Several times throughout the Wednesday UFC media luncheon put on to hype the April 27 clash between light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, a New York native, and challenger Chael Sonnen, I found myself pausing after taking in a Sonnen soundbite, and asking myself if he was putting me on. The guy has a rep for being a button pusher, a master provocateur, a wordsmith who delivers soundbites with a theatrical intensity unmatched in mixed martial arts. Like when he said on a conference call leading up to his 2010 fight with Anderson Silva at UFC 117, "I'm the toughest guy in the company, period ... whether it's Anderson or any other opponent," he said. "There's never been a guy with earrings that can out-tough me and he's not going to be the first."
The certitude, combined with the splash of humor, the delivery that seems tailor-made for Vince McMahon's WWE, leaves me craving more Sonnen when he gets going.
As when the Oregonian told me at the luncheon, which was held at the Italian eatery Carmine's in the theater district, that he had never laid eyes on a televised basketball, football or baseball game, and didn't know that the 49ers were in the Super Bowl until days after they won their conference final... I wondered: Is this guy pulling my leg?
I'm still not fully clear on that, but no matter, that's part of the fun, mulling his word choice, trying to decipher his intentions. He and Jones were fully cordial during the chow session, and there was no venom on display from the 35 year-old wrestling specialist. At one point, Sonnen brought his cell phone over to Jones, and handed it to him, explaining that he had a kid on the line who was contemplating giving up wrestling. Want to give him a pep talk, Sonnen asked Jones? Jones took the phone, asked the kid if he was for Team Sonnen or Team Jones when watching the FX reality show "The Ultimate Fighter," which features those fighters as coaches during the current season, which kicked off this week. Jones said, "Wrong answer, call over," with a chuckle when the kid said "Sonnen." (Sonnen later explained that the kid said he thought Sonnen was impersonating Jones).
Sonnen (28-12-1) shows zero fear at trafficking in potentially dicey or controversial material. He told me he liked Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, and had made no secret of being a Republican, knowing full well that the "liberal media" could well be inclined to stir that pot, and focus on that factoid.
I also wondered if I was being ribbed when he said that 99 times out of 100, the tougher man wins in a fight. No, not the more skilled guy, not the man who owns a superior technical arsenal, the fighter whose footwork was the difference-maker. That's all blah blah blah stuff, grist for the mill for the writers, he said. The tougher man gets his hand raised, he declared. This means that Sonnen believes that 12 times he's been the weaker man? I found it fascinating that a man who exhibits such an aura of belief in self would make such an admission. That stance made me better understand his Twitter bio, in which he labels himself a "dual master in dominance and modesty."
His ability to skillfully juggle this duality, and share beliefs that others are too shy or reticent because of an intellectual inferiority complex to say aloud* makes him my favorite MMAer in the game. He's a superb fighter, and an even more compelling character.
* Sonnen had this to say in the leadup to his UFC on Fox clash against Michael Bisping, last January: "You know, these guys want to talk about God. 'Oh, I want to thank God. I want to thank God.' Listen, I'm a God-fearing man, go to church every Sunday and have since I was a boy. But if I ever found out that God cared one way or another about a borderline illegal fist-fight on Saturday night, I would be so greatly disappointed that it would make rethink my entire belief system."
Note: Check back for more from Jones, who talked about his DUI, and how that has affected him, and possibly fighting in Madison Square Garden in November.