In August of 2010, I was in Oakland, Calif., covering UFC 117 fight week for my old employer. Officially, the show was called "UFC 117: Silva vs. Sonnen," and it was to feature a main event between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and top challenger Chael Sonnen.
In reality, you could've just called the event The Chael Sonnen Experience, and we would've been okay with it.
Until 2010, Sonnen had flown underground in the mixed martial arts world for years. He was a good fighter who always seemed to find himself on the bad end of submission losses, and he never really showed any kind of personality. But that all changed that February, when Sonnen told Joe Rogan after beating Nate Marquardt that he could "beat any man God ever made."
Whether he believed it or not was irrelevant. The new Chael Sonnen had arrived, and he would kick it into high gear over the coming months and years. He effectively turned himself from an underappreciated preliminary-card fighter into a bona fide main-event UFC star who earned two middleweight title shots and a light heavyweight title shot in a division he hasn't competed in for years.
But as the old saying goes, just when you thought you knew all the answers, Sonnen changed the questions.
This season of The Ultimate Fighter has been lauded as one of the best in years. The production is top notch, and the focus on the grueling nature of the actual fighting tournament instead of hijinks in the house has revitalized the show in a way I'd previously thought impossible.
But the real breath of fresh air on the show? That's Sonnen.
Gone are the pro-wrestling promos ripped from old-time star Billy Graham. Gone is the pompous, over-the-top character who claimed to be an undefeated world champion when we were pretty sure we saw him lose to Silva and others throughout his career.
In their place is an honest, humble and very realistic Sonnen, a man who is devoted to the young fighters on his team and is earnest about helping them overcome adversity and achieve their dreams.
Despite what you may think, or what you may think you know, this is the real Sonnen. This is the man I've interacted with for several years, and this is the man who is lauded by his closest friends and teammates as a stellar and caring human being.
Witness his conversation with Uriah Hall on Tuesday night, when Hall doubted himself and his confidence. Sonnen replied by revealing his own self-doubt, telling Hall that he'd even taken the step of seeing a sports psychologist to get a handle on his own mental issues in the cage.
Witness Sonnen telling Hall, in the locker room before his fight with Adam Cella, to visualize bad things happening in the cage. Don't just visualize the good, Sonnen said, because when adversity strikes, you won't know how to deal with it.
This is Sonnen the coach. This is Sonnen the human being.
This is Sonnen stripped of the bombastic tendencies he uses to sell his fights. This is the Sonnen who forced Jon Jones, after spending six weeks coaching against Sonnen, to tell the media that Sonnen wasn't what he thought he was and that he was a "pretty good guy" after all.
In professional wrestling, there are bad guys and good guys. Over the course of their careers, the bad guys often become the good guys, and vice versa. It's a story as old as time, and we're seeing it unfold on The Ultimate Fighter each week.
I don't know if Sonnen will emerge from The Ultimate Fighter with undiluted love from mixed martial arts fans around the world, but he should. The real Sonnen is a remarkably kind and humble human being who cares deeply about his friends and family.
Cast the marketing gimmicks aside, and what you have is one of the better men involved in mixed martial arts. I don't know if the fans will accept this version of Sonnen, but I sure hope they will.
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