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After three years away, Chael Sonnen admits he had ‘some deer in the headlights’ moments at Bellator 170

Bellator 170 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Chael Sonnen’s long-anticipated return to mixed martial arts ended in disappointment.

Sonnen lost to Tito Ortiz in the main event of Bellator 170 on Saturday night, tapping to a first-round rear-naked choke in his first fight since Nov. 2013. The performance threw cold water on what was supposed to be a grand return for Sonnen, but after spending over three years on the sidelines, “The American Gangster” was able to at least glean a few positives from an otherwise frustrating debut in the Bellator cage.

“Look, tonight is helpful for me,” Sonnen said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. “I’ve been out for three years, and this was a long-term play for me. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I need to get those minutes in. I thought I did it in the practice room, and I had some deer in the headlights (moments) out there.

“After three years, it’s just the way that it goes. So I’ll be in the practice room on Monday, and I’ll use it to get better.”

Sonnen, 39, inked a six-fight deal with Bellator MMA this past September, ending his lengthy and often controversial relationship with the UFC and giving Bellator one of its most unexpected free agent signings of 2016.

Bellator 170, marketed as a grudge match between longtime MMA veterans Sonnen and Ortiz, represented the first fight of Sonnen’s Bellator deal, and much was made about a 20-year history of animosity between the two leading into the contest, as well as the fact that it would be the final fight of Ortiz’s decorated career.

But while Sonnen had his moments in the bout, including an early sequence where he seized upon both D’arce and guillotine choke attempts, the fairytale comeback ultimately wasn’t meant to be. Ortiz quickly escaped any danger, reversed the positions, and captured the fight-ending submission on Sonnen with a tight squeeze.

“I wanted to get out there and get the experience. I fully expected to win this,” Sonnen said. “I had great coaches and a great camp, and I got caught in a position that I couldn’t get out of.

“I thought that a guillotine would be a good option. I worked on it a lot. Tito’s also had his neck bother him. He talked about that, I thought maybe that was a good opportunity, but I couldn’t get my leg on the right side. I had my hand where I wanted it, it just didn’t work out and he reversed it.”

At one time, Sonnen was considered to be one of the biggest stars in the sport of mixed martial arts, and in his heyday, his rivalry with former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva propelled both fighters into international prominence. But a pair of failed drug tests in 2014 led “The American Gangster” to walk away from the game, and he has since spent a majority of his time working within various roles outside of the cage, whether in media or as a promoter.

And ultimately, all of that time away was too big of a hurdle to overcome.

“I would say the first four or five months of retirement, I wasn’t (training),” Sonnen said. “I really thought, you know, I think I’m done, I think my race is ran. And I changed my mind, but that was a long time ago. I’ve had years; years and years. But the speed is different. The speed is different when you’re sparring as opposed to going live. And that’s just a reality. I knew I needed to get some minutes in. I thought I was going to have good minutes tonight. I thought I could beat Tito. I thought I had good positions on him and he had a good position on me, and I accept the result. It was a fair contest.”

While Sonnen acknowledged that Ortiz clung to the fight-ending choke longer than necessary in the moments after Sonnen tapped, he said he wasn’t upset by it and that he harbored no ill feelings toward Ortiz.

Sonnen also confirmed that he still intends to face another longtime rival, Wanderlei Silva, in his next Bellator attraction, however he demurred when faced with the prospect of promoting the potential bout.

“I don’t want to use this as a platform to get something going with Wanderlei. This is Tito’s night,” Sonnen said. “It’s his birthday and he retired, and he won fair and square. I was completely ready for the contest. I had great coaches, great training, and I don’t think I was too small. Tito thought I was too small for him, I don’t think I was too small. I think that he got a position, I think he won the position. As far as Wanderlei goes, yeah, I’m going to fight Wanderlei the next time I see Wanderlei. But again, I’m the loser tonight. I’m not here to promote anything, man. This is Tito’s night and it’s tough.

“Coming to a press conference when you lose is tough, but it’s protocol. And we all follow different codes. And I will say whatever I want before a fight, but by God, I will walk out there and answer for it. And if it doesn’t go my way, I will show up at the press conference and hang my head as well. But this is Tito’s night.”

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