and having fought in a couple of them himself, Sonnen knows all too well the pros and cons of steering through the bracket as a competitor.
Now he will do it wearing a suit behind a microphone.
"I agree with you. We are basically the same age and I have a feeling that you also started back in the tournament days as a viewer in the beginning. I love the tournament. The tournament largely doesn't work for exactly the reasons that you stated. Exactly why the tournament is exciting is also why it fails and that is guys are banged up and they are sore and tired. It's very hard to fight three men in one night and the guys that have stepped forward and have agreed to do it have my respect right out of the gate. If you look at an environment and a situation that is difficult to try and you raise your hand and say ‘I'm in,' I really respect that. The key to it is to uphold your end of the deal and your end of the deal is no matter if you feel like it or not, if you advance to the next round you walk out there and compete. Whether you feel like it or not, when the finals come around you leave that locker room when they call your name."
"That's the struggle and that's also what the enjoyment is from the viewer's standpoint. You are not just watching MMA. You are watching a guy deal with adversity; you are watching a guy chasing a dream; you are watching a guy follow through on his word and you are going to watch somebody become a star. There is only a handful of guys. I think I can probably count them on both hands that have ever won an eight-man tournament in this sport. They're rare. They don't exist. They went away a long time ago and I don't care if it's eight guys from your neighborhood, if you beat three guys in one day the world is going to respect you. It's a remarkable feat."
Sonnen spoke about his tournament experience at IFC: "Global Domination" back in 1993. He didn't make it out of the first round that night, losing by submission in the opening frame, but he will always remember the fighter who won the whole thing.
"I lost in the very first round, but it was won by a guy named Babalu (Renato Sobral)," Sonnen recalled. "I don't care if Babalu never won another fight, I will never look at him the same. Until the day we die I will always look at Babalu different. He beat Shogun. He beat Trevor Prangley, and he beat Jeremy Horn all in the same night. I was in there. Forrest Griffin was in there. There were a couple of other studs in there and Babalu won the whole thing. Again, you can count the guys that have won eight-man tournaments on two fingers. You wouldn't need to go to your toes or get a cheat sheet out. It just doesn't happen very much."
"The West Linn Gangster" offered some advice for those competing.
"My encouragement to these guys, if I was able to talk to them beforehand, I would just say, ‘Remember how you feel today because next Friday at 7 p.m. you are going to feel the same but at 8 p.m. you are not. But you gave your word. You said you would do it. Don't quit in the back.' A lot of guys in tournaments -- if they advance to the next round and they don't walk out -- they don't look at it as a loss, but it is. You are forfeiting. It is absolutely a loss. You've got to go out there and fight through it. It's a really, really neat thing for the guy that can. There is going to be a star. Whoever wins this tournament will be a star instantly."
Being a star is something the 29-14-1 retired fighter is quite familiar with. After the all the pre-fight hype and first title fight against Anderson Silva, he went on a meteoric rise like none the sport had ever seen at that point in time. His popularity soared to great heights and other opportunities began to appear for him. He had his book and when UFC launched their deal with FOX Sports 1, he had a co-host chair on the weekly show UFC Tonight. A place was set for him after his fighting career was finished, but the itch to fight and compete was still there.
"The desire was still there," he said. "I love to compete. Even now I look forward to competing and it's a lot of fun. I don't know if it's something that ever goes away. I'll tell you something that does go away, is the desire to train. It's really, really hard and it's depressing. There were years just day after day for years waking up depressed knowing what I had to do that day."
He could have that gig at UFC Tonight for as long as he wanted, but after the failed tests with the NSAC, he was let go from FOX Sports. The desire to fight kept him active, but he had a set age that he wanted to fight until.
"I had a goal," said Sonnen, who lost to Rashad Evans in his last fight. "I wanted to get to 40. That was a meaningful goal for me and it wasn't always about the championship. There are other goals that you set for yourself and boy I can tell you I tried. Eventually, you just have enough."
Like anyone in life, Sonnen wishes he had done some things differently.
