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Chael Sonnen: ‘Guys sucked back then’ when Tito Ortiz was UFC champion

Chael Sonnen (EL, MMA Fighting) Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The month of January is shaping up to be a throwback month of sorts in the fight world, with the returns of B.J. Penn, Chael Sonnen, and Tito Ortiz all falling within the same seven-day stretch on the calendar.

Penn’s comeback at UFC Fight Night 103 certainly did not inspire. He lost badly to Yair Rodriguez on Sunday. But now Sonnen and Ortiz are slated to pick up the mantle with a Jan. 21 grudge match set to headline Bellator 170, and there is no doubt they will face many of the same questions that surrounded Penn — questions wondering whether the present day versions of themselves are significantly lesser versions of the fighters who once ruled over the sport.

Ahead of Bellator 170, Sonnen acknowledged that while those matters are certainly fair topics to discuss, he also believes they may be simplifying a broader reality.

“I’ve trained with B.J. Penn,” Sonnen said Monday on The MMA Hour. “He came out to Oregon. Not only did I get my hands on him, but I watched him go with Evan Tanner, Randy Couture, go through the list, and I can tell you, he was as good as the hype. He was said to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and he was. But it does go quickly. So, is Tito a lesser guy? I would listen to that argument. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I would listen.

“The other side of that is, those guys sucked back then. It just was a different deal, man. I mean, people weren’t watching, people weren’t participating. It was just a different deal in terms of, not only the techniques, the training, the coaching, but the level of athlete as well. And you do have some guys from back then who got a really good run, and Tito was the best. There was no one who could beat him, but it just also is a true statement to say that guys were not very good back then.”

Both Sonnen and Ortiz, like Penn, originated in an era before the mass popularization of MMA, when there were few rules and weight classes were more akin to suggestions than guidelines. Their paths ultimately differed, as Ortiz’s rise in the UFC long preceded Sonnen’s star-making rivalry with Anderson Silva. But Ortiz was always in Sonnen’s long view, largely due to a promise Sonnen made to his dying father about becoming a world champion and defeating Ortiz. That same promise has become one of the emotional cornerstones of Bellator 170.

“It came from a good place too. Tito took is as an insult, but he actually heard it wrong,” Sonnen said. “My dad and I were big Tito fans, and at that time, there were only two divisions. You had the light heavyweight division, you had the heavyweight division. There was no other classes, and even the light heavyweight was relatively new. It used to just be openweight. You remember Royce Gracie? It didn’t matter what a guy weighed. I don’t think there even was a weigh-in.

“So, yeah, Tito was the guy and I was planning to get to him sooner than later. It just took all these years. It took me a long time to get my break. I didn’t get my break until 2005, so that’s just kind of life. I’m sitting here complaining about it, but every fighter listening to this knows what I mean. It’s hard to get into this industry.”

While Sonnen never quite achieved his dream of becoming UFC champion, he undoubtedly left a lasting mark on the sport. His promotional fire and the hysteria he built around his fights in his heyday were wholly unique, influencing a younger generation and teaching fighters everywhere about the importance of self-promotion in an inherently selfish game.

Despite being out of the fight game for nearly four years, Sonnen has returned with the same microphone vigor in the lead-up to Bellator 170. And while the efforts of his dance partner have often led to bumbling results, he at least gives Ortiz credit for trying to do his part.

“I’ve appreciated his effort,” Sonnen said. “I really have. There has been a lot of fumbles in there, but the effort is there, the passion is there. He means it. It’s serious. When it’s a guy’s last fight, there is something extra that he’s taken with him, particularly when you’re fighting essentially in your hometown in front of all your people. So I’ve appreciated his effort, but yeah, man, there’s been some blunders. He isn’t the most eloquent speaker that I’ve come across.

“Everybody’s approach is different, and you can’t sit back and judge one guy’s approach because all you’re doing is projecting your own. I can tell you, for me, I’ve done this a lot of times. I’ve done this a lot more times than Tito, regardless of whether he got his break first or not. I think he’s had twenty-something fights. I’ve fought 49 men. … Your skills are your skills. This is what wins fist fights, and it’s not anything else than that. So, I understand that concept, and if I can get people to tune to watch, then great. But either way, on Jan. 21st, I’m going to whip Tito’s ass.”

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