After his evolution into MMA's Mouth That Roared, Chael Sonnen surprised many with his relative silence in the final weeks leading up to UFC 148. During fight week, he revealed to MMA Fighting that the change was the result of a phone call from Renzo Gracie which caused him to re-think his approach.
On Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, Gracie said the point of the call was simply to help Sonnen refocus on the fight ahead of its marketing.
Gracie, who first met Sonnen years ago during his Pancrase days in Japan, said that Sonnen had always struck him as a "great kid," both bright and open to advice. They'd spent some time together during the short-lived International Fight League, where he'd come to believe in Sonnen's fighting abilities. Because of those experiences, he found himself a bit dismayed by the negative perception of Sonnen by the media and fans. But he also realized Sonnen was fanning the flames with his own words. In Gracie's view, it was unnecessary, so with just less than three weeks until fight time, he dialed Sonnen and imparted a few words of wisdom.
"You have to understand, he is one of the most humble guys I've ever seen," Gracie said. "He understood, agreed and completely changed."
But what exactly did Gracie say? He simply reminded Sonnen of his priority.
"It's very easy to get lost when you start talking trash," he said. "It's very easy to get lost of the real focus. So, in reality, I didn’t call to tell him to chill. I called to show the goal that he should be aiming for. He’s a great kid, he listened and showed that he can be an unbelievable professional when he needs to."
Gracie acknowledged the role of Sonnen's comments in his rise as an MMA phenomenon, noting that "if he didn't talk that much, the fight wouldn't have happened," saying it's a difficult balance to strike when it comes to marketing a fight and preparing for the actual physical combat. And in his view, Sonnen tipped too far to the former. In fact, Gracie regretted not calling him much earlier in the fight camp to offer the same advice.
As evidence of Sonnen's mistaken approach, he offered up the results. Although Sonnen easily won the first round of the rematch, he threw an ill-advised spinning back fist in the second that changed the complexion of the bout. It was a move that is out of the norm for Sonnen, and it was the kind of thing that Gracie wonders could have changed with more focus during the preparation phase.
"In the first round he completely dominated, and it shows the caliber of fighter he is," he said. "He was mounted in the first round. I know him, he could’ve done it for the five rounds if it was necessary. But when you end up getting lost in the media frenzy of talking trash and promoting the fight and insulting people, you end up losing the focus of the job that you have and the task you have ahead of you.
"When you hit that wall -- and fighting Anderson is always going to be tough -- so when you hit that wall of toughness, if you're mind is not 100 percent there, it's difficult to keep it up," he continued. "In reality, I thought that’s what happened to him. Even though he had all the tools, his mind wasn't there 100 percent."
Gracie went on to say that he still believes Sonnen has all of the qualities to become a champion, and that he should not consider retirement.
As far as his own status as an active fighter, the 45-year-old, who hasn't fought since an April 2010 loss to Matt Hughes, says he's prepping for one more go in the cage.
"I'm starting to get in good shape now," he told host Ariel Helwani. "The only reason I'm not sweating with the boys now here at the Academy is because I'm talking to you. I should be on the mat with them right now."