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The real Chael Sonnen?

Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
199   //    Timeless

Chael Sonnen faces off with Fedor Emelianenko this weekend
Chael Sonnen faces off with Fedor Emelianenko this weekend

Bellator 208 goes down on Saturday night and in the main event, former UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen takes on former PRIDE champion and MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in the second semi-final of Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix. It’s arguably the biggest fight of 2018 thus far outside of the UFC juggernaut, as while every Fedor fight feels like an event, this one’s even bigger due to the presence of Sonnen.

So how did Chael Sonnen become such a big star in MMA? And eight years after he shot to fame with his brash mic work and incredible fight with Anderson Silva, does he still have anything to offer outside of a loud mouth? Let’s explore further.

A decade is a long time

Sonnen was once best known for a string of submission losses
Sonnen was once best known for a string of submission losses

For newer fans of MMA, it’s hard to believe that just a decade ago, Sonnen was one of those fighters that nobody really cared about – the kind of fighter that elicited a “meh” from hardcore and casual fans alike.

Considered a tough but limited Middleweight veteran, the most notable thing about the Chael Sonnen of 2008 was a penchant for being caught in submissions; his losses to Paulo Filho, Renato Sobral, Jeremy Horn and Forrest Griffin – the most notable fights of his career – all came via tapout.

Sonnen ended 2008 in the WEC – he beat Filho in a bizarre rematch more remembered for Filho apparently having a mental breakdown mid-fight – but was transferred over to the UFC at the beginning of 2009. And nobody really expected him to make a mark. He’d gone 1-2 there between 2005 and 2006, and in his return fight, he was submitted – again – by Demian Maia, relatively easily too.

It was midway through 2009 that Sonnen suddenly turned a corner, in terms of his form inside the cage at least. An impressive decision win over rising contender Dan Miller raised some eyebrows, but when Sonnen followed that by dominating de facto #1 contender Yushin Okami with his wrestling game, jaws hit the floor and out of nowhere, the UFC had a surprising title contender at 185lbs.

A title eliminator against Nate Marquardt was set up for February 2010, and despite some hairy moments – most notably a tight guillotine choke in the opening round – once again, Sonnen came away with his hand raised.

Somehow, Sonnen had taken everything that’d always worked for him – his tremendous wrestling and takedowns – and turned it up to 10. Suddenly, he was able to push a pace that the likes of Miller, Okami and Marquardt simply couldn’t match. And where he’d always found his way into a submission before, now he was actively fighting out of them to dish out more punishment to his opponent.

The biggest change, however, was yet to come.

Time to sound off

When Sonnen was announced as the next challenger to Middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s throne at UFC 117 in August 2010, it sounded like a routine defense for the Brazilian, who at that point was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But that idea soon changed. Sonnen began to talk a ludicrous amount of trash – probably the most in UFC history to that point in fact, even out-doing noted trash talkers like Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson.

Spouting off to anyone who would listen, Chael claimed that he’d take the fight to Silva like nobody had done before; that Silva had been ducking him for years as he’d beaten every other Middleweight out there; that nobody cared about Silva anyway; that getting a black belt from the Nogueira brothers was like “getting a free toy with your Happy Meal”.

Most of it was absolute nonsense, of course, but surprisingly, casual and hardcore fans alike ate it all up. Suddenly, Sonnen was a star – of sorts – and more people were interested in this Anderson Silva fight than they’d been for all of his previous ones.

What was really shocking in the end though was the fact that Sonnen backed up almost every word he’d spoken inside the Octagon. He stunned Silva on the feet, took him down practically at will, and beat him up mercilessly from the top. For a moment it looked like the UFC would have a new Middleweight champion.

And then Chael snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – again – and fell prey to a triangle choke late in the fifth round. Only this time, it didn’t matter. The fight had turned Silva into a bonafide superstar and living legend, but it’d done more for Sonnen. Win or lose now, Chael was a man who people wanted to watch.

Busted

Sonnen was banned in 2010 for elevated testosterone levels
Sonnen was banned in 2010 for elevated testosterone levels

An immediate rematch between Silva and Sonnen was booked, but weeks after UFC 117, it was revealed that Sonnen’s testosterone levels had been abnormally high during the fight. Suddenly, a huge can of worms was opened as it was revealed that Sonnen had been undergoing Testosterone Replacement Therapy – at the time, fully legal, but eventually banned by the USA’s various Athletic Commissions due to its controversial nature; essentially, TRT was the same as legal steroids.

Sonnen spent a year on the shelf following the positive test, but returning in late 2011, he immediately picked up where he left off – beating Brian Stann and Michael Bisping and resuming his feud with Silva. The rematch was finally signed for 2012’s UFC 148 – a show considered so big by UFC President Dana White that he promised to “base jump” from the Mandalay Bay if it didn’t out-sell the humongous UFC 100 on pay-per-view.

As it turned out, UFC 148 narrowly missed the mark. As did Sonnen, as he was overcome by a series of strikes from Silva in the second round. But despite the big rivalry being over, it seemed like Chael’s stock had never been higher. At one point, Dana White suggested Sonnen could even take his place at some point in the future.

Incredibly, it turned out that Sonnen only had three more UFC fights left. A somewhat bizarre situation led him to challenge Jon Jones for the Light-Heavyweight title in early 2013 – he was easily beaten – and a win over ‘Shogun’ Rua was followed by a one-sided loss to Rashad Evans.

In 2014, Sonnen was given a coaching gig on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, and that was meant to lead to a fight with his newest rival Wanderlei Silva. The build to the fight was unprecedented, as the two even came to blows on the TUF set. It was to be one of the biggest fights of 2014. And then, disaster struck.

