OAKLAND CA - AUGUST 07: Chael Sonnen punches Anderson Silva while on the ground during the UFC Middleweight Championship bout at Oracle Arena on August 7 2010 in Oakland California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
A couple of weeks ago, one might be hard pressed to find articles that weren't focusing solely on the UFC 136 main event title showdown between Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar. Kenny Florian's name has popped up from time to time as he's knocking on retirement's door, yet has been dubbed a fighter who has all the tools to take the strap from featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo. Surprisingly, former UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen has had a subdued presence, only having the spotlight long enough to insult Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort, and Travis Browne. In fact, we might be hard pressed to find casual fans who actually knew he was fighting this weekend.
There isn't a mountain of evidence suggesting that Sonnen has vaulted himself into a role as a sure-fire pay-per-view draw. We do know that his trash-talking ways create intrigue among fans, mostly playing the heel role in fights and backing his ridiculous claims up with pure violence. So, why has Sonnen been the third wheel in the promotion of this card?
The obvious answer is his opponent, Brian Stann. The real life American Hero is about as wholesome and honorable as a man could be in the fight game. Sonnen's vitriol, for the most part, has been reserved for fighters he has no respect for, and Stann doesn't fit that profile. Naturally, Sonnen has kept his mouth shut because he truly respects Stann as a figther. To Stann's credit, winning three of his last four fights has given him this much deserved opportunity.
The lacking promotion of Sonnen in the lead-up to UFC 136 has led to speculation regarding his progression back to the top of UFC's middleweight division. Ideally, an impressive performance against Stann would catapult him back into contention to face Anderson Silva once again. UFC President Dana White, however, threw a curveball at the assumed progression, stating Dan Henderson's return to the UFC and scheduled bout with Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua may have bigger implications. Sonnen's lessened presence on the card isn't doing him any favors, and he can't exactly flip the switch and go into heel mode on Brian Stann.
Henderson not only has a higher profile fight against a former UFC champion, he's also has an impressive run of highlight reel knockouts in recent memory, one of those being against Fedor Emelianenko. Sonnen has been out since August of last year due to a variety of out-of-the-cage problems. He tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone after his fifth round submission loss to Anderson Silva, claiming he was authorized to have testosterone replacement therapy. If that weren't enough, he took a plea deal as a result of money laundering charges brought against him. He was fined $10,000 and sentenced to two years probation. If we compare those status updates over the course of the last year, Henderson makes a little more sense, don't you think?
Let's also not factor out the fact that Henderson is 41 years of age. We have no idea when his body will succumb to old age. Sonnen is 34, and while he's at an age in which athletes begin to wither away -- he has far more time than Henderson. The UFC obviously wants to strike while the iron is hot with both fighters. Henderson is the right call if he can beat Rua, and Sonnen... Sonnen has plenty of enemies that would fit perfectly into his plan to reassert himself as the grand heel of them all atop the UFC's middleweight division if he gets past Stann.
Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, and Michael Bisping come to mind. Can you imagine?