"I think anything in life, whenever you can look back you would always change things," he said. "Even some of the great moments. You wish that they were even greater. I don't have a lot. I think about that a lot. If I would've trained differently. I was always kind of lucky. I was always in a good situation. Coming out of college and ending up in the same room as Randy Couture and Dan Henderson on a daily basis for free. I had no money. They didn't charge me. It was just a couple of guys that were getting together and working out. Henderson was the PRIDE champion. Randy was the UFC champion. I really have some great memories and I was really fortunate to be surrounded with people that I love."
The new gig with BattleGrounds MMA allows the former UFC title contender to do what he loves to do, "be involved" with the sport. He loves to work and said he "misses the structure of working towards a goal" as a fighter. He brought up working as a plumber through college and how he preferred to be "digging ditches" and "carrying pipe" and "hated the weekend" because he wasn't working.
"I love to be involved," Sonnen said. "I like to participate in this sport. When I started in this sport it was just a hobby. There was no money. There was no fame. There was no anything. I was a wrestler that got done with his wrestling career. I would've stayed in wrestling but I wasn't in an environment to practice it anymore. I love MMA. I'm still with the UFC and I'm under contract. I love it. It's like I tell Dana, anytime he calls me and it's time to talk business, I say I'm there. I just want to participate. You have a job for me and I'll do it and whatever the number is, the number is. I don't ever negotiate with Dana White or any of those guys."
"It's what I love to do. I don't have a lot of hobbies. I don't have a lot of friends. I hate days off. I hate them. If I have a day off I just dread it. I would prefer to be out there and working. Talking about the new talent coming up or the current talent that is already there. It's a passion of mine. I'm enjoying this call that we are having right now. I could talk to you all day about this sport. It's not a job for me. It's fun. I like to be involved from any side that I can."
"I like being on the go. I hate days off. Dana White works very close to 24 hours a day and he will get a hold of me at crazy hours. He will get a hold at me at two in the morning sometimes. He's still in the office. He'll call me from his office line. I'll talk to him. I'll do whatever we have to do. One time I asked him, 'Why are you up?' He goes, 'Chael, I honestly hate sleep.' That was all he said. I just said 'okay' and hung up the phone. I don't hate sleep. I like to sleep, but boy I hate days off. There is nothing worse for me than a day off."
Whether or not BattleGrounds is a hit on Friday, or if he gets another gig like that or UFC Tonight, Sonnen is a smart man and has already planned for his future and won't worry if he gets another opportunity or he doesn't. He will also cherish the memories of the ones that he did have.
"I guess my point when I think about what I will do for life or things like that," he said. "I'm a real estate guy. I live in the same house now that I lived in before I was in the UFC. I drive the same car now that I had before I was ever with the UFC. Every dollar I made I've been very lucky in the sport. I've put it into real estate and all these plans for the future and things like that. When you talk about a job you can confuse what somebody means. How are you going to earn a living or how are you going to spend your time? I like to be involved with the sport, but I don't own those companies. FOX can hire whoever they want and I don't have any hard feelings, I only have great memories and great experiences and that's it."
Lastly, Sonnen was asked if he has given thought to his path and how all things happen for a reason. Had things not happened like the suspension by the NSAC or losing his gig at FOX Sports, he may not have had an opportunity to work with a legend like Jim Ross.
"I think that is very fair. Another expression is where one door closes another one opens," he said. "There seems to be some truth with that. For Jim, he was a high-level executive in a billion-dollar company and had a little hand in running things over in the WWE for a number of years. He is a huge fight fan. Not just MMA, but boxing as well. He called one boxing event on the De La Hoya promotions. He called it for FOX Sports 1. It got huge ratings and he did a great job. I'm quite sure if he doesn't already have offers to do that again, he certainly will. He's a talented guy."
"I always like to get better. Whatever I'm doing. I like to get better and learn. Kind of like MMA, I was always surrounded by the best guys. I couldn't help but get better. As long as I showed up every day I would go to bed every night a little bit better than when I woke up. That's one of the neat things with Jim. I'm going to get better. He's going to be a great coach and a great mentor and I'm looking forward to working with him. If something comes up in the future, I'm sure we will both be thrilled to do it again."