Editor’s note: Chael Sonnen and Brian Stann fought at UFC 136 in Houston on Oct. 8. This story is part of our preview package for the debut of UFC on FOX and the heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, which airs live Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.
Our villain cranks up the heat in the sauna, peels off his sweatshirt and lycra pants, opens the sauna door and sits down, his head in his hands. He’s worn down after another 45-minute workout, not to mention his pre-fight weight-cutting diet: today, only a bowl of oatmeal and two oranges.
The thermometer is broken in here. Suffice to say it’s hot as hell. Within moments waves of sweat begin pouring off our villain, washing over his face, dripping into his eyes, covering his shoulders in a film of perspiration, soaking his boxers.
Chael Sonnen doesn’t seem like a villain. Not with his Tom Cruise good looks, and his smile and witty retort to every question.
But as the 34-year-old UFC middleweight melts away in the 23rd-floor sauna of this elegant downtown Houston hotel, there’s no mistaking it. This week, Chael Sonnen — the notorious trash-talker and insufferable self-promoter, the man plagued with legal problems, the fighter fresh off a suspension for failing a post-fight blood test, and, as if all that isn’t bad enough, the aspiring politician, for God’s sake — is most definitely the bad guy.
A few days from this moment, Sonnen will step into the Octagon for the first time in 14 months, since he nearly beat UFC legend Anderson Silva. After that fight, Sonnen was found to have elevated testosterone levels in his blood and was suspended.
There could be no greater contrast than the man UFC president Dana White — now leading his sport into a new era with the upcoming live heavyweight title fight on FOX between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET) — has chosen to fight Sonnen in the villain’s comeback at UFC 136: Our hero, Brian Stann, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, decorated military veteran, father of two young girls, the all-around good guy nicknamed “All-American.”
“Guys don’t even want to fight him,” the UFC president said of Stann. “And not because they’re afraid of him. It’s because this guy is like the greatest American the world has ever seen.”
As for our villain, who currently is begging his trainer to let him out of the sauna so he can cool off in a shower?
“He’s a (expletive) maniac, man, this kid’s a lunatic,” White said of Sonnen. “Some of the fans are on Twitter, beating me down: ‘This guy shouldn’t even be in the UFC, he’s bad for the sport, he’s this, he’s that.’ … You’re not going to love everybody. There are going to be guys you hate. There are guys in this company that I hate. But it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be here.”
And there’s one more thing, something White prefers not to address but is self-evident nonetheless. Storylines like this — as if scripted from the soap operas of WWE, with the villain and the hero, the heel and the face — they’re great for generating more interest in the exploding sport.
“And reality,” White said, “is better than any script.”
In the sauna, Sonnen whips a T-shirt round and round in the air, bringing even more heat down from the ceiling.
He talks of his training routine back home in Oregon, painting himself as a modern-day Rocky: running in snow and ice, jogging backwards along a ravine to remind himself the importance of knowing where you are in the ring. He addresses his guilty plea earlier this year for money laundering in a federal mortgage fraud case, which resulted in probation, a fine and the revocation of his realtor license. He doesn’t paint himself a victim. He doesn’t focus on media sensationalism. No, he cops to the crime, even though he says he still doesn’t fully understand how he committed it.
And then, oddly enough, Sonnen speaks in quiet, respectful tones of his opponent.
This is not what we expect.
We expect him to say something crazy, to put on what one reporter called “the Chael Sonnens show.” We expect something like the trash-talking of Anderson Silva before and after UFC 117. We expect a reprise of when Sonnen called Silva, perhaps the greatest mixed martial arts fighter ever, a “coward,” a “fraud,” a “liar,” a “thief,” the “Michael Jackson of MMA” — then implied Silva was gay, then tore into Silva’s Brazilian homeland, then even went off on Lance Armstrong, saying Armstrong “gave himself cancer” from using performance-enhancing drugs.
But we get none of this. Instead, our villain seems rather likable. Instead, we get big, bad Chael Sonnen saying this about Brian Stann: “He’s a great guy. I don’t just say those things to sound nice. He’s a great guy.”
There are no cameras in here, no stage to perform on. There is just Chael Sonnen in his underwear, beat down from 10 weeks of training, worn out from cutting weight, his guard down and his biting tongue at rest. Perhaps this is the real Chael Sonnen, not the man who toes the line between verbal bombast and blunt honesty. Perhaps he’s not a villain at all, just a damn fine showman who turns it up when the klieg lights come on.
Or perhaps this kindness is calculated, too. Perhaps Chael Sonnen knows there’s nothing to be gained from trash-talking Brian Stann. Perhaps he knows the differences are too stark between the felon and the guy who runs a charity for military veterans. Perhaps there’s no room to talk trash, or else he would.
“Coach, are we close?” Sonnen shouts out from the sauna. “I’m breaking.”
Two more minutes bathing in the flames of hell and his coach opens the door. Sonnen collapses on the floor of a nearby shower, and streams of water wash over our villain.
Our hero walks into the media room. It’s media day for Brian Stann, and he’s doing another media interview, part of the buildup to his fight.
Stann, the 31-year-old retired Marine captain, listens earnestly when he hears the same media question he’s heard maybe a thousand times: Tell us about your Silver Star. Tell us how it makes you a better fighter.
Stann doesn’t like to go into the details of what happened back in 2005. He was the leader of 42 men in the 2nd Mobile Assault Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. They were ambushed trying to secure a bridge in Iraq. For six days, his Marines held out against heavy fire. All the men survived, and Stann was awarded the nation’s third-highest combat military decoration.
