Chael Sonnen isn’t your typical politician. For one, he actually answered our questions. But more important, the All-American wrestler from Oregon taught us some of the best tricks from his playbook.
Despite his reputation as one of the UFC’s loudest stars, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about any martial art or training. We hope you’ll enjoy his interview with Lito Angeles, a Southern California-based police officer, mixed martial artist and author of Fight Night: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts.
Lito Angeles: I read that you started wrestling at a very young age.
Chael Sonnen: I come from a family of wrestlers—my father, my uncles, my cousins were all very good. I begged my dad to get me into wrestling, but he wanted me to do karate or boxing. Finally, he let me wrestle when I was 9.
Angeles: Did you wind up doing any karate or boxing?
Sonnen: I got into boxing later, but not then.
Angeles: And you stayed with wrestling all the way to the collegiate level, right?
Sonnen: Yes. I wrestled through high school and got a scholarship to the University of Oregon. In 2001 I graduated from college and was working out at a gym in the back of a car lot. There was one mat and nothing else, but Randy Couture and Dan Henderson worked out there every day. It was an hour and a half from where I was living, and I made the drive every single day to wrestle with them. We were all trying to make the Olympic team. They let me in, and it was the three of us. After college, I went back to training with them, and they were wearing MMA gloves. I just put on a pair of gloves and continued practicing.
Angeles: Does that mean you recommend wrestling as the best foundation for MMA?
Sonnen: Well, it has to be some kind of grappling. There’s a statistic: 100 percent of fights start standing up, and 80 percent of them end up on the ground. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling have done really well in MMA, but I don’t know that any form of grappling has been proven to be better.
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The grass always seems greener—I wish I knew more of other disciplines than wrestling, while other fighters probably wish they knew more wrestling. I wish more judo practitioners participated in MMA.
Sonnen: Jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling are well-represented. All three styles of wrestling, from collegiate to Greco-Roman to freestyle, are, too. I know judo is a good, competitive sport. I wish there was more judo in MMA so I could see how it stacks up.
Angeles: After a student develops a grappling base, do you recommend muay Thai or boxing—or something else?
Sonnen: I’d say boxing. Muay Thai is good, bit it’s very hard to practice. There aren’t a lot of muay Thai guys around—it’s not in high schools or colleges or the Olympics—so it’s hard to find guys to practice with. Elbows are effective, but you can’t do them in practice without hurting someone. Same with knees. With boxing, however, you can put on the gear and find a partner, and it seems to do well in MMA.
Angeles: But then you give up kicks. …
Sonnen: Kicks aren’t as effective in fighting. If you land one, great. You can do good things with it. But kickboxing had to put in a rule that you had to kick a guy three times per round or you’d lose a point. The reason was, guys quit kicking. They just boxed because boxing is more effective. With that said, I spend the majority of my time doing kickboxing and muay Thai. But if I was mentoring a young fighter, I’d tell him to spend more time on boxing. That doesn’t mean I would ignore kickboxing—you still need to learn the defenses—but in stand-up, it’s hard to beat good, solid boxing.
Angeles: How is muay Thai boxing different from Western boxing?
Sonnen: The big difference is head movement. In muay Thai, there’s not a ton of head movement. You use your foot to get the guy off-line, then you step out and sweep his leg to off-balance him. In boxing, you just shift out of the way and use that momentum to come right in and attack. Head movement is so important, especially when you’ve got those little 4-ounce gloves on. If you just land one shot, you can break the guy’s nose, open a cut or knock him out.
Angeles: Does knowing wrestling and boxing cover all the bases with respect to technique, or should a person add other arts like karate or sambo?
Sonnen: I would never close the door. Sometimes it’s cool to poke fun at a martial art and say, “That would never work,” but that isn’t true. I don’t know arts like kung fu and aikido; maybe you’d be very effective if you took one thing from them and added it to your base. Same with karate—maybe you can grab one or two things, and if it works. … Don’t turn your nose up at anything.
Angeles: Lyoto Machida is a great example of that.
Sonnen: Yes. If I’d told you two years ago that a karate guy was going to be world champion, you’d have told me I was crazy. He took what he believed in and made it work.
Angeles: Let’s talk training methods. A lot of fighters claim they train six or eight hours a day, but you’ve said you don’t believe it.
Sonnen: Nobody trains for six, seven hours a day. A lot of people don’t know what training is. There’s a big difference between working out and training. A workout is playing a game of basketball or doing something that makes you break a sweat. Training is a whole other level of intensity that few MMA guys understand. I work out for 45 minutes to an hour in the morning, and afternoon practice is from an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half. That’s [the norm in] every gym, not just ours.
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Angeles: What’s the breakdown of your workouts?
