Bellator 192: Chael Sonnen aims for first major title so he doesn't retire a quitter
Sonnen is looking to win the vacant Bellator heavyweight championship starting this Saturday
If the idea of seeing 40-year-old Chael Sonnen, who did his best work in UFC at middleweight, step into the cage for a Bellator World Grand Prix heavyweight tournament has you fearing for his safety, the "American Gangster" would like you to know that you're alone.
"When I started fighting, we didn't even have weigh-ins," Sonnen explained"I'm not proud of that as the sport is now in a better place but that's how far I go back. It was maybe my sixth or seventh fight before I ever saw a scale."
Sonnen (30-15-1), who made his pro debut in 1997, will take on fellow UFC veteran Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in the main event of Saturday's Bellator 192 card from The Forum in Inglewood, California (9 p.m. ET, Paramount Network). This first-round matchup officially begins the eight-man Bellator tournament created to fill the promotion's vacant heavyweight championship,
For Sonnen, who wrestled collegiately at Oregon, it's a return to the tournament format he prefers. The mixture of fighters from different weight divisions also provides him with a throwback feeling to a simpler time in the sport.
"There was no such thing as gloves and hand wraps; we just didn't do those kind of things," Sonnen said of his early fighting days. "So as far as weight classes, I was never really into that. Those didn't come around until later. But when I first dreamed of doing this sport, I was 178 pounds and I was 18 years old. I was going to have to beat Dan Severn and [David] 'Tank' Abbott and that's just the way it was. I couldn't really care less."
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The fight is Sonnen's third since signing a 2016 deal with Bellator. He produced big television ratings in a sluggish loss to Tito Ortiz last January before rebounding to grind out a decision over Wanderlei Silva in the main event of just the second pay-per-view in Bellator history five months later.
Bellator has also experimented with Sonnen on commentary where, because of his gift at selling fights simply by opening his mouth, he has acted at times like a de facto promoter. Considering Bellator's business model and focus on entertainment, it's fair to question just how much winning actually matters in determining whether the acquisition of Sonnen is a success.
It's also a notion which completely annoys the fighter at heart, who argues that winning still means everything.
"Bellator is a business. They do what they do and I'm not privy to that," Sonnen said. "Every time [president] Scott Coker is having a business meeting and I go say hello, they go quiet. Getting information is very tough. He may have a different answer for you, but for me, I'm a competitor first. They can take their money and shove it up their ass.
"I never got into it for the money or the fame. I got into it because I like to compete. I got into wrestling to figure out who the toughest was. … I am here to compete. I've got lots of ways to make money. I've stolen more money than I'll ever make in this business. And I'm rich, I've made a lot of money in this business, but they could take it all back and I'll still get into the ring. I could not possibly care less."
While Sonnen agrees with oddsmakers in tabbing Matt Mitrione, Frank Mir and even Fedor Emelianenko as the tournament favorites, he wasn't as pleased to find out he and Jackson (37-12) were given the worst odds to win.
Still, he expects Jackson, 39, to be a tough out on Saturday thanks to his punching power, even if the recent versions "Rampage" haven't appeared to be the most motivated. Despite entering having won five of his last six, Jackson is carrying much more weight from his days as UFC light heavyweight champion.
"The thing with Rampage is he's just a big, strong guy and he's a very good competitor," Sonnen said. "I've never known how much he loves this sport. He is very open to say he hates training and hates dieting and hates the discipline. But I've never known him to see him back down and I've waited for it and watched for it.
"He has got a fighter's heart and a lot of grit and a lot of power. It's a nerve-wracking fight but they all are. That's the charm of this whole thing and the reason I got into this business because it's a tough job for tough guys."
Despite his age, Sonnen isn't willing to cope with the idea that he's past his prime. By modeling the late-career success of former teammates Randy Couture and Dan Henderson, Sonnen believes he has set himself up for another chapter.
"It is about getting better and growing," Sonnen said. "Randy won a world championship at 44, Henderson should've won a world championship at 46; they gave a split-decision to Michael Bisping and I thought that [Henderson] won the fight. The point is that I studied those guys on how they extend their careers. I hear all the time that this guy is past his prime, but it's just not true.
"There is no such thing as prime, there is only prime motivation. It is a mental thing and not physical and sometimes when a guy climbs a mountain, he just doesn't want to climb it again. That's the prime. People don't understand that aren't in sports. They think that physically somebody regresses but that's not accurate."
While any interview with Sonnen produces an expected amount of shtick and tough-guy talk, the veteran fighter sounds at his most authentic when discussing the tournament's prize. Despite coming up empty in three shots at UFC gold in the past, the idea of exiting the sport as a champion still motivates him.
"That's everything; it's everything. I don't believe you can retire from a sport unless you have won a world championship, I believe you just quit," Sonnen said. "That's the way that it is. I know which side of the fence I want to be on, but it's hard work. It takes a lot and there is a lot that goes into it, and I'm not done pursuing that dream."
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