Chael Sonnen is fighting on Saturday, and he has nothing bad to say about his opponent. It’s hard to determine which is the more significant piece of news.
Sonnen has spent much of the last couple of years offering biting comments to nearly every reporter to offer a live microphone or recorder. And when he hasn’t been talking, he’s been facing problems away from the cage. First, he was suspended by the California state athletic commission for a failed drug test stemming from testosterone replacement therapy. Then, he dealt with legal issues that resulted in a guilty plea to a federal money laundering case in an agreement that sentenced him to probation.
It was all part of a very rough year for Sonnen, who started it all off with a middleweight title loss to Anderson Silva. The troubles cost him dearly. Not only did he lose out on several potential paydays after being suspended. Not only did he have his reputation damaged by his legal woes. But he also lost out on an expected championship rematch with Silva after being suspended by the UFC.
It’s finally over. The storm cloud is lifting. But things won’t immediately get easier for Sonnen, who will be welcomed back to the octagon at Saturday’s UFC 136 by Brian Stann.
Since moving to middleweight, the surging Stann (11-3) has forced everyone to take notice, finishing all three of his opponents, and forcing his name into the contenders’ conversation.
His rise hasn’t been lost on Sonnen. The brash Oregonian usually has something to say about whoever might be standing in his way. But when it comes to Stann, Sonnen has held back on any negativity. In fact, he’s been nothing but complimentary.
“Nobody wants to fight Brian, but somebody's got to,” Sonnen said. “Our paths have to cross. We're just in the same weight class. It's not that big of a pool. And he keeps whipping everybody. If he quits beating everybody, then I wouldn't have to fight him, but he decided to go out and become one of the top guys. So, I've done my part, put my time in, and I'm up there too. So, our paths have to cross.”
In the leadup to this fight, Sonnen has come across as though he’s genuinely contrite, or at least appreciative of his second chance. But Stann has never made it easy for anyone to target him for trash-talk. He is a decorated American war hero after serving in the Marine Corps. He is a former WEC champion. And he serves as president of Hire Heroes USA, a non-profit group that helps with transitions and employment for US military veterans.
Still, the stakes are huge. The two are essentially competing in a title contenders’ eliminator fight, and the winner may well get the next crack at Silva.
So, Sonnen has the chance to reclaim an opportunity he might have thought he lost for good. Surprisingly though, his trademark swagger has been gone, replaced by candid concerns about re-entering the public eye in a bout that will redirect the course of his career for better or worse.
“There's an emotion there that's strong, but it's not fear, it's not apprehension,” he said. “I don't know what it is. Maybe it is a little of that. It's a whole bunch of combinations of emotions that get combined into one. But excitement isn't one of them. The happy part is look, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do and I got held out of it for a while.’ So, I've always been grateful for these opportunities, but I think I'm a little more grateful now. I think I'm a little more appreciative. Appreciative would be a much stronger feeling that I'm having than any type of excitement.”
For Stann, it will be his sternest test since facing Phil Davis in February 2010. That match showed Stann he needed extensive work on his wrestling, and he says it’s been his biggest focus over the last two years. Against Sonnen, he’s going to need it. Wrestling is his strongest discipline, and successfully lands 62 percent of his takedown attempts.
“What happens in fighting is, early in my career I had a very, very limited skill set, but I was very comfortable with that skill set so I could fight at 100 miles per hour,” Stann said. “When you then go somewhere where you're introduced to thousands of new skills, you become OK at all 1000 of them and you're trying to do way too much in the cage and you fight now at 70 miles per hour. It took me some time, but when I began to get comfortable with all these new skills, now I can fight 100 miles per hour again.”
Sonnen immediately jumped in after Stann’s statement, saying he could identify with the feeling of the world freezing up on you. It’s been that way for Sonnen for a while, stuck in time, facing purgatory, his mouth moving at an unfamiliar speed.
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