BOSTON -- "We wouldn't even be meeting today, you know," I said a few moments after I walked into the café, "if a certain someone hadn't been chased out of this very neighborhood back in the day."
It was a curveball of a conversation starter, but that was the thought that had crossed my mind as I walked along scorching West Broadway from where I'd parked, blocks and blocks away. I was a minute or two late for our coffee date, but it was too hot to rush. As I watched an off-duty cop direct traffic around a noisy street repair, he removed his cap and in the same motion wiped a shimmer of sweat from his face. Halfway down the block, cars were double-parked in front of a convenience store. The lawman ignored them. Southie has always operated by an idiosyncratic set of rules.
So must we all when entering into conversation with one Chael Sonnen. Especially if said conversation is for publication and you're looking for some insight rather than for someone to incite. Ask the man an obvious question, or even the most situationally appropriate one, and he'll be ready with a dramatic monologue that, while being delivered with method acting aplomb, is as fluid as Bill Evans improvisation. Even when repeated, again and again. The man has a keen eye for what's coming. His cleverness has the bat speed to knock a softball out of the park.
Sonnen can hit a curve, too. He was reclining in a broad easy chair when I'd walked in, his lovely bride, Brittany, sitting in a chair to one side, the UFC's tour guide to the stars, Chris Costello, seated on the other side of the table. Chael looked restful. He looked asleep, actually, eyelids slammed shut. Apparently he'd gotten barely an hour of sleep on the red-eye from Los Angeles that he and his new wife had come in on. She looked fresh. He didn't. I hated to stir him. I would have been fine just basking in the air conditioning for a bit, letting the man rest, but he had a fairly packed schedule for his day in Boston, with our coffee chat squeezed between appearances on local morning TV news shows and a lunchtime visit to The Boston Globe. All to talk up Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event at TD Garden against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).
The fight was still a month away at the time, so it wasn't foremost on my mind. I was mostly thinking big picture, and after I got Sonnen's attention, that is where my offhand existential inquiry came in. Chael listened to me mention "a certain someone" and "this very neighborhood" and immediately knew I was referring to the man he playfully calls "Uncle Dana." He knows the story as well as anyone: how Dana White, as a young man living in South Boston, was teaching boxercise classes at a health club in the neighborhood and was shaken down for protection money by Whitey Bulger's mob; how Dana didn't have the cash and, after being threatened by the thugs, skipped out of Southie to start a new life in Las Vegas. If not for that cross-country move, where would the UFC be today? Would there even be a UFC today?
"That's an interesting thing to think about," Sonnen (27-13-1) said. "Especially considering the court case going on." He reached for the copy of the Globe folded on the table in front of him. "It's right here on the front page of the paper." (The case would go on until Monday, when the 83-year-old Bulger was convicted of 11 murders and an assortment of other crimes, including extortion and money laundering. Before being caught two years ago, Whitey had been on the run since 1995, not too long after his threats had sent Dana White on the run.)
"I don't know what would have happened with the UFC," said Sonnen. "But it's an interesting what-if story."
It's in the past, though, and the most intriguing what-if scenarios in Chael's life and career now lie in the future. That's not necessarily a bad thing for a 36-year-old who has lost his last two fights and three of his last five. At the conclusion of his most recent defeat, a first-round TKO at the hands (and elbows and knees) of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones back in April, Sonnen appeared to have no future in the octagon. "I'm not going to be one of the guys that hang around," he said resignedly in an interview immediately after Jones had had his hand raised. "If there's not a road to the title, then this sport isn't for me. I believe that was probably my last opportunity."
Yet there he was, weeks later, accepting a late-replacement slot to face Rua (21-7), the former 205-pound champ. After Antonio Rogerio Nogueira pulled out with an injury, Sonnen and "Shogun" were to meet in the UFC 161 co-main event in June. Then, suddenly, the fight was scratched, with no official explanation. There were reports that Sonnen's 2011 felony conviction in a mortgage fraud case, stemming from his stint as a real estate agent, made it difficult for him to procure a visa to fight in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Whatever the case, the UFC took note that the bout had garnered some interest, despite the fact that Rua's resume has been a checkerboard of win-loss-win-loss for going on four years. So the fight was resuscitated and given top billing on the Boston card, making it a convenient opportunity for cross-promotion. The fight card happens to be the centerpiece of Saturday's debut of the new Fox Sports 1 channel, and Chael has been working for Fox as co-host of the weekly show UFC Tonight and on post-fight shows.
"I was supposed to call this card for FS1," said Sonnen. "I was supposed to sit back and watch it, from the studio in L.A., then talk about it. And then my duties changed."
I suggested that maybe he could break new ground in fighting and broadcasting by doing both at the same time. "I wish I could," he said with a smile. "If they would only legalize a headset in the cage ..."
