I've talked with Chael Sonnen a half-dozen times, and I still can't figure out who the guy actually is.
Yes, I get it. He's Chael P. Sonnen, the Lyrical Lothario, the Gangster of Love, as he's prone to calling himself. He's the quickest wit in the UFC. He's the man who grabbed the microphone in the post-fight interview after his dominating UFC 136 victory against Brian Stann and said, as only he can, "Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck." He's the only fighter in the UFC who managed to unite an entire country against him by tweeting things like, "Greetings from Sao Paulo! I'm learning the language: breakdancing in the Special Olympics is called capoiera [sic] and cocaine is called brunch." He's the man who last week told me this about his opponent in Saturday night's much-anticipated UFC 148: "He's phony, and he talks about phony things. He talks about respect and honor. Which is all crap because all Anderson's after is a paycheck. ... The guy's as phony as they come."
If there's ever been fightin' words, them's fightin' words. And that's good. Because just as Sonnen has promised to "put Anderson on his prissy little ass and run my fist into his head for 25 minutes or until he gives up," Silva has promised that he'll make Sonnen "eat everything that he said, not only about myself but about our country. . . . I'm going to make sure that every one of his teeth are broken, his arms are broken, his legs are broken."
Fair enough. This has developed into the UFC's most heated rivalry, and these words might be as real as they are for promotion. But before Chael Sonnen steps into the Octagon on Saturday against Silva, who hasn't lost in six years and who UFC president Dana White has called "the greatest mixed martial artist ever," I wanted to find something out.
Who is the real Chael P. Sonnen?
Is he really the American gangster from the mean streets of West Linn, Ore.? (An affluent suburb of Portland, so you know.) Is he really someone deserving of the hate of an entire country? (Brazil, where he was supposed to fight Silva until the G-20 conference in Rio de Janeiro cancelled the UFC's plans and forced them to have the fight this weekend.) Is he really as tough as he puts on?
So I went to the only people I could go to.
I went to his mother.
And I went to his girlfriend.
Here's what I learned:
Chael P. Sonnen, the Gangster of Love, makes his girlfriend's lunch every day and leaves her a love letter on a napkin. Of course, that's after his girlfriend wakes him up every morning with a "good moooooorning" song.
Chael P. Sonnen, the man who once promised to come over to Anderson Silva's house, "(pat) his little lady on the ass and I'm telling her to make me a steak, medium-rare just how I like it," once gave his mother the best Christmas present ever. He made her dinner. Then he flew her on a surprise trip to New York City -- that very night! -- went shopping with her, bought her a massage and took her to see "Grease."
Chael P. Sonnen, the man who told me he wants Anderson Silva to erect a statue of Chael P. Sonnen in his living room and bow to it each and every day, used to play with a big white teddy bear as a kid in his family's living room. He wrestled with the bear and then took his mom's most bangly belts for championship belts.
Is this the Chael Sonnen you expected?
"He always loved action, blood, gore," his lovely, blond-haired, blue-eyed mother, Claudia Sonnen, told me Thursday night at the MGM Grand, a few hundred feet from where her son will face Silva on Saturday night. "He wrote a paper once in grade school that they wanted to keep in his permanent file because they were pretty sure he was going to be a serial killer." She paused. "You're not going to put 'Chael Sonnen, Serial Killer,' are you?" She laughed. "And yet he was never a violent kid. He wrote this paper, and I remember: I was concerned that they wanted to put this in his permanent file. It was just a kid being a kid! It was not gory details but apparently there was blood in there, and fighting, and things like that, and his teacher predicted that would be his future." Sonnen's mother paused again. "She'd probably say, 'Boy, I called that one right!' "
That's more like it.
