mma / Columns

The Legacy of Chael Sonnen

June 24, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

When his road wound down the WEC’s path in 2007, Chael Sonnen was 30 years old, a known commodity. Sonnen was a good journeyman fighter. He had skill, he had grit, but he typically fell short against a certain level of fighter. He wouldn’t be great or a big star, but he’d be a solid.

It turns out things can change quickly.

Within three years Sonnen was one of the biggest names in the sport. He toppled top-level fighters and challenged all-time greats, all the while walking a tightrope. For a time, his balance proved remarkably steady, but as was inevitable, he came crashing down.

Sonnen retired after losing to Lyoto Machida on June 14. It’s his second retirement, and although it’s probably safest to wait until a fighter turns 60 before waving off their career, a comeback likely won’t change the overarching story of Chael Sonnen’s career.

For the purposes of this column, we’ll skip to the middle of his career, because that’s where things start to get good.

Most modern fans either don’t know who Paulo Filho is or only know him as a name that ended his career on a major downswing. But in 2007, Filho was ranked as no worse than the second-best middleweight in the world, and a sizeable contingent felt he was better than his friend and teammate Anderson Silva, who generally assumed the number one position in rankings. Filho was 15-0 with a killer ground game when Chael Sonnen, riding a five-fight win streak, challenged him for WEC’s middleweight title.

Wrestling has been celebrated as perhaps the best base for an MMA fighter, but there is also something of a stigma of having a boring style that a wrestler in MMA must prove to shake off. Sometimes that leads to fighters adapting their style for a new sport—the wrestler becomes the sprawl-and-brawler. Sonnen was always a wrestler and an aggressor until his last competitive second. These would help push him toward tremendous success, but that offensive aggression probably also caused some critical errors.

Although he was fighting a dangerous submission grappler, Sonnen didn’t change much of his game for Filho. He grabbed Filho as soon as he could and slammed him on his back within the first minute of the fight. Sonnen shouted at the referee that this slam had put Filho out—Filho did later admit he was in a bad spot—but Filho rebounded quickly enough for the fight to resume. It was largely a grappling match, the kind where Sonnen was playing with fire. If it went to a decision it would mean Sonnen controlled and beat Filho up enough that he avoided Filho’s submissions. But if it ended early, it meant Sonnen got burnt.

There were multiple close calls. There was a guillotine, an armbar, and then another armbar with 15 seconds left in the first round. It was that last armbar that trapped Sonnen. He never tapped, but the referee stepped in with ten seconds left on the clock. On the replay, Sonnen looks to be shouting in pain, which is as good as a verbal submission, but if he said anything, it wasn’t picked up in the audio.

The Filho fight was a sign of things to come for Sonnen. This was a legitimate world champion that entered as a substantial favorite, and Sonnen took the fight to him before falling by submission. Controversy aside, the fight showed very clearly that Sonnen wasn’t what we thought he was and that he could compete with top level opponents. Of course, it took a couple of years before that would become widely accepted and recognized.

Sonnen and Filho fought again a year later. This time Filho missed weight and had one of the most bizarre performances in MMA history. Filho seemed out of it for the entire fight, and Sonnen took a clear decision, but the title stayed with Filho, since his missing weight had changed the bout to a non-title affair.

At the time it was hard to know what to make of Sonnen from the Filho bouts, because it was impossible to know what to make of Filho. After their second bout, WEC’s middleweight division moved over to the UFC (Filho left in free agency). Sonnen tangled with the then-unbeaten Demian Maia in early 2009, with Maia stopping him in the first round with an all-time great triangle choke setup.

In May 2009, Sonnen agreed to fight Dan Miller on short notice, beginning a series of fights that would ultimately escalate him to a title bout. He defeated Miller, a durable submission grappler, by decision, which led to a fight with Yushin Okami. Okami had been the dangerous fighter in the division that deserved a title shot, but didn’t have a big name and wasn’t considered marketable, so he kept getting passed over.

The Okami fight is where we started to see Chael Sonnen the talker emerge. Sonnen had always been well spoken, but he hadn’t fully unleashed his charisma yet. It began to rear its head prior to the Okami fight, and would only grow more fantastical and attention grabbing. He prepared witty remarks and memorable sayings that he made sure he’d get in during an interview or Q&A session. He called out anyone he pleased, insulting nations and groups of people. These landed him the biggest fights and rivalries of his career; these were some of the most notable happenings in the sport over this time.
At his zenith, you could not escape Chael Sonnen. He was as eager to be heard as he was generous with his time, and so an MMA fan was faced with a constant stream of Sonnen interviews and stories. After a while it became overplayed and annoying, but then more gold would be mined and you’d be brought back in again.

