The inimitable fighter and pundit catches up with Boardroom to discuss the art of trash talk, Dana White vs. Scott Coker, and the new $1 million Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix.
As radio personality Troi “STAR” Torain said at the outset of the iconic Chappelle’s Show sketch, “The Player Haters’ Ball” is all about honoring “the most prestigious verbal abusers on the planet.” When that iconic episode of the celebrated sketch show aired in the spring of 2003, a young mixed martial artist named Chael P. Sonnen was just eight fights into his pro career and still on his way to becoming an eventual household name.
But in this age of deepfakes and digitally doctored re-releases of classic media, it’s worth writing a letter to Comedy Central parent company Paramount Global about going back and editing Sonnen into the pantheon-tier Chappelle segment. After all:
- Bellator MMA, for which Sonnen is a former fighter and current ambassador, is likewise owned by Paramount
- Sonnen, also known as “The Bad Guy” and “The American Gangster,” is as artful an acid-tongued verbal abuser as the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen
Naturally, ahead of the launch of the fight promotion’s $1 million Lightweight Grand Prix Tournament at Bellator 292 on Friday night in San Jose, California — headlined by 155-pound champ Usman Nurmagomodov versus future hall of famer Benson Henderson — Boardroom had to catch up with the notorious fighter, wrestler, content creator, and pundit to discuss top contenders like AJ McKee, the fight game’s most underrated trash talkers, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SAM DUNN: I say the words “Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix.” What comes to mind first?
CHAEL SONNEN: There was four world champions. I got to do the press conference — there was four world champions on stage. Oh, and by the way, they weren’t the favorite. People thought that [AJ] McKee was gonna win this. Now, you got Usman [Nurmagomedov] who’s 16-0 and he is the reigning world champion.
We have our own rules and we fiercely do it here to our own rules. One of the things that has been a real standard since [Bellator President] Scott Coker started doing the Grand Prix — we don’t miss matches. We put ’em in a straight-line bracket that starts in a quarterfinal and advances to a championship [and] the guys keep showing up. There’s no excuses, there’s no renegotiation. There’s something about guys entering a tournament where they adhere to the rules.
I only bring that to you because in this sport, we have a lot of politics. I was a guy who used the politics for my own career. I could make more headway with a microphone than other guys could do with two or three wins — but that’s not right. It should be based on your skills, and we can’t do that unless we have a competitive architecture. That’s what’s so special about the Grand Prix. It’s a straight-line bracket, just like the Olympic Games. Just like you become Super Bowl champion.
SD: If we’re talking skills, who in this 155-pound Grand Prix has the single most dangerous, game-changing skill in their toolbox?
CS: I have been blown away with AJ McKee. McKee’s a tough guy. You know, he’s young, he’s very good, but maybe he’s a knucklehead, right? I mean, he’s gonna go have some friends and he’s got people that are distracting him and calling him up on the weekend.
Second-generation, as Pops [Antonio McKee] is a tough guy, so he’s a tough guy, but I happened to be at the Mohegan Sun when this 24-year-old kid is gonna go face Darrion Caldwell, who is an NCAA [wrestling] champion. McKee got rid of him in less than two minutes, and it wasn’t hard when he did that. He was darn near styling and profiling. I’ve always looked at him different ever since that.
[Patricio and Patricky Pitbull] have been preparing for him time and time again. They’ve been studying the same guy. They’ve been watching the same film four, three times more than McKee has. I think it’s an advantage and I think one of McKee’s hardest draws is the opening round with [Patricky] Pitbull.
SD: Your fellow Oregonian, Brent Primus, was a late addition to the Grand Prix field in place of Sidney Outlaw. What’s your outlook for him?
CS: Brent’s my own teammate, so I gotta disclose that to you. I see him at practice all the time. But he was almost in tears, believe it or not, when he didn’t get into this tournament initially, so when Brent got put in, he’s ready. He was prepared. He thought he was gonna be in this in the first place.
He’s extremely hungry, and there is something that we’ve seen with guys that are late additions to tournaments where the pressure’s just a little bit less on them, and we’ve seen them excel — the breakthrough moment for Daniel Cormier was in one of Scott Coker’s tournaments, and he was a backup guy, comes through, beats Josh Barnett in the finals, rolls into the UFC, takes that all the way to a world championship. So yeah, man, I’d be remiss if I don’t mention my own teammate, Brent Primus. I’ll tell you, he is ready to fight.
SD: Another topic regarding this tournament that you’re an expert on is undoubtedly trash talk. Who do you think is the best verbal bomb-thrower in the field?
CS: I think that it’s AJ McKee.
You wanna know who’s very good, but because he’s very intelligent and he’s very charismatic he doesn’t like it [and] he believes it’s unsportsmanlike, is Benson Henderson. When you hang out with him, he’s very clever, very quick. He could tell a story with his eyes and his smile. I’ve watched him captivate rooms. He’s really good at it.
Dominick Cruz is another, and I know Dominick’s not in this tournament; I’m just sharing with you [that] when you talk about within our sport, you wouldn’t know. Dominick Cruz is another guy who, [when] there’s a room full of fighters, Dominick is the star. Dominick is stealing everyone’s attention — but if you bring a camera in, he’ll sit down and Conor [McGregor] will stand up.