The Chael P. Sonnen, as described by his mother, was a kid who loved "The A-Team," "The Dukes of Hazzard," and professional wrestling. His eighth-grade birthday present? Tickets to a pro wrestling show in Portland. He said he was someday going to be governor. Once, high-school-aged Chael was supposed to feed the family's horses -- the Sonnens bred and trained racehorses -- while his parents were away. He forgot. His father came home, furious, and told Chael that he had to dig a 6-foot-deep hole in the ground, and he would live there for a while. The family would feed him when they wanted to, Chael's dad said. The next day, Chael dug the hole, no complaints. His dad, a plumber, got home from work. He saw the hole, and he told Chael to fill it back in.
Huh, I thought, as this story was being told. This is Chael P. Sonnen? Sounds like a damn good dude.
But, as described by his girlfriend, the stunningly beautiful Brittany Smith, Chael P. Sonnen is . . . well, just kind of weird, to be frank.
First off, how they met: It was a year ago. Smith didn't know a thing about mixed martial arts; her brother convinced her to go to a small-time fight in Portland, which happened to be a fight Sonnen was promoting. Smith went to the bathroom. Sonnen saw her, and he said, "I like your shirt." (Good line, bro.) Then he asked to borrow her phone . . . and from her phone, he called his own phone . . . and then, moments after Smith's brother -- a decade-long friend of Sonnen's -- whisked her away, Sonnen called her. "You shouldn't give your phone to strangers," he told her.
Don't judge -- it worked, and they went on their first date the next night, to see "True Grit," which Smith hated.
Second off, how he eats: "He puts ketchup on everything," Smith said. "Soup. Noodles. On ev -erything. And he can wake you up from a dead sleep in another room, eating a bowl of cereal or anything. I always tell him, I'll wake up from a dead sleep and I'll say, 'Eat the cereal, not the bowl. Are you kidding me?' I'm like, seriously, right now, guy, I'm getting you rubber utensils."
All of this is, to me, seriously confusing. What happened to the Gangster of Love? What happened to the man who recently said this about Anderson Silva and Silva's "little lady": "He thinks that's funny to say he's going to break my face. Tell him I got two words for him: medium rare." I thought Chael Sonnen was supposed to be a genuine douchebag, the genuine article, the guy who -- with that failed drug test after the Silva fight and a criminal conviction related to mortgage fraud -- you would never want to date your sister.
"He has a heart of gold," his mother said. "And that's the only time I really want to bristle, is when people paint him as this jerky jerk. It's like, if you only knew how he treats his family and friends!"
His girlfriend chimed in. "That's another reason why I liked him so much, because he was so sweet to his mom," she said. "Who's going to treat his girlfriend like crap if they treat their mom like that? That's the best sign ever."
So maybe I was wrong. Maybe we all were wrong. Maybe Chael P. Sonnen, trash-talker extraordinaire, is actually a damn good guy, the guy you'd happily give your blessing to marry your daughter.
And then his mother told me this, and I figured, yeah: Stand-up guy. She was worried -- so, so worried -- about him fighting Silva in Brazil. By the way, that's not some overprotective, motherly fear. White was genuinely concerned about the security situation too. Piss off a country, and the country comes to get you.
"He called me once," Claudia Sonnen told me. "He told me, 'Mom, I'm really stressing out about you. I need you to promise me now that you will not go to Brazil.' He said, 'I would worry about you the whole time.' I texted him back: 'I promise you I will not go, but I will do everything in my power to make sure you do not go.' But what can you do? I was thinking of kidnapping him, handcuffs. That was my feeling: You're not going with my blessings."
Then the mother of Chael P. Sonnen -- the man who has made a cottage industry out of questioning Anderson Silva's manliness, as well as the manliness of Silva's homeland -- looked me in the eye. This was the son she loved. This was the son who'd treated her like a queen. She's relieved this fight will be in Las Vegas instead of Brazil.
She looked me in the eye. "I'd rather have him go to Afghanistan," she told me.
It sounds silly, on the surface: Preferring her son go to a war zone instead of Brazil. But listen: Her son has, in the name of goading Silva into a fight and promoting UFC 148, provoked an entire country. And a mother always worries for her son, especially a son as devoted as her Gangster of Love.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.