Conventional wisdom says this weekend is finally "put up" or "shut up" time for Chael Sonnen.
After six years of mediocrity followed by 3½ years of glorious superstardom, it’s easy to think Sonnen’s entire MMA career could boil down to the 25 minutes (or less) he’ll spend in the cage Saturday with Anderson Silva at UFC 148.
If Sonnen manages to craft another stunning upset performance like the one we saw at UFC 117 -- this time without pulling an Earnest Byner -- even his staunchest critics will have no choice but to concede his place in the record books. He will have cashed in on perhaps the longest con in UFC history, turning in an Oscar-worthy performance during each step of his slow march to becoming No. 1 in the world.
On the other hand, if Silva makes good on his poorly translated promise to have Sonnen eat his own teeth this weekend, no one outside of West Linn, Ore., will cry for the man who has fashioned himself into the sport’s first real villain. We will shed no tears because, aside from the injuries Silva may inflict during their rematch, the wounds Sonnen has suffered of late all have been self-inflicted.
In the rare instances he's broken character during his latest UFC run, even Sonnen himself admits: It ain’t easy being the bad guy.
The months of trash talk, the arguments about testosterone replacement therapy, the Twitter controversies and even the guilty plea on federal money-laundering charges -- conventional wisdom dictates that this weekend we’ll find out whether it has all been worth it for him.
Then again, conventional wisdom has never seemed to apply to Sonnen, and considering where he was less than five years ago, maybe we already have our answer.
Had the MMA media existed as it does today when Sonnen began his fighting career in earnest in 2002 (after one bout in 1997), we likely would have looked at his amateur wrestling credentials and trumpeted him as a blue-chip prospect. During the first half-decade of his run in MMA, however, it looked as though Sonnen was never going to fulfill that potential.
By autumn 2007, his immense talents had yielded surprisingly middling results. He’d grown into an unsigned 30-year-old journeyman still plodding his way through the indie scene with more than two dozen fights already on his résumé. During 2005-06, he’d had his shot at the big time, but had washed out of the UFC after losing two of three fights in the Octagon, both of them by submission.
To Sonnen, it must have seemed as though his athletic career was all but finished when a strange confluence of events rocketed him back into the UFC in early 2009. With the momentum of being the uncrowned 185-pound champion of the WEC behind him, surely a man as shrewd as Sonnen recognized the unique and serendipitous nature of the opportunity.
In the years following, he’s done everything he's had to do -- no more and no less -- to become one of the biggest stars in his field.
Has he lied? Has he cheated? Has he made a fool of himself in public? Sacrificed his reputation? His health? Maybe his future? Only he knows for sure.
But ask yourself, if you had worked your whole life in pursuit of one professional goal only to wake up one morning and realize the chance was about to pass you by, if you realized you were about to finish your career as a disappointment, if you texted your boss and it turned out he didn’t even know who you were, what would you do?
Think of what you would do just for the chance to make it right, then imagine what a man like Sonnen might do.
Once you consider that during the past five years he's risen from the relative anonymity of the independent circuit to become one of the sport’s biggest draws, transforming himself from a nobody into the career-defining nemesis of the greatest mixed martial artist of all time -- well, there's only one reasonable conclusion to draw, isn’t there?
Chael Sonnen already has won.