Busted....again

Sonnen's rivalry with Wanderlei Silva was unable to end in the UFC
Sonnen's rivalry with Wanderlei Silva was unable to end in the UFC

The prospective Silva/Sonnen fight first hit a snag when Silva was pulled from the event following a scandal surrounding him refusing to undergo a random drug test. He was replaced by fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort, but then it transpired that Sonnen had failed his own random drug test, and suddenly, all hell broke loose.

It was announced that not only had Sonnen failed his test, but he was also essentially a walking pharmacy. Somehow, he’d tested positive for HGH, EPO, anastrozole and hCG – all top-level, thoroughly banned substances. Quite how he ever thought he’d get away with it was anyone’s business.

Weeks later, both the UFC – and Fox Sports, who’d been employing Sonnen as an analyst – felt they had no choice. Chael was fired from both companies and it looked like his career at the top of the MMA world was over – particularly when he was slapped with a two-year ban from the sport by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

The return

Sonnen moved to Bellator in 2017 to face off with Tito Ortiz
Sonnen moved to Bellator in 2017 to face off with Tito Ortiz

If observers figured Sonnen would go away quietly following the 2014 scandal, they were gravely mistaken. In late 2016 it was announced that ‘The American Gangster’ had signed a deal with Bellator MMA to return to the cage, and although he lost to fellow veteran Tito Ortiz in his promotional debut, he has since beaten Wanderlei Silva – finally – and Rampage Jackson too.

Sure, he’s not as ubiquitous a figure as he was in 2010, but he still dominates his much smaller spotlight when he’s given the chance. And his fascinating podcast – ‘You’re Welcome! With Chael Sonnen’ – has become one of the most popular in the MMA world, and despite all of his bluster, Sonnen is undoubtedly one of the smartest and most insightful personalities in the sport when it comes to analysis.

And now, Sonnen faces off with another bonafide legend – arguably the greatest Heavyweight in MMA history, Fedor Emelianenko. Despite both men being past their prime, this is still a must-see fight. And win or lose, it’s likely we’ll be hearing more from Sonnen in the future. But what is his legacy overall? And why does he remain such a polarising figure in the world of MMA?

The real Chael Sonnen?

How much of Sonnen's persona is actually an act?
How much of Sonnen's persona is actually an act?

The fact is that outside of the people that really know him – long-term friends like Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson; his family and his wife Brittany, who he married in 2013 – it’s hard to tell who the real Chael Sonnen is.

The trash talk that Sonnen began to spout in 2010 has certainly left a legacy of its own, especially in the UFC. The likes of Brock Lesnar and Tito Ortiz had gained fame by courting controversy before Sonnen, but nobody had talked like Chael did.

He was as good as any great mic-worker from the world of pro-wrestling, and it’s undoubtedly his trash talk that inspired future loudmouth superstars like Conor McGregor and Colby Covington. Without Sonnen’s blueprint, it could be argued that neither of those two men would’ve developed the personas they now display.

And yet, Sonnen’s trash talk was only ever one facet of his personality. Where McGregor and Covington have crossed the line with their bluster on numerous occasions, Sonnen’s mic work always seemed to have a tongue in cheek feel – even when he was spouting quasi-racial slurs.

Most notably, when Chael was given opportunities to work with younger fighters during his two stints as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter, he was absolutely fantastic – personally, I’d class him as the best coach TUF has ever seen. He was able to inspire his fighters to performances beyond their own abilities, and even won over a team of Brazilian fighters despite his constant insults against their country.

One scene in particular summed up the potential truth behind Sonnen’s facade – future UFC star Paulo Costa took him to one side to ask him if he really hated Brazil, and Sonnen immediately took Costa away from the cameras for his answer. It was clearly a wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment, showing that Sonnen probably didn’t mean what he was saying and was simply using the insults to build his fight with Silva.

An educated man

Sonnen was convicted of money laundering during his time as a licensed realtor
Sonnen was convicted of money laundering during his time as a licensed realtor

On one hand then, it’d be easy to paint Sonnen as a well-spoken, educated guy putting his smarts to good use in the fighting world – namely being able to hype up a fight with his words like few others, and thus making more money for himself, his opponent and the promotion. And yet, there’s clearly another side to Chael Sonnen.

This other side is somewhat disturbing – it’s the side that allowed him to abuse performance-enhancing drugs with apparently no shame – even being caught in a lie at one point when he claimed he’d spoken to NSAC chairman Keith Kizer about his use of TRT when that simply wasn’t the case.

It’s also the side that saw him convicted under charges of money laundering and mortgage fraud in 2011 over some shady dealings he’d done whilst working as a licensed realtor in his home state of Oregon. And the side that saw him end up in a legal battle with a former business partner when his ‘Mean Streets Pizza’ restaurant went awry.

So which side is the real Chael Sonnen? In all honesty, it’s anyone’s guess – and that’s exactly the reason why he’s one of the most polarizing characters in MMA. To some, he’s a comic book villain, the type who you love to hate for his comical, overblown trash talk. But to some he’s more sinister, a man who lied and cheated on his journey to the top of the UFC and a man who’s been living off that lying and cheating reputation ever since.

Regardless of your interpretation of ‘The American Gangster’ – personally, I’m of the former opinion – there’s no denying that he’s a character who fascinates like few others in MMA. Which is why, almost a decade after his first run to the top of the UFC, his upcoming fight with Fedor Emelianenko is so intriguing.

Because if nothing else, you never know what the hell you’re going to get from Chael P. Sonnen. 

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Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
UK based, big follower of football and MMA. Tottenham and England fan for life!
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