Stann does not look at his Silver Star with pride. Instead, he questions every decision he made in those six days. If he decided differently, would one of his Marines still be able to walk? Would another not have had to learn to read again after four brain surgeries?
Stann could easily brag, draw a clear line between good guy and bad guy, and contribute his bit to the pre-fight hype machine.
No. Instead, he speaks of how serving in Iraq changed his outlook on life: “When you see terrorists who are capable of not only killing armed men but innocent civilians, women and children with no remorse, and then less than a year later you watch your wife give birth to your first child — that gives you an amazing perspective on life. None of this stuff matters. This fight on Saturday — none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that means anything to me are my two kids and my wife.”
The guy’s almost too perfect. His wife, a former Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, says his only flaw is squeezing out the toothpaste from the top. He takes his two girls, 4 and almost 2, to Monkey Joe’s and the Disney store. The non-profit he leads, Hire Heroes, helps veterans get jobs. He encouraged his Twitter followers to donate money for the hunger crisis in Africa.
And, going against the grain of the UFC hype machine, he feels no need to trash talk. His only hype is being himself.
“UFC, it’s about marketing,” said Stann’s nutritionist and old Marine buddy, George Lockhart. “You want to build a fighter up in a certain light. Over time people are like, ‘This guy, Brian, he’s putting up a façade. Who is like that?’ But this guy is — no kidding — he’s like, ‘I’m gonna help your grandma beat up the bad guys across the street.’ He’s all-American all the freaking time.”
One thing our hero is not is an entertainer, like our villain. Where Sonnen brings bombast, Stann brings honesty. Where Sonnen has a one-liner, Stann has earnestness. Where Sonnen polarizes, Stann unifies.
“There’s a lot of people that hate him,” Stann says. “It’s a persona he’s created. That’s how he markets himself. When you say some of the things he says, you have to expect that. He’s made his bed, he’s gonna sleep in it.”
Which brings us to the most interesting question in this fight. What’s better for the UFC: the villain winning, or the hero?
Stann ponders this a moment before he walks from the media room to the media octagon, where cameras await a faux media workout.
“It’s probably better to have him win, to be honest with you,” Stann says.
Then Stann walks to the convention center, jumps into the octagon, puts in a mouthpiece, and pretends to fight. Dozens of media people surround him, cameras rolling and clicking. Next is a cattle call of interviews, and he’ll have nothing but good things to say about our villain.
But first, Stann looks over and smirks: “It’s all for the cameras,” he says.
A giant curtain separates thousands of UFC fans from the fighters at the pre-fight weigh-in. This is a tense time. Fighters are worried about making weight. Also, it’s the final time they see their opponents before Saturday’s fight. Sometimes, they hate each other so much that fighters must be separated here.
Yet Chael Sonnen walks up to Brian Stann and punches him — lightly — on his chest. They shake hands. Sonnen teases Stann for having his name stitched into his track suit. They start talking politics.
Strangest thing: Our villain and our hero actually like each other.
In fact, Sonnen announced Stann’s first MMA fight. After Stann won, Sonnen told him he liked his style. Later, Stann’s charity helped one of Sonnen’s military friends land a job.
It’s surreal. On the other side of the curtain, fighters strip to their boxers and step on a scale as Jay-Z blares. Back here, our hero and our villain stand with their coaches, talking about Reagan breaking up the Soviet Union. Stann talks of veterans’ programs in need of better funding, Sonnen talks up Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.
Suddenly Sonnen’s eyes light up. The villain has an idea. Stann’s the All-American; he’s the military hero; it’s impossible not to like the guy. He should run for Congress! And Chael Sonnen could mentor him in politics!
Stann is skeptical. The phoniness of politics, the soundbites and the compromised morals and the dishonesty — that doesn’t seem like him.
“I’m not going to regurgitate everything these (expletives) say,” Stann says.
“Chris Christie!” Sonnen replies, slapping our hero on the back. “That sort of honesty worked for him!”
No, this is definitely not what we expected.
Our villain won.
That is not fully accurate.
Our villain destroyed. Our villain pummeled. Our villain didn’t let up.
Sonnen walked into the packed arena to a chorus of boos. Then he pounced. Our villain was aggressive from the get-go, pinning our hero against the cage, jumping on top of Stann for a ground-and-pound, lifting our hero in the air and tossing him like a sack of potatoes.
Ringside, the light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, stood and shouted encouragement at Stann. But our villain summoned his dark forces and, with a minute left in the second round, forced a submission with an arm triangle choke. It was, as Sonnen had predicted in his only trash-talking, “a red, white and blue ass-whooping.”
By the end of the fight, the crowd had forgotten about good and evil. They only wanted blood. “Silva! Silva!” the crowd shouted, wanting a rematch from last year’s epic fight at UFC 117. The color commentator’s voice rang out in the arena as he interviewed Sonnen.
The klieg lights were on, so our villain seized the moment. He pointed into the crowd, where the man he’d nearly beat 14 months before was sitting.
“Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!” Sonnen shouted.
The crowd went wild. Our villain challenged Silva to a rematch on Super Bowl weekend. If Silva wins, Sonnen said he would leave the UFC forever.
As our villain basked in the spotlight, our hero walked out of the octagon, his battered head still held high. Few paid him attention. Instead, they were mesmerized by the Chael Sonnen show, by this display of verbal brashness, and they cheered the loudest they did all night.
Because in the end, it seems everyone loves a good villain.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at [email protected]
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