For months, the shtick has been familiar. Chael Sonnen has repeatedly lambasted Wanderlei Silva, his opponent in Saturday’s Bellator NYC pay-per-view event at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He’s taunted him about his looks, about his lack of intelligence, about his inability to fight. He’s questioned Silva’s work ethic. Any way that exists for one man to try to humiliate another, Sonnen has gone there.
His ability to work a microphone took him from a fascinating but unknown mid-card guy into one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts.
But as Sonnen makes his final preparations for Saturday’s bout, things are decidedly different.
Sonnen has lost two in a row and four of his last five. He’s served a lengthy suspension for performance-enhancing drug usage, which also cost him his job as an MMA analyst on Fox Sports 1.
He signed with Bellator last year for a chance to fight Tito Ortiz in January, and was choked out in just 2:03 of the first round after repeatedly trashing Ortiz’s ability.
He goes into Saturday’s bout with Silva, who himself has had drug-testing issues and hasn’t fought in more than four years, in desperate need of a win.
“You can’t go out and talk and not back it up, and that’s what happened to Chael in the Tito fight,” Bellator president Scott Coker said. “He knows what’s on the line here. He’s fighting a guy who is taking all of this very personally. They had an altercation in Brazil, and it wasn’t a good situation over there.
“Chael knows this guy is going to be gunning for him, but Chael also knows this is not a fight that he can lose. He can’t start his career here 0-2 and expect it to ramp up from there.”
Sonnen also finds himself needing to rebuild his credibility with the fan base. He hasn’t won since submitting Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on Aug. 17, 2013, in Boston. He was routed by Rashad Evans and Ortiz, losing in back-to-back first-round stoppages to both.
He’s vowed his PED issues are in the past, and successfully passed all tests given to him by the California State Athletic Commission prior to his Jan. 21 match versus Ortiz in Inglewood, California.
“I think you always do [need to perform] and I don’t know that I feel any more urgency in this fight than I usually do,” Sonnen said. “I felt I needed to perform against Tito and I feel that way for all of them. Generally, a good performance will get you a win. Not always, because sometimes you hit a home run and the other guy hits a grand slam. So I do always feel the need to perform each time out because of the type of business this is.
“Is it do or die for me here? I don’t feel any differently for this fight, because they’re all that way. When I was in the UFC, there was so much competition, if you weren’t winning, you weren’t in the UFC. I lost one fight in the UFC [on May 27, 2006] and they cut me. It can always be your last fight. A bad performance, a bad outcome and there’s always the chance that could be it. This is a cutthroat business and I don’t lie to myself about that reality.”
After getting cut following a loss to Jeremy Horn at UFC 60, Sonnen was re-signed by the promotion in 2009. He went 2-1 in his first three fights back, losing to Demian Maia before defeating Dan Miller and Yushin Okami back-to-back.
That led to a fight with Nate Marquardt on Feb. 6, 2010, where Sonnen’s career shifted. He was winning more than he was losing, but he wasn’t gaining popularity and largely was treading water.
He’d always been a bright, insightful guy with a gift of gab, but before the Marquardt fight, he’d made a dramatic change.
“I didn’t use to be grateful; I was angry all the time,” Sonnen said. “I’d hear who the media said was the best guy and I’d roll my eyes and say, ‘The media doesn’t know what they’re talking about. These guys you’re saying are great? They suck. They’re just the most known guys.’ That’s just a reality of this sport. And it struck me, ‘Hey, if the most known guy is the best guy, then there is a way to play that game.’ So I said, ‘Fine.’ I knew I couldn’t do anything about it and so I decided to play by those rules instead of resisting them.
“I found out that I had to be the most known guy. Since that was the way it worked, that’s what I did.”
Sonnen used his quick wit, modeling himself after legendary former WWWF champion “Superstar” Billy Graham and becoming the sport’s most preeminent trash-talker.
Sonnen talked so much prior to a middleweight title fight with Anderson Silva, the showed blew up and sold 600,00 on pay-per-view. The rematch was even bigger, selling 925,000. Though Sonnen had lost both bouts, he was a certified star.
But he also failed a post-fight drug test after that dramatic loss to Anderson Silva, and then became synonymous with the PED era in MMA when he failed back-to-back drug tests, testing positive for a cocktail of drugs. The UFC cut him, Fox Sports 1 fired him and it looked like he was finished.
Coker, who has banked on the marquee value of big-name fighters such as Ken Shamrock, Kimbo Slice, Ortiz and Sonnen while rebuilding Bellator, gave him another shot.
But that’s all it was, a shot. He doesn’t have a job for life. At some point, he needs to turn things around and begin winning or risk being sent packing.
“I thought I was ready for that Tito fight, and it’s hard to pinpoint, if I’m being honest, what went wrong,” Sonnen said. “He’s terrible, but he beat me fairly. It was a fair fight, and he won. Nobody loses to Tito but I lost to Tito. The guy is terrible, which I guess means I’m terrible. I’ve had to live with losing to that guy. It was tough to swallow, but when I walked to the locker room that night, I said, ‘This is never going to happen again.’
“Whatever I have to do, however hard I have to work to do it, I’m not going to let that happen again. It was one of those things where I said, ‘OK, what do I do? Am I going to sit here in this place that I am and get stuck in a crack or do I change what I’m doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ ”
Sonnen flew home to Oregon the next day and resumed training.
He’s been around long enough to know that anything can happen, but swears he’s in a good place.
“I have created the situation I’m in myself, and I have to pull myself out of it,” he said. “It’s going to be hard, but fortunately, I have a punching bag like Wanderlei to beat up on and help me get back on the right track.”
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