Sonnen: The morning workout is for strength and conditioning, but it doesn’t have to be. You can grab a partner and work on techniques and drills and stuff like that. I do everything from running to pushing sleds to running with parachutes to pulling things with ropes. We work really hard, then go home and rest up. In the afternoon, I go to Team Quest. That’s hands-on with a partner. We have a coach and a team. We do warm-ups and drills and work on techniques, then go live rounds and finish with some conditioning.
Angeles: What do you do for strength?
Sonnen: I do a lot of body-weight exercises, usually with a weighted vest on. I do squats while holding a 22-pound medicine ball, plus overheads, slamming and push-passes. I don’t know that it’s more effective than lifting weights. Lifting is my favorite workout; I just don’t do it now.
Angeles: Do you recommend any specific exercises for aspiring MMA fighters?
Sonnen: I encourage people to do the basics. There are a lot of fancy programs that are popular, but most of them are ways to get around hard work. Put on a pair of running shoes, open your front door and come back an hour later—nothing beats that. Same with a stair stepper. It’s annoying, it’s grueling, it’s effective. There’s a lot of business flipping tires or swinging a sledgehammer, but there’s no science behind a lot of it. You pick up a weight until you get tired, then put it down and go home. There’s something to be said for doing different things out of boredom, though—to break things up and keep workouts from becoming stale.
Angeles: For endurance, are you a proponent of running sprints or going long distance?
Sonnen: If you run one or two hours at a slow pace—120 beats per minute—they say you can build a better base than if you just do sprints. I tend to do sprints because they’re harder, and I feel like I get more out of them. I try to do three runs a week: a slow one with a partner, where you’re talking the whole time, for an hour or an hour and 20 minutes; a day of sprints; and a day of hills or stairs. But that’s only because somebody told me that would work.
Angeles: Do you follow any particular diet, or do you eat whatever you want in moderate amounts?
Sonnen: I don’t do anything in moderation. (laughs) If you have a fight coming up and you have to make weight, you have to make sure that your calorie output surpasses your input. There’s nothing more to losing weight than that. It’s calories in vs. calories out. The same stuff they taught your grandparents is what works today.
With that said, you should try to get the most bang for your buck, which usually takes you to fruits and vegetables so you can eat more. But you can eat Big Macs if you want to, as long as you make sure they contain fewer calories than you’re putting out.
Angeles: Is there anything martial artists should avoid?
Sonnen: I’ve never tasted alcohol in my life, but that’s not sports related. I don’t avoid anything.
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Angeles: When you’re practicing technique, do you separate stand-up, clinch and ground work?
Sonnen: I combine them, but that’s just the gym I work out at. When I show up for practice, the only question is, big gloves or little gloves? If it’s little gloves, there’s going to be more emphasis on grappling, and the strikes will have less of an impact. With bigger gloves, you can strike harder.
Angeles: Do you do technique sequences, or is it more improvised?
Sonnen: The coach calls it out: “One, two,” which is jab, cross; “one, two, 10,” which is jab, cross, power leg; and so on. Even when we’re on our own doing “flowing” drills, it’s always a sequence: Lead with something, follow up with something and find an exit.
Angeles: Is there a theme to each workout—for example, getting out of a triangle choke?
Sonnen: There should be. If your coach doesn’t have one, you come up with one yourself. I used to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and every day there was an emphasis written on the board. It’s a good mental drill to do it yourself sometimes.
Angeles: Do you have any favorite stand-up techniques that you’d recommend to readers?
Sonnen: When I was an amateur wrestler, I had favorite moves—there were only two or three things I scored with. In MMA, I can’t answer. There’s no position in which I go, “OK, good, this is where I wanted to be.” It’s a constant battle. I don’t have any specific things I’m looking for. I assumed that they would come over time, like they did in wrestling, but they haven’t. I don’t have anything I know will work anytime against any opponent. I’m searching for it.
Angeles: When it comes to techniques, do you think that less is more? Or do you think that more is better?
Sonnen: I like to know a lot of moves because it’s fun to know a lot of stuff. You’ll only score with two or three moves, and those two or three moves will have two or three setups. In competition, you throw everything out and zero in on scoring techniques. But you’re always looking for things to add because if you can increase those two or three moves to four moves, it will be great.
Tap into Lito Angeles’ knowledge of MMA and the martial arts with Fight Night! The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts. Structured like an encyclopedia, Fight Night! dissects the anatomy of more than 90 MMA techniques. Starting with the Americana choke and ending with the wrestling clinch, each entry contains a concise description of key characteristics that clearly identify each MMA technique; detailed photo sequences of common applications for easy visual reference and understanding; and entertaining and educational insights, such as common counters and notable executions by famous MMA fighters like Georges St. Pierre, Cung Le and B.J. Penn.