This past weekend the MMA world seen one of the most polarizing figures in the sport hang them up after a second round TKO loss to Lyoto Machida, but what does he leave?
A look at Chael Sonnen’s record would lead one to believe he was quite the journeymen, going 31-17-1 over the span of his career, but Sonnen’s career was much more than a win a loss stat. Sonnen was to orchestrate two of the the biggest changes in the sport
The Rise of A trash talker
Before Sonnen, there was little in the way of trash talk in MMA. Tito Ortiz talked a lot of smack, but much of it made for some of the best unintentional comedy in MMA history. The majority of the words exchanged consisted of threats of bodily harm and not much else.
That was until Sonnen showed up brought innovation to the entire game. During the lead up to his first title fight with Anderson silva, Sonnen avoided talks of harm and went straight to Silva’s culture, friends and anything else he thought would get a rise out of the long time champ. He attacked Anderson’s black belt claiming such an achievement can be found in a happy meal.
Sonnen brought much of the tactics used in professional wrestling to help build his brand, he did away with vicious threats and muscle flexing, Chael took the time to craft promos, he hit major talking points and used every second of mic time to build his character. Press conferences started to gain attention, many of times garnering as much attention as the fight itself.
People lined up to see the character that Sonnen had created. Sonnen wooed the crowd with his quick one liners and verbal attacks on his opponent. During his run in the UFC he was one of, if not the biggest, draw the company had. Everyone wanted to fight him.
Sound familiar? Sonnen was McGregor before Conor was a blip on the UFC’s radar. Much like Conor, Sonnen pushed boundaries and tip toed the lines of bigotry with some of his comments about Brazilian children. One could argue, with a few different directions in his career, Sonnen could have very well been the biggest star the sport had seen.
The Ultimate Rival
Every great fighter needs a rival, a rival brings out the best in said athlete. What would Ali be without Frazer, Liddell without Ortiz, Ortiz without Shamrock, and the list goes on and on.
Though Fedor was considered the GOAT, Anderson Silva had been widely regarded as one of the sports kings. With 7 title defences on his resume, two dazzling wins at light heavyweight, one over a former champion, and well on his way to crushing the title defense record, one would think Silva was a can’t miss super star.
However, fresh off the now infamous performance at UFC 112, in which Anderson plodded around the cage and seemed to have little interest in engaging with opponent; Damien Maia. Dana White was enraged to the point where he did not stick around to put the belt on his long time champion, and had even said if Silva ever had another performance like that again he would cut him. Dana had also said this is the type of stuff that will keep Anderson from ever becoming a star.
With everything that went down at 112, Silva was in need of a fresh start, he needed something to get him off the bosses blacklist. Silva needed a special fight that would draw the people in and rehabilitate his image. This was no easy feat, as Anderson spoke little to no english and had failed to connect with the paying audience in a meaningful way. Much of the division had already been beaten by Silva in dominant fashion so finding what Anderson needed to be compiling would prove a challenge.
That was until they paired him up against Sonnen. Chael carried the weight of promoting, Taking over the media junkets and having Silva across from him at all opportunities. Sonnen attacked Silva at every turn, owned the verbal interactions and had the MMA a buzz.
Not much was made of the fight itself, many felt that with his limited striking ability, Sonnen would get obliterated by Silva. With little expectations, fans were fresh off Jon Fitch picking up a decision win over Thiago Alves and they had settled in to watch Sonnen get what’s coming to him. As stated many felt it would be a one sided thumping by the dominant champion, so what interest in the fight was due to fans wanting to see the loud mouth get what he had coming, or the small percentage who thought that Sonnen had a chance.
What went down was one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Sonnen came out and took it to the champion: dropping him with strikes, gaining takedowns, and dominating every round of the fight. Going into the final frame, Silva needed a finish.
Both combatants met in the middle of the cage and Sonnen, once again gained the advantage with a takedown. It looked like it was all but over and we were about to witness the crowning of a new champion. That was until late in the second minute of the round, Silva slipped his legs around Sonnen’s head and locked in a triangle. After trying to sit out of the submission. Chael succumbed to the submission and tapped ten seconds into the third minute.