Distraction? What distraction? The broadcast career, which suits the loquacious Sonnen, might appear to be a big career break that's come too soon. But Chael is just fine holding down two jobs in the present moment. He has the time. Even with a fight coming up, he trains twice a day for a total of less than three hours. "So there are 21 hours left in the day," he said. "I like to stay busy. I like to do other things."
Among the things he likes to do is something many fighters say they never do: looking past their next opponent. Sonnen understands what he's in for against Rua -- "He's as tough as anyone I can think of, a true legend of the sport" -- and he's planning on showing up on Saturday night prepared. But not over-prepared. If you focus on an opponent too much, he believes, you're not going to perform at your best. "There's something called paralysis by analysis," he insisted. "So when I see an athlete start talking about what lies beyond this opponent, as a betting man I like that. It means, OK, good, he's in a relaxed place, he's thinking about something else. It's good to look past a guy, just to clear your head."
When you take that long view, you see the vast landscape in front of you. Which if you're continually moving, keeps changing. Sonnen's career vista is a case in point. His last fight was a dominant loss to the light heavy champ. Before that he twice was defeated by middleweight belt holder Anderson Silva. As things stood, he had zero chance of getting a whiff of championship leather ever again, unless he cut off a leg and took on Georges St-Pierre or went on the Body by Roy Nelson training program and took a beer belly into the cage against Cain Velasquez. So what was the point of continuing? Chael had said it himself following the Jones fight: "If there's not a road to the title, then this sport isn't for me."
Well, as my GPS likes to say when I stray: "Recalculating route."
Sonnen might have been the second-happiest man in the UFC after Chris Weidman knocked out Silva a little over a month ago to seize the 185-pound belt. Now Chael, who has never faced Weidman, has that road to the title he requires in order to keep his career going. It's a treacherous roadway, for sure, one that could lead right over a cliff if Weidman loses his rematch with the ex-champ in December. But if the New Yorker remains champion, Sonnen at least has a chance to be part of the conversation.
Conversation -- some of it one-way -- has taken Chael to the verge of the sport's greatest heights. He's not won a UFC championship, but he's competed for one three times. And when he says that in order to get there, "you have to win your fights, because it always comes down to wins and losses," he's ignoring the fact that his challenge of Jones came following a loss and was his first fight at light heavyweight in seven years. So Sonnen understands that his knack for connecting with the mainstream of the mixed martial arts fan base -- even while alienating some with comments deemed xenophobic (casting Brazil as a backward culture) or clownishly pot-stirring (denigrating the fistic skills of Silva, he of the seven-year win streak) -- can continue to take him to desirable places, as long as certain doors remain open.
"Here's what you have to understand: The landscape changes so incredibly quickly that you have to be flexible," he said. "Opportunities open up all the time. I'm a reactor, in large part. I can do my part to manipulate or guide my own career, but like everyone else, I mostly am left to react to situations. I don't know what's going to happen."
With everything up in the air, it seemed that we'd reached the point in our conversation where another curveball was in order. So I signaled to the bullpen. I'd brought my 10-year-old son with me, because we were headed to a weekend-long bluegrass festival and Boston was more or less on the way. I'd promised him that if he would be quiet during my interview I'd let him ask a question. And to his credit he'd sat there drinking lemonade the whole time, without a peep. I motioned to him that it was his turn.
"OK," Aaron said a bit shyly, looking down at his nearly empty lemonade bottle. Then he looked up at Chael and said, "OK, if weight was not an issue, and you could choose anyone, who would you want to fight?"
Sonnen leaned toward my boy and smiled. "I would want to fight the smallest guy with the worst record in the largest venue for the biggest paycheck," he said, eyes dancing. He was speaking slowly and deliberately in order to make sure every word was heard and understood. In other words, he was doing what he always does: connecting with his audience. "I would need a second to figure out who that fighter is. I would imagine it's Cody McKenzie." Chael sat back, then leaned forward again. "No, I know who it is. The worst guy under contract with the UFC is clearly Wanderlei. Wanderlei Silva, there's your answer."
Aaron stared ahead, blankly. I imagined that he was thinking, "Is that plastic figure I have in my room of Wanderlei Silva or Anderson Silva?"
Sonnen had a different idea of what was going through my boy's head. "I know what you're thinking," he said. "You're thinking, 'What about CroCop?' And you're right: CroCop was terrible. But I would probably fight Wanderlei."
I am not sure my kid knows who Mirko "CroCop" Filipvic is. But he was satisfied by the answer. He enjoyed it a lot, in fact, judging by the smile.
But Sonnen wasn't finished with him. He looked down by Aaron's feet, where the boy's black fiddle case sat. Becasue of the oppressive heat, we didn't dare leave the instrument in the car, with the tent and other camping supplies. "Now let me ask you a question," said Chael. "Can you play 'The Orange Blossom Special'?"