Ahead of his UFC middleweight title fight against champion Anderson Silva at UFC 117 in August 2010, Sonnen was a whirlwind of controversial comments, outlandish outcries and, well, near lunacy.
Sonnen came closer than anyone before him in the UFC to stopping Silva, but his submission loss was followed by a suspension for elevated testosterone levels. And that was followed by a plea deal for money laundering in a mortgage fraud case. Is it possible that Sonnen has mellowed out?
Brian Stann, Sonnen's opponent at UFC 136 next Saturday in Houston, thinks it's a case of selective mellowing based on who Sonnen is fighting.
"I told everybody from the start I didn't think (the trash talk) was going to happen," Stann said Friday on a media call for the pay-per-view. "I said this a couple times. I believe Chael is very genuine when he says if he has a problem with somebody, he'll speak it. If he doesn't have a problem with somebody, he won't. You saw his fights against Nate Marquardt, Dan Miller and Yushin Okami, he didn't have anything to say about those guys. He spoke about the fight. So it wasn't surprising to me at all that didn't happen. And I wouldn't have taken it personally, anyway. I really think that our skill sets and the way that we fight has generated all the hype it needs."
When it comes to Stann, Sonnen (25-11-1, 4-4 UFC) has steered clear of any kind of trash talk. In fact, he'd actually prefer to not have to fight the war hero, who is on a three-fight winning streak. And he believes the same goes for the rest of the middleweight division.
"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 quit beating everybody, I wouldn't have to fight him. But he decided to go out and become one of the top guys. I've done my part and put my time in and I'm up there too, so our paths have to cross."
With so much time off between fights, Sonnen said he's happy to be back on the job, but admitted there's no excitement that comes along with a task the likes of Stann (11-3, 5-2 UFC). It's possible the winner will get the next crack at Silva – a rematch for Sonnen, and the biggest fight of his career for Stann, the former WEC light heavyweight champion.
With Stann on a three-fight streak, all stoppages with a submission win over Mike Massenzio and convincing TKOs of Chris Leben and Jorge Santiago earlier this year, it's no wonder Sonnen won't use the word "excited" about his first fight in more than a year.
"I don't know that I ever look forward to (fighting)," Sonnen said. "I hear some guys say they're excited (to fight), and I always get jealous of those guys. I've never been excited to have to go fight another man. I'm not excited now. I'm happy to be part of it – I got put in timeout for a while, and I'm glad that's all over and behind me. But I go with a matter-of-fact approach – I'm not excited for the match. It's a bunch of emotions that get combined into one, and excitement isn't one of them."
A brasher Sonnen, circa Summer 2010, might have approached such a question differently. And it just might be possible that Sonnen's out-of-the-cage problems have him taking a different approach to how he portrays himself to the public. Possible.
"The happy part is, this is what I want to do and I got held out of it for a while," Sonnen said. "I've always been grateful for these opportunities, but I think I'm a little more grateful now. Appreciative would be a much stronger feeling that I'm having – to make up for the excitement."
Sonnen has even relaxed his stance on Silva – though make no mistake, a win over Stann and a possible rematch with his old nemesis would likely see him return to the Sonnen of old.
Sonnen said Silva has to be respected – but he still believes he's better than the champion, who beat Yushin Okami last month, whom Sonnen helped train for the title fight.
"It's getting harder and harder to deny he should be shown that appreciation," Sonnen said. "He ducked Okami for years, but he did finally get in there and he made it look easy. So I think you've got to look at that. If you're asking if I'd ever concede that Anderson's better than me, no. I would refer you to the tape (of our fight). I think he and I are vastly different and that I could come down a lot and still be ahead of him. I also think he ducks and dodges opponents constantly, but his wins and losses speak for themselves. The fact of the matter, whether I like to admit this or not, is he's done a better job than anybody, done a better job than me, and he is the champion.
"It doesn't mean I'm going to quit poking my finger in his chest, but at some point I think fairness needs to kick in, too, and you need to look at what he's done and tip your hat to him a little bit."
What Sonnen hopes for more than anything is a win over Stann, and a chance to let that finger poking start up once again.
Sonnen and Stann fight on the main card of UFC 136 on Oct. 8 at the Toyota Center in Houston. The main card is headlined by a pair of title fights – the lightweight title rematch between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, and a featherweight title fight between Jose Aldo and Kenny Florian.
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