Sonnen’s bombastic proclamations have led to countless terrible impersonators over the years, which might be his most negative contribution to the sport. Clearly, Sonnen was a worker—many things he said he didn’t actually believe or he simply amplified things he actually did believe. At times it was entertaining. At times he intentionally caused individuals and groups offense. My impression is he justified saying terrible things because it was in the name of building a fight, but that’s not valid justification to many people.

It seemed to me Sonnen’s philosophy was to say almost anything to get attention. It worked, he got attention, but he could be so over the top that it was a detriment to his cause. I felt Sonnen was most effective when he spoke with clear, human sincerity—promising his father he’d be a world champion; his desire to be the best, if only for one day. These moments made him less of a cartoon character and were far more compelling than recycled Superstar Billy Graham promos.

The cartoon character wasn’t fully sketched out by the time of the Okami fight, but Sonnen the fighter was just hitting his prime. In his fourth consecutive fight as the underdog (he had won fight in which he was favored between the two Filho bouts), Sonnen turned in the best performance of his career to that point, handling Okami and winning all three rounds.

The performance and his voice took him from the untelevised prelims against Okami to a pay-per-view co-main event against Nate Marquardt, then a top contender coming off a 21 second knockout win over Demian Maia. With a ho-hum Randy Couture vs. Mark Coleman legends bout headlining the pay-per-view, Sonnen grabbed attention with a dominant win over Marquardt, and he made it clear he wanted to fight Anderson Silva.

The Silva-Sonnen rivalry can be boiled down to respect. Sonnen didn’t respect Silva enough to not talk a lot of shit about him, and that upset Silva (more so leading into the second fight than the first). Sonnen, a massive underdog, built the first fight by insisting he would dominate the fight. Almost nobody believed him, but it got attention. Then Sonnen went into the fight and backed up every word he said.

Fights can be built based on a story, but very rarely do they play out in a way that compliments or continues that story. Silva vs. Sonnen was an exception. Chael Sonnen promised he would beat Anderson Silva up, he promised that it wouldn’t be a close fight, and that’s the way the fight went. After Sonnen insulted Silva’s BJJ black belt from the Nogueira brothers, Silva promised them he would submit Sonnen. It took longer than he would have liked—23 minutes and 10 seconds—but he did just that.

After the fight, Sonnen failed a drug test for an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. This was followed by farcical hearings and claims that Sonnen hadn’t gone through puberty. Sonnen was ultimately suspended for the duration of his license with the California State Athletic Commission, ending on June 29, 2011.

In the aftermath of these events, Sonnen became one of the leading faces of testosterone replacement therapy in MMA. Following a Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) decision that effectively eliminated TRT from the sport in February 2014, Sonnen intended to continue fighting. He had a major grudge match scheduled against Wanderlei Silva, but Silva dodged an NAC drug test and was removed from the fight. Sonnen remained on the card against replacement fighter Vitor Belfort.

In the lead up to the bout, Sonnen failed a drug test for the banned substances anastrozole and clomiphene. He subsequently announced his retirement for the first time. Weeks later, another test came back positive for banned substances HGH, EPO, anastrozole, and hCG. With the evidence insurmountable, Sonnen finally admitted he was using PEDs to gain an upper hand.

Sonnen returned from the first drug suspension and fought back to a rematch with Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title. The first round saw Sonnen take Silva down and pass to mount—a bad sign of things to come for Silva for the rest of the fight. In the second Sonnen had a tougher time taking Silva down. He went for it all with a wild spinning back that Silva easily evaded. That left Sonnen on his butt against the fence, where Silva landed a crushing blow to the chest that precipitated the end of the fight.

Then—this is the beauty of being a great talker—Sonnen fell into a light heavyweight title match with Jon Jones. It didn’t come close to either Silva fight in terms of anticipation; there was no personal rift between the two and nobody felt there was a chance Sonnen could threaten Jones.

The last seven bouts of Sonnen’s career were all against hall of fame level fighters: Shogun Rua, Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson, Fedor Emelianenko, and finally Lyoto Machida.

There is much to digest in terms of Sonnen’s legacy. He wanted to be the best and so he did literally everything he could to make that happen. He wanted big fights and to make a lot of money, and so he said literally everything he could to make that happen.

Sonnen is a complex character study; you can rattle off negatives, but almost as easily you can find examples of his kindness and tremendous generosity. I care to neither vilify him nor prop him up as a hero. For a period, he was one of the most interesting fighters in the sport. Outside of time that he was never dull and often compelling. Whether you care how he got there or not, it worked to a strong degree, and almost worked perfectly.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Chael Sonnen, Dan Plunkett