It has become the signature win for Anderson Silva. He was pushed to the brink, but still managed to pull off the victory. UFC 117 pulled in over 600k in PPV buys, Silva had only ever out drawn that number at UFC 97, which was shored up with the co-main event which saw Chuck Liddell take on Pride fighting stand out, Shogun Rua. The rematch between Silva and Sonnen Garnered over 900k in buys. Sonnen gave anderson what he needed, a rival and a signature win.
USADA and the TRT Era
Shortly after failing to capture gold at UFC 117, Sonnen had a raito of 16.9/1 in his Testosterone/ Epi-testosterone test, which is 16 times the allowable ratio. This led to a farcical haring with the California State Athletic Commission in which Sonnen brought in a questionable doctor to help fight his case for the necessity of a TRT in his life. Even with the need of TRT, 16.9/1 is excessively high from the 4/1 ratio that is common in athletes who need the therapy.
Sonnen pointed out that he had been told by the Nevada State Athletic Commission that he did not need to disclose his health issues anymore, being that he had obtained a therapeutic use exemption. Keith Kizer, the director of the NSAC at the time, claimed that no such conversation ever happened and the story Sonnen had told the CASC to get his suspension lowered was totally fabricated.
This woulden’t be the last time Sonnen would run into issues with drug testing. Sonnen would head to Brazil to coach against his upcoming opponent, Wanderlei Silva in 2014. The fight was due to take place at UFC 175, however Silva was pulled from the bout when he ran from drug testing. The UFC slated Vitor Belfort to take Silva’s place, but that fight was also railroaded when Sonnen popped himself.
Sonnen would go on to fail another random test and was subsequently released from his duties as an analyst, which was a decision agreed upon by the UFC and Fox.
Sonnen’s case was a tipping point which showed the public just how inadequate the UFCs testing was. Sonnen’s final failed test with the UFC happened in the summer of 2014. The Sonnen debacle was a black eye on the UFC and the subsequent handling of the proceedings showed just how hilariously badly managed the NSAC and UFC were, so the media started to take notice, criticising the UFC for their lacklustre testing.
More cracks started to form, as more and more fighters where finding their own way of taking steroids and it was starting to become a farce. This was because the state governments were tasked with performing tests, and obviously your home-state is less likely to test you. Vitor Belfort even had all his fights moved to Brazil, and people started taking notice of the shadiness.
Belfort had been battering people for years, yet his body looked to be that of a twenty year old. Fans and media alike started to ask questions, and started to hypothesise that the middle-weight was going out of his way to re-locate cards to Brazil, as the lack of a commission allowed him to compete while skirting the TRT ban that was put in place by the Navada State Athletic Commission in February of 2014.
In the Summer of 2015, after three events which had positive tests, the UFC announced a partnership with USADA. While the consecutive failed tests were the straw that broke the proverbial back, but make no mistake, having someone like Sonnen who was so popular in the company, failing a bunch of tests was the major push that got the ball rolling in the first place.
Sonnen was a major player in the MMA world and he was front in-center on UFC programming. They used him in their flagship show on FOX, and he was one of their biggest draws. Sonnen was like the blood in the veins of the UFC machine. He touched every part of the company, from being a headlining fighter to spokesperson. Once all the failed tests came to light it was a blow to their business and an egg on their face. Sonnen put them in a place of being the reactionary to said actions, there was no spin, and no way to sugar coat what had happened with Sonnens failed tests.
It was Sonnen who put the wheels in motion which led to USADA’s involvement in the UFC. The TRT ban was an attempt to put a band aid on the problem, with no way to regulate it, the commission hoped the ban would be the plaster to fix the hole, but the dam had already been compromised.
Much can be said about Sonnen, but one thing that cannot be denied is that the impacts he had on the sport sent ripples that would be felt forever. Many would consider his involvement a black eye on the sport, but he was much more than that.
He was before his time, he was the talker, the prototype public figure, and could fit any role the company needed him. With his deep insights and his ability to get people to follow, he is an asset to any MMA platform. Others would argue his outside transgressions and some of the things he has said were bigoted, and those people aren’t wrong. Chael made a career of threading on toes and would stop at nothing to get where he wanted to get. He was the Ultimate heel, and he loved playing that role.
So, thank you to the bad guy, the gangster from west lin, the one, the only Chael P Sonnen, He might be done fighting, but we will never be done talking about him.