Chael Sonnen has always marched to his own drum and his approach to coaching on The Ultimate Fighter seems to be no exception.
While past UFC fighters have bickered with their coaching counterparts or focused on looking after their own team members during filming of the reality TV show, Sonnen says he was on the same page with Season 17 rival Jon (Bones) Jones, the UFC light-heavyweight champion.
The Ultimate Fighter, with Sonnen and Jones as rival coaches, kicks off Tuesday.
In the opening two-hour episode, 28 middleweights take part in elimination fights to see who makes the final cast of the show, taped over six weeks last fall. The 14 winners were then isolated from the outside world at a mansion in Las Vegas, other to train or fight.
The last man standing wins a six-figure, three-year contract to fight in the UFC and a customized Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Jones and Sonnen, meanwhile, are slated to face off April 27 at UFC 159 in Newark.
“Jones and I are in this together so we spoke every day,” Sonnen said in an interview. “We both needed to know what the other one knew. I had to grab him every day and say ‘Hey what’s going on at the house? Are you hearing things? Are guys staying in order?’ He’d have to grab me and ask me the same thing. So we’re in this together.
“It wasn’t my team against his team. It was a group of young men with similar goals. I would help his guys just the same as he’d help mine and vice-versa. He had a great coaching staff and we’re in this process together.”
Still, Sonnen has not forgotten that he will be fighting Jones.
“This is a contact sport, this is the fight business, but he and my job is to coach, to motivate and inspire and organize and help train our selective teams. And that’s it. And I’ve seen guys in other seasons attempt to inundate themselves into the tournament, but they’re not in the tournament ... I’m not going to step in front of a guy who’s putting himself on the line.”
Sonnen (28-12-1) offered to fight Jones at UFC 151 last fall when Dan Henderson was a late withdrawal due to a knee injury. Jones (17-1) turned down the request, saying eights days was not enough notice.
Sonnen says he is used to people not wanting to fight him.
“But look, the bottom line was it was a tremendous compliment,” he said of Jones’ initial refusal. “Next to Randy Couture, Jon Jones is far and away the best light-heavyweight ever and I took it for what it was, which was a compliment.”
Sonnen has made a career out of not playing well with others or being the sticky wheel. He talked his way into two title shots against Anderson Silva and has become the organization’s premier trash-talker — often adopting a pro wrestler-like persona that has seen him walk out of TV interviews.
But Sonnen seems to have curbed the attitude recently, using his sharp tongue to good effect as an entertaining TV analyst on UFC broadcasts while not fighting.
The 35-year-old Sonnen has nothing but good things to say about his time on The Ultimate Fighter.
“It was the best experience I’ve had in this sport. It’s basically a documentary of the world’s hardest tournament. ... The weight cut, the competition, the stresses, the hardships, the ups, the downs, the emotion, everything is documented.”
He marvels at the stress the fighters on the show went through, hidden away from the real world.
“We had two birthdays (during the show), we had Halloween ... Halloween’s a big deal when you have kids and they missed it. They couldn’t call home, they couldn’t see pictures, they couldn’t be part of that.
“Yes, it was absolute sacrifice.” he added. “When I try to tell people how isolated these guys are, I don’t think anybody fully gets it and the reason I think they don’t get it is I never got it, I never understood myself.
“But let me give you an example. When we were in the house, when we were doing the tournament, the presidential election took place between President Obama and Mitt Romney. There was a meeting among the executives as to whether or not they were going to let the guys know who won.”
Sonnen, who did not disclose the outcome of that meeting, is also effusive about the calibre of fighter this season.
“If you see the guys that didn’t make it into the house, I mean there are some stars there — there’s some absolute stars, some guys that I’ve worked out with, trained with, that I know personally, some hammers that did not qualify to get into the final bracket.”
“Dana has come out and said there’s a guy in the house that everybody is terrified of. I’m not 100 per cent sure who he’s talking about. I’ve got it narrowed down to four guys. That’s how tough and brutal this tournament is.”
Sonnen is no stranger to coaching. He and former Oregon wrestling teammate Kevin Keeney have spent the last 10 years coaching a kids’ squad called the All-Phase Wrestling team.
“I don’t know if coaching is something I enjoy or something that I feel is necessary to do,” Sonnen explained. “I was taught — and I still am — by coaches that aren’t paid and they’re not thanked and it’s a tremendous sacrifice. And I can never pay those guys back for all those years, I don’t even know how to thank them.
“So in return I pass it forward. I show what they showed me to another generation.”
Sonnen is also willing to help out pro fighters. After losing to Sonnen at UFC 104, Japanese fighter Yushin Okami asked him as they shared a van to the airport the next morning whether he could come train with him.
“I told him he could come, that he was very welcome to come but I never thought I’d see him and two days later he was in Portland, Oregon. He had a bag and nowhere to go and no plan so I grabbed him and took him in.”
While Sonnen now campaigns as a middleweight, he opened his UFC career at light-heavyweight, losing to Renato (Babalu) Sobral at UFC 55 in October 2005.
“I ended up at 185 but I always wanted to be at 205,” he said. “I couldn’t be any happier to have the extra 20 pounds (against Jones).”
Sonnen showed off the sharp side of his tongue on Saturday after middleweight Vitor (The Phenom) Belfort, following his win over Michael Bisping, said he should have another shot at Jones at UFC 159 over Sonnen, whom he called a clown.
“Let me be real clear and speak direct with you Vitor: you’ve been telling the world that you’d like to meet Jesus. I’d be glad to arrange that travel,” Sonnen said on Fuel TV. “But, first, I’m going to get rid of Jon Jones. But, you are next.”