Sonnen takes on Maia
Story by Anthony Springer Jr
Every mixed martial artist dreams of having his or her hand raised at the end of a fight round title fight. Reaching the top of the heap in one’s weight class means that said fighter has arrived. For Chael Sonnen (23-9-1), his time to shine was supposed to come last November in a rematch with Paulo Filho, the WEC’s last middleweight champion. Filho bested Sonnen in their first meeting after locking in an arm bar. The rematch, however, was Sonnen’s for the taking.
And something went horribly wrong.
The anticipated rematch had the makings of disaster written all over it in the weeks leading up to the contest. Filho found himself struggling to make weight and as a consequence, Sonnen found himself out of a title shot. While fans may have found themselves at a loss for words when Filho showed up to the weigh in nearly seven pounds over the 185 pound limit, Sonnen was hardly shocked.
“In terms of his weight, I was quite certain [Paulo] wasn’t going to make weight,” Sonnen said. “He had done some interviews and laid a lot of ground work [about not making it]. He talked about how hard it was and that he was planning to move to light heavyweight. Weeks in advance, I was prepared that he wasn’t going to make weight.”
Disappointment aside, a confident Sonnen took to the cage for what was to be his final WEC matchup. What happened in the following fifteen minutes of combat can only be described as one of the most bizarre moments in MMA history. The previously undefeated Filho seemed out of it. He was sluggish, unable to inflict any damage on Sonnen, and appeared to be talking to someone—who remains unclear—during the course of the match. Still, a nervous Sonnen fought on and earned a dominant unanimous decision victory, and became the first man to beat who many believed to be the second best middleweight in the world behind Anderson “The Spider” Silva.
“I’ve never been in that situation,” Sonnen said, reflecting on the contest. “Not in practice, not even as a fan where I watched somebody else go through that. I couldn’t play through it in my head [before].”
With many onlookers realizing something was terribly wrong with Paulo Filho, Sonnen wasn’t convinced that the Team Blackhouse fighter was as out of it as he appeared to be on TV.
“The whole time I thought it was a trap. The whole time where he was inactive, I thought he was playing possum, I thought he was trying to lure me and then he was going to go for the one big shot. He did it to me in our first fight; he would turn on at different times, and relax at different times. There was never a time when I thought he was done or broken. I was nervous the entire time trying to figure out what he had in store.”
Victory aside, Sonnen walked away without the title and with a little disappointment. As time passed, the disappointment subsided and the former Oregon elected official some solace in his accomplishment—despite the less than ideal ending.
“In hindsight, there’s a little disappointment, but emphasis on the word ‘little.’ I had to go out and beat a guy that nobody, anywhere, ever has beaten. I was a four to one underdog and I got my hand raised. It’s very hard to be too hard on myself, there was certainly an upside.
“It’s not as though Paulo didn’t show up to fight that night. He was every bit as good at the start of the fight as he’s ever been. Somewhere in the fight, I cracked him. When he wasn’t able to land any strikes or takedowns, he checked out. He didn’t show up in a different state. A lot of people try to act like Paulo didn’t show up; he showed up, but he checked out early.”
Sonnen’s next test will be even larger than his last as he faces an undefeated Demian Maia at UFC 95. At 10-0, Maia has finished all four of his UFC fight via submission and possesses one of the most feared ground games in the sport. With a daunting task ahead, Sonnen remains both a realist about Maia’s strengths and confidence in his own abilities. Essentially, he views this showdown as a match between the two best middleweights in the UFC—and by best, he means better than the current champion.
“I think that [Demian and I] are the two best middleweights. If Maia was to fight Anderson, I think he’d beat him with his style. I think I’d beat him… The champion isn’t always the best guy.”
Despite an assertion that he’d defeat “The Spider” in a fight, Sonnen is keeping his eyes firmly locked on the opponent in front of him, refusing to entertain further thoughts of a Silva fight. He knows he may be in for a long evening come Saturday and must find a way to defeat Maia when—not if—the fight goes to the canvas.
“I think I have an advantage [in the standup] but it’s not because of his record,” Sonnen said of Maia, who hasn’t revealed much in terms of striking. “I’m not delusional to think that he doesn’t know how to punch and kick, he just hasn’t had to do it yet. He’s very good at getting a fight to the ground. He’s one of the only guys that is willing to pull his opponents on top of him. When you’re willing to do that, it’s pretty much impossible to keep a fight standing up. I can’t defy gravity, if he pulls me, I’m going down.”
With the odds mounting in favor of his opponent, Sonnen quickly finds a silver lining that may help him get the W.
“A lot of his opponents start to fatigue and that allows him to find arm locks and other submissions,” he said. “I’m not going to wear down anymore in the fourteenth minute in this fight than I am in the first.”
Sensing the tough road ahead, Sonnen quickly adds, “I’m just gonna have to find a way to be successful.”