SD: Would you make yourself available as a trash talk mentor for these guys in the Lightweight Grand Prix if any of them asked you? The Bad Guy could charge by the hour.
CS: I most definitely will. I’ve had a couple of guys do that, and I like to explain more ideas. I feel like I understand the art of the Bad Guy just by example, or I understand the emotion of it. I feel like I’m good at that and I’m better suited to try to explain some of those concepts than I am to give guys material.
I have given guys material and everyone I gave it to got caught — people wrote back and they go, ‘that’s Chael.’ I must have a cadence or a tone, because they knew that they had some help with some of those tweets. But yeah, man, I would talk to those guys, because I find that to be entertaining.
SD: There is a parallel to what you just described when you read a fighter’s tweet and immediately know it was actually written by Ali Abdelaziz.
CS: [Laughs] Ali needs some help because you know his points, you know what he’s trying to do and usually he’s right, but you gotta have the cadence correct, Sam. You gotta have the right cadence.
SD: Bellator’s commitment to putting on a $1 million Grand Prix tournament in a given weight division is something it can authentically own in order to set it apart from other promotions. How is the sport of MMA doing overall, in your estimation, in terms of organizations offering fans something different from their competitors?
CS: I had an opportunity to work with Dana [White] and I was able to work with Scott Coker. I feel like I could grab my phone and show you an experiment and I could get Dana to answer the phone and I could get Coker to answer the phone — that’s probably a fairly rare spot [to be in].
But I get asked because of that, “Hey, what’s the difference between those two?” And it’s one word: If you ever pitch something to Dana, the response you want to hear from him is “Interesting.” If you ever pitch something to Coker, the response you want to hear from him is “Fun.” And that is the biggest distinction between the two. Now, what is the definition of interesting and what is the definition of fun? But that is how they will both look at it.
Coker will take the temperature of the audience. What do you guys want to see? What do I have to do? I gotta throw a million dollars out here? Fine, I’ll do it. If it’s something and it’s fun and we can have a good time tonight, you’re gonna have his attention. That’s how he is going to sell out arenas using “fun,” and Dana is gonna do it with “interesting.” It’s just, it’s a little bit of a different concept. Basically the same thing, but they can’t both do the same thing.
It takes massive courage to do a Grand Prix just because it’s a competitive architecture. You don’t know who your semifinal is gonna be. You don’t know that’s likely to be your main event somewhere. Can that sell out an arena? Can the media get behind it? Does the audience wanna see that? You don’t know, so you’re doing things out of order — but we always get the right guy. We’ve never had a Grand Prix where the wrong guy got the million bucks or the wrong guy got the belt put around his waist. That’s one thing about a competitive architecture: The eight toughest guys show up and the right one wins.
SD: With how prolific you are as a content creator of various stripes, you’re a member of the MMA media, which is an interesting ecosystem compared to other sports in that it mostly doesn’t consist of reporters and journalists. What do you make of the MMA media landscape, and how do you view your own place in it?
CS: I wanna participate, and it’s very difficult in this sport, as you know, if wanna be part of this sport. You’re not getting it in there and punching or being punched, but it’s hard. It’s hard to find a spot, be a judge, maybe be a referee, do what you and I are doing. It’s hard to participate, but I couldn’t call myself a journalist. I don’t do the research. For a real journalist like you, go out and do it, and then I’ll share an opinion — and I do like to have an opinion.
I think it’s important that I use that word because it’s not always nice. Some of it is biased. I was in the sport; it wasn’t that long ago. I’ve still got some enemies in the sport, so I’m gonna cover it. Sometimes, I’m gonna say what I feel. So, I guess you would call me some level of media, but I could not take the title of journalist. That would not be fair.
SD: Any final thoughts from the American Gangster before we wrap?
CS: I think the fact that Usman Nurmagomedov, who’s putting a world championship [on the line] — we keep talking about the Grand Prix and we keep talking about a million dollars, but man, you gotta take this one at a time. Benson Henderson has an opportunity to be a world champion on Saturday. You got eight guys that are fighting for a Grand Prix, but you got one guy that’s fighting for the strap, and his name’s Benson Henderson and he’s had it before. So, I mean, before you go get ahead of yourself and think that he’s not in this for the million dollars, that’s a bonus — he’s in this to be champion.
Nurmagomedov’s in an interesting spot. First off, he’s supposed to win. That’s tough for anybody, but second, his mentor, his cousin, his coach [Khabib Nurmagomedov] isn’t gonna be there. Now, Usman says it’s no big deal. I asked him personally, I met him one time in my life, and that was the one question I asked him; it was about three or four days after the news of Khabib leaving the sport broke. I said, “Hey man, is this true? Is this real? What I’m hearing is he’s gonna finish out, right? He’s gonna be there for Islam and he’s gonna be at your fight, isn’t he?” He said “No, he’s done, he’s not even coming to practice anymore.” And I said, “Is this a problem for you?” And he said no. He said, “My cousin and his father before that taught us very well. I do not need him there.”
That surprised me. That’s not the reaction that I would have. And I don’t know if he’s telling the truth. I think it will matter. If it was me, it would matter.
Bellator 292: Nurmagomoedov vs. Henderson — the start of the Lightweight Grand Prix tournament — takes place Friday, March 10 at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. The preliminary card begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on YouTube, with the main card beginning at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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