LAS VEGAS – A humble and contrite Chael Sonnen appeared before the Nevada Athletic Commission on Wednesday and offered no evidence in his own defense after failing back-to-back drug tests.
The former UFC contender was ultimately suspended for two years for testing positive for Clomiphene, Anastrozole, HCG, HGH and EPO in separate tests, given on May 24 and June 5. He was also forced to pay the costs of the tests that ultimately nabbed him.
But the five members of the commission seemed to alternate between going for blood and asking him out for a drink.
At one point, commissioner Anthony Marnell, a one-time catcher in the San Diego Padres' organization, brashly denounced Sonnen's cheating and demanded a lifetime ban. Marnell spoke of how angry he was as a baseball player when he was subjected to random tests but players on the 40-man roster were not. He pleaded for strong action against Sonnen.
But at other times, the commissioners seemed to want to pat Sonnen on the back and apologize for having to trouble him to appear at the disciplinary hearing.
Commissioner Bill Brady said, "I like Chael Sonnen," and repeatedly referred to him as a friend. Brady, Pat Lundvall and Skip Avansino for some bizarre reason kept asking Sonnen for his help in catching other fighters who cheat.
They tried that stance once previously, when Sonnen was given a therapeutic use exemption last year for testosterone replacement therapy while Brady was the commission's chairman. Brady pleaded with Sonnen then to help him.
It was much of the same on Wednesday. The theory is probably akin to hiring a hacker to show you where the security holes are in your software.
Still, after they repeatedly called Sonnen a liar and a cheater, it seemed odd the way they cozied up to him and asked for his help.
Sonnen declined to speak to reporters following the hearing. He said little during the meeting other than to answer questions, but he repeatedly expressed remorse when he did speak.
"I am guilty. I am ashamed and it's why I'm not putting up a defense," Sonnen said.
Later in the hearing he said, "I have a goal to come as clean as I can as quickly as I can."
To help him along, apparently, Brady, Avansino and Lundvall seemed to rally to Sonnen's defense several times. As Dr. Timothy Trainor, the consulting physician for the commission, was explaining that Clomiphene and Anastrozole could be masking agents for other performance enhancing drug usage as well as PEDs themselves, Brady interrupted and said, "You're not suggesting that's what he used them for?"
Trainor then said he was answering a question from Lundvall and explaining the capabilities of the various drugs.
When Sonnen told the commission that the rules on banned substances are confusing, Avansino, Brady and Lundvall seized on that and almost banded together to defend him.
The rules aren't that difficult, and one of them should immediately have told him that. All five substances Sonnen tested positive for were on the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2014 prohibited list. All it took was a quick Internet search to find them and see that the substances that were found in his system during the surprise tests are banned by WADA at all times.
The commissioners lauded him for his intelligence but none of them brought up the fact that all Sonnen needed to do was make the bare minimum effort by searching the Internet until Christopher Eccles, the deputy attorney general prosecuting the case, jumped in to point that out.
"You don't get to stop using one prohibited drug [TRT] and start using five prohibited drugs," Eccles said when he saw support building for Sonnen among the commissioners. "These are five drugs that are prohibited at all times. From the state's point of view, it is not that difficult to determine what is approved and what isn't approved. It's not approved. That's the default. It's not approved. If you have concerns about something, call the commission and we'll tell you.
"Mr. Sonnen, this is brazen, outrageous cheating. We're talking about high doses of EPO. We're talking about high doses of HGH. How did he get it into his system? Look at the exhibits that are in evidence. He was injecting himself. You've got to be kidding me that somebody doesn't know that you're sticking a needle in your arm with EPO and HGH and you don't know that it's prohibited. By his own admission, he says he graduated [college] with honors. I can't believe that that's 100 percent truthful that that guy can't figure that out."
Sonnen didn't fight with the banned substances in his system – at least, not this time, since his July 5 bout at UFC 175 was scrapped after his positive test – but the commissioners repeatedly point out it didn't matter.
"The intent was there," chairman Francisco Aguilar said.
And while it's egregious and needed to be dealt with harshly, it also needed to be remembered that he didn't commit first-degree murder, either.
Lundvall pointed out that as a result of taking the substances, Sonnen was cut by the UFC and fired from his broadcasting gig at Fox.
As a result, even though the commission could have fined him $250,000, she suggested no fine other than making him pay the costs of the tests he was given.
But Marnell, the newest member of the commission, appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval in March to fill a vacancy created by the 2013 death of T.J. Day, nearly erupted.
Marnell owns a gaming license and he scoffed when Sonnen tried to call the athletic commission rules confusing. He said the gaming regulations are "5,000 times thicker" than the athletic commission regulations.
"If you can't read the WADA list, I don't know what else to tell you," Marnell said. "It's pretty simple, especially for a very highly educated man. I don't see a communication problem here. I see a 100-percent-plus circumvention of the rules in every which way it could happen."
Marnell said he was open to having Sonnen work with the commission, but only if he would be open and admit the ways he was able to cheat and tell them how others did.
He praised the commission's recent uptick in random testing, but said it needed to be vigilant.
"For this type of stuff in other sports, it's starting to turn into lifetime [bans]," Marnell said. "It's not a year or two. It's, 'Don't come back. We don't want to see you here.' I think those messages aren't delivered as we evolve as a commission, but those standards we set are going to rifle through this industry across the globe, not just in this state."
Sonnen's manager, Jeff Meyer, said during his remarks that Sonnen's career is over. He could theoretically come back, but the two-year suspension means that he'll be 39 and won't have fought since Nov. 16, 2013.
It's highly unlikely he'll be able to come back to competition.
So the penalty was, largely, appropriate: A two-year suspension (beginning today) and absorbing the costs of the testing is significant.
However, particularly in the light that some viewed that the commission allowed middleweight Vitor Belfort off lightly by licensing him to fight in Las Vegas on Dec. 6, the perception that was made by Avansino, Brady and Lundvall is a negative one.
At best, they looked like fan boys or fan girls. By asking Sonnen to work with them and praising him repeatedly made it look as if they were treating him with kid gloves.
Sonnen has paid dearly for his PED usage and needs to get his life in order. For much of the last several years during his stint in the UFC, he repeatedly lied to people's faces about a series of topics, including his drug usage.
Hopefully, his admissions Wednesday weren't part of another con job.
But the commissioners didn't need to pat him on the back like a puppy as they spoke to him. They need to send the message in the strongest possible terms that if a fighter is caught using performance-enhancing drugs in Nevada, there will be no mercy and a stiff price to pay.
The only good to come of this hearing is if another fighter declines to use PEDs after witnessing what Sonnen went through.
- Chael Sonnen