(Photo courtesy of DaviRusso.com)
Chael Sonnen returns to the UFC this Saturday night after an eventful stay in the WEC. After outpointing a seemingly confused Paulo Filho in his last WEC bout, Sonnen now takes on submissions ace Demian Maia at UFC 95, in a fight Sonnen swears will determine who the world’s best middleweight is. That other guy, the one wearing the belt? He’s not bad either, according to Sonnen, but whoever wins this fight is the real top dog. At least, that’s the story Sonnen’s telling in our exclusive talk with him, which is sometimes surprising, but never boring.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with me, Chael. What’s it like to come back to the UFC again? Does it feel like it did the first time you fought in the big show?
No, it doesn’t, and thank goodness. The first time I was in the UFC I really felt that weight on me, and I think it had a negative effect. It was exciting, but I think in a negative way. It might have created an atmosphere that made me a little apprehensive, but it’s not like that this time, and I’m very glad.
Leaving the WEC as you did after that strange fight with Paulo Filho, do you feel like you went out on a bad note?
Well, I’d have to watch the fight again. I don’t remember it extremely clearly. I know that right after the fight I had a bad feeling. It wasn’t the type of match that I’d ever been in before. It was a weird experience and it kind of left me with a strange feeling. But as time has gone on, looking back, there are plenty of positives for me to take away from it, and that’s what I remember now. I don’t remember too much of the bad stuff. But I do remember the upside, competing hard, having a good gameplan, and beating a guy that no one had ever been able to beat. Looking back there are more pluses for me than there were immediately after the fight.
So were you aware of how oddly he was acting during the fight?
No, I wasn’t. The entire time I thought it was a trick or a trap. I thought he was playing possum. There was never a time in that fight where I was comfortable or relaxed. I was on my toes the whole time waiting for something. I really thought he was setting something up.
By showing up to fight in that condition, do you feel like he robbed you of the chance to have a real rematch and claim the title as the true WEC middleweight champ?
Well, to take his title, when he didn’t make weight, you know, there went that. Rules are rules. But as far as did it take away a real chance to beat him, no. He didn’t come in to that fight with anything wrong with him. He stated that, his manager stated that, his trainers stated that. He came in to the fight at 100%. I took him out of that fight in the first couple of minutes.
He was very set on getting a takedown, and he couldn’t get it. He was very set on working on the ground, and the fight didn’t stay there long. He got frustrated and cracked during the fight, not coming in. I know a lot of people have tried to let him off the hook, maybe acting like there was something up when he walked to the cage, but there wasn’t. Even according to him, he got in there at 100%. I broke him.
Now you’re going against another good jiu-jitsu fighter in Demian Maia. What are expecting from him and how do you plan to deal with his dangerous submissions?
Both good questions, and I don’t know that I know the answer to the second one yet. I’m still formulating a plan to deal with all his abilities. What do I expect out of him? Probably to see a little more than we’ve seen so far. He’s very good at what he does, but I think he’s got more skills than he’s shown. You just go back to the fights he’s had and he looks like a pure jiu-jitsu guy. I think he has more tricks in his bag, he just hasn’t had to use them. He’ll have to use them against me. He’ll have to bring out more techniques on his feet.
Does that mean your goal is to keep the fight standing the entire time?
No, I’ve watched his tapes and I know I’m just not going to be able to avoid the ground. He’s the only guy in this sport who is willing to take the bottom position. He’ll grab you and pull you on top of him. Anybody else who goes for a takedown wants to end up on top. He’s content to have a takedown where he ends up on bottom. That creates a tremendous problem as far as keeping off the ground. There’s no way to avoid it when a guy is willing to do that.
When you do get there, will you fight him there, or just try and stand back up and avoid ground fighting as much as possible?
I’m not going to have a choice but to get into some ground fighting with him. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. I would be lying to myself, giving myself some false hope if I thought I could avoid that. A guy who’s willing to end up on top on bottom is going to get it to the ground eventually. I’m not necessarily going to get to choose the realm we fight on. I accept that.
Did you bring in any jiu-jitsu specialists to help you specifically prepare for Demian?
No, I was helping Matt Lindland get ready to fight Vitor Belfort, so I’ve only been focused on Demian Maia for the last couple of weeks. I didn’t bring anybody in, just the guys at [Team] Quest. The same guys I always work out with.
If you beat Maia, do you think you’ll have earned a shot at Anderson Silva?
As far as earning a shot goes, I’ve done as much as anyone to actually earn a shot. I think this is the fight for the true best middleweight out there. I think I can beat Anderson [Silva] and I think Demian Maia can beat him. I think whoever wins between us is the world’s best middleweight.
But being the best and being champion are two different things. So does it put me in a spot where, if Zuffa wanted to give me that opportunity, they could? Of course. They could give it to me right now if they wanted to. You’d have a tough argument to say whoever wins this fight shouldn’t go right in to take on the champion. But there’s other guys out there who are doing a good job as well.
You say you think you and Maia are both better fighters than Anderson, but he’s at the top of a lot of people’s lists, people like Dana White, for instance, as the best middleweight and pound-for-pound fighter. Do you think he’s overrated, or just that you and Maia are underrated?
Well, sure. Let’s not…well, I’ll avoid that. But underrated and overrated? Yeah, there’s spots. You can’t have two number ones. Demian and I are both very highly rated. Anderson has the belt, so he’s up there, and because of that if I had to fill out a list I’d show him that respect and put him at the top. I’m not attacking Anderson’s rankings, but in my estimation the two best middleweights are myself and Maia. We’re going to figure out who’s the best and who’s number two on the 21st.