Have you seen Chael Sonnen lately? Sure you have, Chael is everywhere these days. Kids in tow, with respect for his opponent. The modern day Chael has time for every journalist, and can’t seem to help but churn out witty quotes and thought-provoking prognostications.
After getting pummelled by new Bellator signee Lyoto Machida this weekend, Chael left his gloves in the cage and declared that he is calling it a career.
As the MMA world has swirled to react to the icon’s second retirement from the sport, it is not surprising that people want to pay tribute to the charismatic “American Gangster”. But what is surprising is that many of these tributes seem to mistake the Chael Sonnen that we know today, for the Chael Sonnen who became an MMA legend.
If you judge today’s Chael Sonnen for face value, there is virtually no reason to hold ill-will or dislike towards him. As a fighter, even if he’s far past his prime, he’s super game for a fight, recently taking on tough and sometimes larger opponents like Fedor and Rampage Jackson. He is a Bellator company man too, who takes time to praise and promote his opponents (as well as other rising stars in the company). He maintains his credibility by also being fair and praising fighters from rival promotions like the UFC. He even manages to squeeze in work as an analyst for ‘Ariel & The Bad Guy’ along-side MMA veteran reporter, Ariel Helwani. He gives plenty of time to non-ESPN media outlets, and best of all he’s charismatic and entertaining in almost everything he does.
Chael also seems to have grown up a lot since, say, his feud with Anderson Silva almost 10 years ago. He has been through a litany of personal ups and downs — since then his star has risen (and surely his bank account has grown) as a fighter, analyst, and celebrity. He has also been convicted of serious financial crimes and involved in all kinds of civil litigation. He’s gotten married, started a family, and tragically suffered the loss of a newborn baby daughter. Along the way, he failed multiple drug tests and severed ties with the UFC altogether as a result, but all the while managed to remain a star in the fast revolving world of MMA; where stars are quickly forgotten as new talent gobbles them up. Without personally knowing Chael Sonnen one can only speculate, but it seems clear that all of that life experience has perhaps matured him, or at least positioned him in a different perspective today than 10 years ago.
But while it’s easy to like this Modern Chael, it is wrong to substitute him for the Chael Sonnen that made Chael Sonnen. For better and for worse, the most memorable Chael Sonnen was not the lovable family man and sage of the sport we know today — it was the antagonistic, chest-puffing, often bigoted lightning rod known as ‘The Bad Guy’.
Bigotry is of course a loaded word, but a quick glance at some of Chael’s greatest hits quickly warrants it. In the builds to some of his biggest fights, Chael relied on racial and nationalistic tropes and dog-whistles. The Sonnen of today might deflect that this was all just kayfabe; just promotion; that he put money in his opponents’ pockets by being so dislikable. And it’s of course a subjective issue, whether Chael was good and entertaining, relying on cheap insults, or worse. But wherever one lands on what to make of Chael at his most controversial, the controversy certainly shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
In the build to his first bout with Anderson Silva, Chael mocked Silva for wearing earrings and “saggy pants.” He mockingly said his opponent should “go join a gang, don’t get in the UFC. If you want to hang out as a street thug, go do it.” He said that Portuguese was “just a half step up from Pig Latin.”
When Sonnen coached opposite Wanderlei Silva on The Ultimate Fighter, Silva left the show openly condemning Chael as a “racist,” a word that former Sonnen opponent Jon Jones also used to describe him. It isn’t hindsight to say Chael’s race and nationality-fueled comments defined his persona; it’s hindsight to deny that.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Chael’s legacy shouldn’t be recognized. Again, it’s subjective where to draw the line on such sensitive issues, but he also produced some contentious moments that are largely remembered fondly by MMA fans. Most fans consider his quote about the Nogueira brothers trying to feed a carrot to a bus that they mistook for a horse to land on the right side of the line (well, most non-Brazilian fans, anyway). And who could forget when Wanderlei and Chael scrapped on the TUF set, with Chael issuing his famous warning “I can’t let you get close.”
The list goes on and on, for better and for worse. It seems Chael may actually have stopped adding entries to that particular list; the list of controversial, race-baiting, nationalistic taunts and rhetoric that defined the biggest feuds of his career and elevated him to stardom within the sport. Surely that is a good thing. Fans should enjoy the New Chael, the Sportsman, but not at the cost of forgetting the old Chael, the real Chael, the Bad Guy.