As is usually the case with Chael Sonnen, the money quote was buried layers deep.
The UFC's master manipulator said all the right things after taking a thumping from Jon Jones on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 159. He spoke with eloquence about his conqueror's skills and strongly hinted it might be time to consider hanging them up, even though he never used the word "retirement."
"I'm not going to be one of the guys who hangs around if he doesn't have a road to the title," Sonnen said in his post-fight interview with UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. "I believe that was my last opportunity."
But there's always an angle with the pride of West Linn, Ore. Sonnen's improbable, late-career run from mid-card castoff to pay-per-view titan came about through equal parts skills inside the Octagon and opportunism outside.
When Chael Sonnen speaks, people listen. Then they try to figure out the hustle.
In this case, the genesis of Sonnen's next chapter was buried in this little gem dropped into the post-fight news conference at Newark's Prudential Center:
"I'm terrible," Sonnen said. "I lost to (Jones and middleweight champion Anderson Silva). What are they going to do? Put me in with Wanderlei Silva? Who else am I supposed to beat around here?"
Sonnen doesn't drop names out of the blue. Wanderlei Silva, the former PRIDE 205-pound champion and a beloved legend of the game, is exactly the type of fight that can keep Sonnen in the headlines and atop a big fight card.
Presenting Silva's name into the middle of his post-fight soliloquy was Sonnen's way of pushing the ball forward at the same time he came to grips with the fact he's never going to get the gold strap.
[Related: Jon Jones beats Chael Sonnen at his own game; super fight looming?]
With the loss to Jones on Saturday, Sonnen dropped to 0-3 in UFC title fights, putting him in the company of Kenny Florian and Pedro Rizzo. It was the latest setback in a career which has cast Sonnen as the combat sports equivalent of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox: Usually good, sometimes great, but unable to get the job done when it mattered most.
Sonnen was runner-up at the Pac-10 wrestling championships in 1999 and 2001. Runner-up at the 1998 world university Greco-Roman championships. U.S. Olympic wrestling alternate. Loser in his WEC middleweight title challenge against Paulo Filho, twice a loser to Anderson Silva, and a loser to Jones.
"You know what? When I get in there, I just want to know who's better," Sonnen said. "I just want to feel these other guys. I want to see what the hype's about. If they would have called it, I wouldn't have had any illusions. I knew in those first five minutes who the better fighter was."
Had Sonnen managed to ride out the storm and get through the final half-minute of the opening round, chances are, he would have went home to Oregon with the UFC light heavyweight title belt in his possession. There was little chance Jones would have been cleared to continue in Round 2 with the grotesque compound fracture of his left big toe, which would have meant a flimsy TKO victory for Sonnen.
But as of Saturday night, at least, Sonnen was having none of that talk.
"I'm sure it would have gone to a rematch and we'd have had to do that again, because it would only have been right to Jon. But I got my questions answered tonight. I've had a lot of fights, and they haven't all gone my way," But I've only been beaten up twice and that was No. 2. And he beat me at my own game. It's frustrating and it's tough. That's it."
"I had to watch the replay. He was in on my leg before I knew it. I don't know how he set it up, if he threw a punch. I don't know what happened. He was just on my leg. I've been in that spot my whole life. I got up and he hit it again, and I got up and he hit it again. I've only been taken down three times in my career. He took me down three times in one round."
[Related: Jon Jones makes quick work of Chael Sonnen, suffers gruesome injury]
While Sonnen certainly appears to be making peace with the fact he's never going to be champion, he also remains a fighter who hasn't lost a non-title fight since 2009. Take it back to the summer of 2006 and his record in non-championship tilts is 12-1.
Once the sting of coming up short in his title quest wears off, it's hard to believe that the carnival barker side of Sonnen won't realize that he's still got a lot of legs left as a big-money headliner when presented with the right matchups. And Sonnen the competitor will realize that even if he keeps placing second on the biggest stage, the silver medalist is still in a better position than the rest of the pack.
Which brings us back to Sonnen's comment on Wanderlei Silva. The two already have a history of trading barbs back and forth. Sonnen is public enemy No. 1 among Brazilian MMA fans. Silva is coming off his most exciting victory in years, his recent TKO of Brian Stann in Japan.
Sounds like the recipe for a main event. Sounds like Sonnen is still a step ahead of the game.
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