CHICAGO – For a man who's famously (or perhaps, infamously) walked the walk after talking the talk, Chael Sonnen nearly was tripped up by Michael Bisping.
In the co-headliner of Saturday's UFC on FOX 2 event, Sonnen edged the fellow middleweight contender to secure an April title fight and rematch with elusive foe Anderson Silva.
After the fight, Sonnen (27-11-1 MMA, 6-4 UFC) was all compliments when it came to Bisping (22-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC). Silva (31-4 MMA, 14-0 UFC), on the other hand, didn't get off so easy.
Sonnen, who fought Bisping on a little more than a week's notice after original opponent Mark Munoz was scratched due to an elbow injury, edged Bisping by unanimous decision via 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 scores at Chicago's United Center. In a spirited scrap, Bisping showed his trademark striking but complemented it with vastly improved takedown defense, solid clinch work and apt conditioning.
"I was surprised about everything," Sonnen said. "Michael Bisping hit me so hard in the first round that I didn't even know what day it was. I remember when I came to, looking at him and thinking, 'Oh my God, you have no idea how bad you hurt me or you'd step in and do something about it.'"
In fact, until the final scores were read, Sonnen wondered if the No. 1 contender's bout was about to end in disaster.
"The only round I knew I had was the third," he said. "I thought I might have one of the first two, but I didn't know I had it.
"I was never in a position tonight where I was comfortable. Not once."
With the win, Sonnen has earned a guaranteed title shot with Silva. The fight is expected to take place in June in Sao Paulo, Brazil, likely in a stadium with a capacity of more than 50,000. Silva, of course, won their first meeting in 2010 with a fifth-round submission after losing the first four rounds to Sonnen. It was the first time the champ showed any real signs of invincibility in his UFC career.
However, as he boasted in the build-up to Saturday's network-televised event, Sonnen believes the odds of the rematch actually happening are slim.
"I know I'll do my part," he said. "Do I think [Silva] will sign to fight? No, I don't. But we'll see. I've been wrong before. But I've tried to get him to fight four times. That's the one thing they don't tell you, and I'm not trying to go against the brass here, but that's the one thing they haven't revealed. They've offered him the fight four times, and he said no four times. Mysteriously, he's supposed to accept on the fifth?
"I'll tell you this: I've never backed down, and I never will."
Earlier in the week, MMAJunkie asked UFC president Dana White about Sonnen's claims the fight won't happen (and that he'll instead challenge for a title in a different weight class).
"Chael is nuts," White said. "He says all kinds of crazy things. 'He's the champion.' Listen to me, OK? Listen to me: he's not the champion.
"He will fight Anderson Silva if he wins. He will not fight for the heavyweight championship or (light-heavyweight champ) Jon 'Bones' Jones. I have to have a separate press conference to stop all the stuff that Chael Sonnen says."
Following Saturday's win, Sonnen offered a few of his usual digs at the Brazilian champ, but most of his focus was on Bisping. As two of UFC fans' most hated fighters, Sonnen and Bisping actually seemed to develop a friendship of sorts. Both, in fact, ditched their usual pre-fight trash talk and kept things cordial throughout fight week.
"I'd rather talk about real men like Michael Bisping who step in on 10 days' notice and fight me," Sonnen said. "Those are the types of guys I'd rather give attention to – not some bum in Brazil."
Want an even bigger endorsement?
"I can assure you having fought him and the alleged champ, [Bisping] could win the title today if they gave him the opportunity," Sonnen said.
But for now, it appears that slot belongs to Sonnen, who's treated all of Brazil much like he treats the champ. And that, perhaps not surprisingly, has resulted in everything from simple insults to serious death threats from Brazilian fight fans. But if you think that'll keep Sonnen from heading south to fight for the title and avenge his earlier defeat to Silva, think again.
"If those blowhards (in Brazil) with their blow darts want to come at me, they can send anyone want they want," he said. "But don't send anyone you want back."