You've heard the cliches about failing to appreciate something until it's gone. Chael Sonnen hasn't fought in 14 months, and he gets it.
Outlandish. Outspoken. Controversial. Ridiculous. Sonnen emerged as a highly promotable fighter for the UFC because he willingly portrayed himself in those ways. On Friday, however, while sharing space during a media conference call with Brian Stann, Sonnen’s opponent Oct. 8 in Houston, he was nothing like that.
Sonnen, of course, wasn't allowed to fight because he slammed head first into the muddled world of performance-enhancing drugs, government regulators and sport. He'd like to think the well documented episode -- which required the defense of his actions, his medical history, his words, and his integrity in front of athletic commissions in California and Nevada -- didn't change him. Yet stacked against the three-ring caricature he can at times portray, he seemed, well ... genuine.
"I've always been grateful for these opportunities but I think I'm a little more grateful now," Sonnen said in advance of his No. 1 contender fight with Brian Stann.
The attitude shift is owed in some part to Stann's presence. The Marine hero and emerging mixed martial arts star is an impossible person to challenge in the way Sonnen went after division king Anderson Silva. Outside of being the man with the belt, Silva did nothing really to earn Sonnen's contempt. But that didn't stop the 34-year-old Oregonian from going after Silva like the great Brazilian was some do-nothing paper champion.
Sonnen may not think he changed, but for the first time he acknowledged "it's getting harder and harder to deny that [Silva] should be shown that appreciation" as the best middleweight in MMA.
"His wins and losses speak for themselves," Sonnen said of the UFC champion and top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. "And the fact of the matter, whether I like to admit it or not, is he's done a better job than anybody. He's done a better job than me. And he's champion. That doesn't mean I'm gonna quit poking my finger in his chest, but at some point I think fairness needs to kick in, too. I think you need to look at what he's done and tip your hat to him a little bit."
Still, Sonnen believes he's the man to dethrone Silva.
"If you're asking that I'd ever concede that Anderson is better than me, no. I would refer you to the tape," Sonnen said. "I think our skills are vastly different."
He’ll have to win next weekend to earn the right to prove that.
For his part, Stann wouldn't have minded had Sonnen ramped up the hype for their fight. The 31-year-old retired Marine Captain expected this downplayed version of Sonnen to show up because “Chael is very genuine when he says that if he has a problem with somebody he'll speak it. If he doesn't have a problem with somebody, he won't. When you saw his fights against Nate Marquardt, Dan Miller, Yushin Okami; he didn't have anything to say about those guys. He spoke about the fight."
Situated on a card loaded with two excellent title fights -- Frankie Edgar defends his lightweight title against Gray Maynard and featherweight Jose Aldo does the same against Kenny Florian -- Sonnen-Stann doesn't need the kind of bombastic stuff Sonnen unleashed during the last two years.
"Nobody wants to fight Brian, but somebody's got to," Sonnen said. "Our paths have to cross. We're in the same weight class. It's not that big of a pool. And he keeps whipping everybody. If he quit beating everybody I wouldn't have to fight him. But he decided to go out and become one of the top guys. I've done my part. I put my time in. I'm up there, too."
In case you don’t remember, Sonnen flirted for 23 minutes with being the best middleweight in MMA. Then he was choked out by Silva. And he tested positive for an abnormally high testosterone ratio. And he appealed and said things that were refuted by some of the biggest power players in combat sports. And his name became synonymous in the minds of some people as a liar and a cheat and a fraud.
Sonnen won’t say he’s changed. But it’s fair to suggest he learned from the last year and, because of that, he’s “happy to be a part of” another UFC card.
"I got on put on timeout for a while,” he said. “I'm glad that's all behind me. I have a more matter-of-fact approach."