From Bellator MMA Cage to Celebrity Apprentice boardroom, Chael Sonnen Thrives on Competition

Celebrity Apprentice
Luis Trinh/NBC

Those who have followed Chael Sonnen within the mixed martial arts world know him as outspoken, competitive and never boring. These traits made him a perfect addition to the already eclectic cast of this season’s Celebrity Apprentice, premiering Monday, Jan. 2 at 8/7 on NBC.

Sonnen, a past coach on the UFC Ultimate Fighter, isn’t too keen on reality shows. However, he watched the Apprentice and likes the concept, so he signed on the dotted line.

“It’s the ultimate game,” he said.

“Take some of the best games you’ve ever played, free games, like hide-and-seek, tag with your friends and think about how much fun you had. Then when you get a little older, maybe you play a little more expensive game like golf where you have to pay $20 or something and think about how much fun you had. This game cost $10 million to put on. It is the ultimate game. The people who understood it to be that had a blast. The people who didn’t had a different experience. It is a game. It was incredible. I literally wish we were going and playing right now. It’s a hustle, set them up and stabs them in the back game. Not everybody understood that concept.”

Sonnen saw the psychology and sociology of it all. And even though the show becomes every man or woman for themselves, Sonnen did form friendships.

Right off the bat, I bonded with Laila Ali,” he said.

“I think that is just because our sports experiences. We had things in common. Still to this day I talk to Jon Lovitz. I thought Vince Neil was just great. There weren’t many people there that were not nice people…The biggest challenge that I think most people felt was the grind. It was every day filming. It was very long. I think we were in hair and makeup at 5 a.m. and wrapped around 10 p.m. It was a grind and filled with long days, so I think some of the sissies weren’t used to working hard. That was the biggest challenge I think people felt.”

One of the highlights of being a part of Celebrity Apprentice for Sonnen was working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took over the boardroom from President-elect Donald Trump.

“He was great,” he said.

“I looked forward to seeing him every day. He has great energy, great attitude and is smart. He was a ton of fun. It was a case of I felt I knew him before I met him for no reason other than he has been in my living room my whole life, not just through his acting career but his political contributions as well. It was kind of a weird experience because I had never met the guy and always admired him. I felt like I knew him before…I thought there were more similarities than difference between Donald and Arnold. They are both tough, to the point and very entertaining as hosts. I loved the boardroom. The boardroom was by far my favorite part.”

The 39-year-old is not only looking for victory in the reality show realm, but when he returns to MMA competition against Tito Ortiz at Bellator 170 on Jan. 21. The Spike TV-televised main event will be Sonnen’s debut for Bellator as part of his deal with the burgeoning company. He is all-in.

“I’m a company man,” he said. “I’ll put in long days and make sure we’ve got exposure and that we have success. You have to make sure your profits exceed your expenditures, and I will do my part.

Preparing for fight night has been admittedly challenging.

“Training is always tough,” Sonnen said. “I have good partners and good coaches. I’m working on anything and everything. There is nothing I feel is complete or a finished package. Everything’s got to get better.”

When comparing his former employer in UFC to his current one in Bellator, he believes there are many similarities with one real distinction.

“The UFC is more of a pay-per-view business while Bellator is in a television ratings model. They have differences in approach. As far as the feel of the sport itself and the rules and the contestants at my level of participation and what my job is to do which is to work hard and make weight and go out there and compete. It’s the same. I do think Bellator’s presentation has similarities to the way a major WWE show is presented.”

Listening to Sonnen on his podcast You’re Welcome! and on others, fans will find him to be very knowledgeable about pro wrestling. He is a fan himself, an opinionated one.

“WWE has been hurting for stars for a while,” Sonnen said.

“They’ve done a really great job with what they have. Somebody needs to emerge though. Now is the perfect opportunity. I do feel like when I watch it that there are guys in the back who haven’t figured out the bureaucracy yet of how to break through. There is no clearer, more opportune of a time than right now. I’m just waiting for that guy to come forward and have their Steve Austin moment and grab control of this thing.”

He believes there are several guys in the back who have potential to reach the next level. Though out of that crop, Sonnen believes they haven’t fully broken through.

“I haven’t seen anyone go into business for themselves,” he said.

“It’s going to take some courage. Somebody is going to have to do it. They are going to have to get a script one day and say, ‘That’s not right.’ They grab a microphone on live TV, put their job on the line and go for it. That’s how it works. It looks like creative has such control over these guys; they just don’t want to see that. But that is what it’s going to take. The time is right now. They are looking for a star, and the fans are looking for a guy they can truly get behind. Somebody needs to step up and do it.”

Looking at the landscape of WWE right now, he thinks a Brock Lesnar versus Bill Goldberg rematch is likely at WrestleMania. Sonnen thinks it shouldn’t be the main event, as that slot should be reserved for “young kids who need to step up and do something.” Reflecting on the decisive Goldberg victory over Lesnar at Survivor Series, Sonnen was legit surprised at the outcome.

“It was exactly what wrestling needed,” Sonnen said.

“The squash match between Lesnar and Goldberg was brilliant. It was brilliant booking. I did not see it coming. In a million years, I did not see that coming. Wrestling needed one of those ‘Oh Wow!’ moments. I thought it was great and very clever. One of the reasons I didn’t see it coming is that we were told as fans that the Goldberg appearance was a one-off. This was billed as his final appearance. So obviously he wouldn’t go over. That was the part WWE swerved us. They had him locked in for a deal further than that. I thought it was fun.”

Fun is what Sonnen has been having working on his many projects. Among them is as promoter for Submission Underground with FloSports. The organization is preparing for its third grappling event on Jan. 29.

“That has been a lot of work and successful,” he said.

“I’ve been enjoying it. There is a lot that goes in that in growing it. If we were to stop where we are right now, I think it would be maintainable. However, the company is growing. We are adding people to it and employees. There is a big vision for that. We’ll see where it goes. We will see what the guys do with it. That is all we can do is bring the atmosphere, and they take it from there. So far they’ve done a great job.”

Overall Sonnen is happy to see MMA growing and evolving at such a rapid pace. He looks forward to the future.

“There are so many opportunities right now with MMA that I didn’t think I would ever experience,” he said.

“And that’s being around for a meaningful time since 2009 when it really exploded and in 2012 when it exploded again with network deals. Then there is Spike TV’s involvement and what they are helping to create. MMA is moving so fast that I don’t know if I have a predication for 2017 as I sit back and enjoy as I see the moves. MMA is not a checkers game right now. It’s a chess game and thinking two and three steps ahead. I really enjoy watching the maneuvering with the top organizations and what is to come.”

Celebrity Apprentice airs Monday at 8/7 on NBC.