Wednesday, November 5, 2008 Updated: November 4, 6:12 PM ET
Filho out to set the record straight against Sonnen
By Michael Woods Special to ESPN.com
After Paul Filho made Chael Sonnen verbally tap out at WEC 31, it was clear a rematch was in order.
Filho, a Brazilian middleweight with a 16-0 mark, snagged Sonnen in an armbar in their Dec. 12, 2007 bout in Las Vegas. Filho clamped it on tight, and had no intention of letting it go until Sonnen tapped.
Sonnen yelled. Exactly what he yelled, at 4:55 of the second round, no one is clear on. Referee Josh Rosenthal -- the only person whose opinion really mattered on that night -- interpreted it as a verbal tapout. So the ref halted the bout and declared Filho, 30, the winner in his first middleweight title defense.
Not so fast, Filho.
Sonnen, a 31-year-old Oregon-born fighter with a 20-9-1 record, protested to no avail. He explained that he did yell, but that it was an expression of the pain he was in, not an announcement that he wanted to quit. All agreed, with the indecisive finish, that a rematch would make sense. A date was chosen. On March 26, the rematch would clear the air.
Not just yet, boys.
Two weeks before the bout, Filho pulled out and checked into a facility for substance abuse. Word was that the 5-foot-8 fighter with the solid ground-and-pound, overwhelming armbar arsenal and stellar single-leg takedowns was in a fight quite unlike any he'd been in before.
Filho was into substances he doesn't wish to specify -- opponents stronger, more cunning and twice as patient as any he had faced since turning pro in 2000.
Clarity in the cage would have to wait. The rematch was set for Sept. 10, but this time a natural disaster intervened. Hurricane Ike threatened Florida, so the bout was once again postponed, this time to Nov. 5.
So far, no personal issues or weather woes have popped up, and Filho-Sonnen II is set to unfold at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
Filho confirmed, in a telephone interview, that he'd been fighting a substance addiction, but told us that he has been sober for more than six months. He said that he'd developed a dependence on anti-anxiety pills, but stated that depression was the main factor in his need for rehabilitation.
"It is a big fight for me, the fight of my life," he said. "But everything is great; I am out of my depression."
Did he? Didn't he? Chael Sonnen claims he didn't verbally tap against Paulo Filho in their first fight.
Filho insisted that, contrary to reports, he didn't go to a rehab facility, but went to Minos Gerais in Brazil, 250 miles north of his home in Rio de Janeiro.
He didn't specify the exact setting in which he tried to change his lifestyle, but he did compliment his ex-girlfriend and her family for taking him in and supporting him in his bid to get well. "I got out of a circle of people," Filho said. "My 'rock bottom' was losing the person who I was, losing friends and money."
Filho is glad his struggle is out in the open. "It was good to go public," he said. "I've met people who support me, and it's been a big help for me. I'm happy to be living again."
With his addiction at bay, Filho insists that his mind is set on dealing Sonnen an unambiguous loss. On Wednesday, Filho will do battle for the first time since he tapped out to drugs.
For his part, Sonnen has no beef with the ref's decision in the first go-around but is adamant he yelled out, "Ahhhh," as his arm was being pulled mercilessly.
"I never tapped out," Sonnen said. "I'm going to be the champion. It's going to be a hard fight; I think it'll go to a decision, but I'll win every round."
Sonnen is supremely confident he'll hand Filho his first loss. Defeating the Brazilian, who is seen by some as one of the premier middleweights in the world and a viable foe for Anderson Silva, would go a long way toward launching Sonnen into bigger and better paydays.
On the other hand, Sonnen is sympathetic to Filho's cause and his battle with inner demons.
"I'm glad that he got help; it could be an example for other people who need help," Sonnen said.
It seems Filho has so far countered his outside-the-cage demons successfully, and he will feel a sense of security in the cage when he faces off with Sonnen.
"It is correct: Fighting is my life," Filho said. "And what I was doing before was killing me. In fighting, you maintain your health and you are surrounded by good people, and you travel and see new things. The other battle I went through was basically hell."
Lest anyone is thinking a self-help meeting will take place in center cage on Wednesday, rest assured: Filho won't exactly be a model of pacifism and serenity on fight night, and Sonnen won't be in a mood to encourage Filho's sense of well-being. They both will be laboring mightily to knock the other guy's block off or make him tap out.
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.