He's received death threats from Brazil. He's pleaded guilty to money laundering. He's had his fighting license suspended. And he's compared his next UFC opponent, Michael Bisping of England, to Pip from "South Park."
Chael Sonnen arguably is the most outrageous figure in an outrageous league. He's also a former classmate of mine.
"I don't believe there's respect in fighting," the 34-year-old fighter told me by phone from his home in Oregon last week. "I think fighting is pretty primal. I think we're going to go out there half-naked and beat each other up for no reason other than a paycheck and the applause of a drunken audience, and I don't offer any apology for it."
Though we never hung out socially, Chael and I grew up together in the suburbs of Portland, Ore. We graduated from West Linn High School in the same class and both ended up at the University of Oregon, where Chael was an all-American wrestler.
As Chael has soared to international infamy—and, to be fair, inspired an army of fans—I've found it challenging to reconcile the guy I knew as just another kid in the high school hallway with the 6-foot-1, 185-pound middleweight fighter who last year taunted Brazilian rival Anderson Silva with this tweet: "Stick to what your country does best; like soccer or harboring infectious disease." (No wonder he's reviled in Brazil, right? Check out @sonnench for lots more tweets like that one.)
When I heard Chael would be on the fight card for Saturday's UFC event at the United Center, I thought this would be a good time to catch up. Naturally, we talked about what would happen if I sucker-punched him at our high school reunion. We also covered his insistence that he's never lost a fight and why he approves of Justin Bieber.
Where are you right now?
Everybody wants to know where I am. I'm in an undisclosed location doing undisclosed activities—also known as my bedroom. Changing my outfit because I've got to get to practice in 40 minutes. Have you ever had to deal with the Geek Squad for your computer? [Sonnen launches into a diatribe about the Geek Squad, finally concluding that "they're aces with me."] Now that I've wasted two minutes of your time, let's get into what's important ... me.
Are you a villain?
I sure hope so. I can tell you right now I'm wearing all black, and do you know why I'm in black?
I do not.
Because the bad guy always wears black.
So you don't just save it for fight day?
Well, it's usually reserved for fight day. I don't walk around my community with my chip on my shoulder, but when I get down to taking care of business I don't believe there's respect in fighting. I think fighting is pretty primal. I think we're going to go out there half-naked and beat each other up for no reason other than a paycheck and the applause of a drunken audience, and I don't offer any apology for it.
You're known for your brash talk. Do you have an influence, or are you self-taught?
Who knows what influences you, you know? You get influenced by everything in life. I had a good opportunity to get a good education, I've read a whole bunch of books, I see some TV shows, I'm a movie buff, I had good parents and cousins and relatives and aunts and uncles and a grandmother. Who influenced me I really don't know, but the bottom line with me as I see it is I just answer questions honestly and everybody else is a bunch of liars. There's a tremendous difference in what fighters say versus what fighters mean. Let me give you an example. You ever hear a fighter come out and say, "I don't want to leave it in the hands of the judges," and what the fighter means is, "I didn't train to go three rounds." Or you'll hear a fighter say, "I got a whole new team around me," and what the fighter really means is, "My old team deserted me." Or you'll hear a fighter say, "I had to go to training camp. I had to go into seclusion so that I wasn't distracted," and what he really means is, "My wife and kids drive me insane." So, I'll tell it like it is. You ask me a question, I'll tell you the way it really goes down. Some of these fighters try to act like they're respectful, but they're not. They're liars. And I can tell you, in the mean streets of West Linn, Ore., there's nothing respectful about a liar.
Those are some pretty mean streets, as I recall.
Do you ever talk to an opponent during a fight?
I can't remember a time that happened. I remember after a fight saying something to a guy like, "Good fight," paying him a compliment. But during the fight? No, it's all business. I'm a sportsman, and I believe in sportsmanship, and I want to do that. I wouldn't talk to a fighter or a referee. I'm out there to do my job, and they're out there to do theirs. I'm not out there to talk. I'm saving my energy and using it in other areas.
Your opponent Saturday was supposed to be Mark Munoz, but he was replaced by Bisping due to injury. Is that frustrating?