by Mitch Gobetz – MMAWeekly.com
Chael Sonnen’s path back to being a champion hasn’t gone exactly to plan. When he fought in World Extreme Cagefighting against then-champion Paulo Filho, he was dominating him in all aspects. He was beating Filho up on the feet and dominating him with ground and pound. Towards the end of the second round, Filho caught Sonnen in an armbar. While it was evident that Sonnen grimaced in pain, the referee called a stop to the action due to a verbal submission. Sonnen completely disagreed and said he never verbally submitted.

He would have to wait almost a full year to get redemption. The Ultimate Fighting Championship had rumored to acquire the WEC’s middleweight division after this fight, so this was Sonnen’s chance at getting the gold before the merge. Unfortunately for Sonnen, Filho missed weight and the fight was downgraded to a three-round non-title fight. Once again, Sonnen dominated, this time winning a decision.

After the fight, Filho said he would send Sonnen the belt even though it wasn’t on the line.

Filho lived up to his word. “He did,” said Sonnen recently to MMAWeekly. “He sent me the belt. It was a very nice gesture.”

Considering that Sonnen was the top dog in the WEC’s middleweight division, a transfer to the UFC may hinder his chances to be the top contender considering some of the top tier talent in the UFC, like Thales Leites and Nate Marquardt. However, Sonnen is very happy to be back in the juggernaut of mixed martial arts promotions. “Yeah, it’s great. Being with Zuffa (the UFC and WEC’s parent company), it’s a good organization. If this is the business you’re in, you want to be there,” he explained. “Yeah, the UFC has definitely got the history and the tradition. I was thrilled.”

There was much speculation that the winner of the Sonnen/Filho fight would fight middleweight king Anderson Silva. Since Filho didn’t make weight, that plan seemed squashed. “I heard it too and I thought that’s what they were going to do. In my mind, I thought they were going to go in that direction, but I didn’t have anything to base that on. When we saw that Paulo wasn’t making weight, we asked Joe Silva that exact question before the fight even happened. At first, it made sense, champion versus champion. But after he didn’t make weight, and the belt wasn’t on the line, that option was off the table.”

Trying to climb the ladder of the middleweight division once again, Sonnen will be taking on rising contender Demian Maia who is 9-0 in his young career. The fight will take place Saturday night at UFC 95 in London. Their bout will be featured on the main card. “Some things are completely out of my control, like who my opponents are and where I’ll be on the card. I could be fighting the same opponent and the powers that be could not put us on the main card. I don’t know how those decisions get made. I was certainly happy with it, but I didn’t care either way.”

Fighting a tough competitor like Maia provides invaluable experience. If Sonnen is successful in this fight, it could propel him right into title contention.

“Experience is always good,” said the Team Quest fighter. “Anytime you get in the ring with an opponent helps to prepare for bigger situations. All the guys are tough; whether you call him the champion, the contender or an unknown, they are all tough. I don’t know if this specific opponent prepares me more or less, but it’s a good opportunity. He’s a big challenge with some incredible skills and a great record and that’s always fun to see how you are going to deal with these different obstacles.”

Originally, Sonnen hadn’t seen too many of Maia’s previous fights. Now that he is going to be fighting the tough 31-year-old, he has done his homework. “I saw him fight Nate Quarry, but that was a pretty quick affair. I never saw the Ed Herman fight. I knew of him because I helped my teammates prepare for him. I had a feel for what he likes to do. I did get familiar with him now.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Maia presents to Sonnen is his world-class jiu-jitsu. Maia is not afraid to pull guard and find any which way to submit his opponents. Since Sonnen had just taken on Paulo Filho, another top jiu-jitsu practitioner, he feels he is prepared to dictate where the fight goes and make sure that he doesn’t play into his strengths.

“If we’re going to the ground, we’re going to go where he wants to take the fight unfortunately,” said Sonnen. “I’m going to have to work around his schedule to see where the fight goes. I’m not going to try to turn this into a submission match and try to submit him or drop back for a leg lock. I’m going to have to do what I do. Land some shots when I can and stay active and work hard. I’ve got to go out there and impose my will. That will be the fight right there.”