Chael Sonnen was a guy who took a decade to become an “overnight sensation” in mixed martial arts. But almost as soon as his unexpected star turn came, his world started crumbling down.
Sonnen, 34, had been around the sport since 1997 and competed full-time since 2002. A former high-level amateur wrestler, Sonnen was known by most inside the sport for years, but it wasn’t until last summer when he became MMA’s most-discussed fighter.
The polarizing Sonnen has people who think he’s great for the sport, and others who are furious that he’s even being allowed to compete.
Now both the pro-and-anti-Sonnen forces have more to debate, as the controversial fighter gets ready to make his return to the Octagon. After a year away from the cage, Sonnen will meet Brian Stann on Oct. 8 in Houston.
"I come into this fight with a lot of respect for Brian, because unlike most of my previous opponents, he deserves respect,” said Sonnen. “I don’t have anything bad to say about him because he isn’t a monkey-eating thug. He’s a decorated war hero and a hell of a brawler.”
Last August, Sonnen dominated a fight against UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, only to be submitted in the fifth round. That was just the start to a year filled with bad news: a failed test for use of testosterone in the Silva fight, two hearings in California, and a guilty plea to a 2006 real estate fraud charge, which forced him to relinquish his real estate broker’s license at the same time his fighting license was suspended.
Normal fighter reinstatement protocol would have been to get licensed in the state that suspended him, California, which would likely not have approved him at this point. UFC, controversially in the eyes of many, had gone to bat for Sonnen (25-11-1) during his suspension, as they wanted him back in the spotlight as a coach of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Instead, the UFC skirted the issue, booking him to return in Houston, meaning he only had to get cleared by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, considered among the most lenient in the country. Texas is the state which allowed Antonio Margarito to box Manny Pacquiao after the former was suspended by California for having a plaster-like substance in his gloves prior to a Los Angeles bout against Shane Mosley.
In his return, Sonnen faces someone who will, by his own admission, completely take him out of his promotional game, war hero Brian Stann (11-3). Even Sonnen, who seemingly had no boundaries or things he wouldn’t say to promote a fight, won’t cross the line in saying anything negative about his next foe.
"This isn’t a petty grudge match against some bum Brazilian, this is a good old-fashioned gladiator match," said Sonnen. “He’s the best counterpart to my skills in years. I’ve never fought a real warrior before, and I can promise you that no matter the outcome, Oct. 8 will be a battle of men."
Sonnen, who said he would be competing on testosterone replacement therapy going forward ("Does a diabetic get to just take a break from insulin?" he asked), probably lost more due to a drug suspension than any fighter in MMA history. A rematch with Silva would have been among this year’s biggest pay-per-view fights. The second suspension also cost him the high-profile coaching spot on the fall season of “TUF.” In addition, before the drug suspension, coming off the Silva loss, because of his ability to promote, the UFC marketing machine was getting heavily behind him as one of the major faces of the company.
"What is that quote, that obstacles are put in our way so we can show how bad we want to achieve something?" said Sonnen. "That quote easily could have been said about me. As for the height of interest, I am enjoying a level of infamy that I wouldn’t have without the past year. I am adored. I am despised. I am feared and imitated. No one sold a fight like me before I did, and now everybody is trying their hand at it. In the past year, I have become a pioneer in MMA marketing. I set the gold standard. My tactics are the playbook for all self-promoting jock straps that have joined the sport. And it’s flattering as it is embarrassing. This past year’s events have been as much a blessing as a burden."
Still, Sonnen came heartbreakingly close to the big prize that has eluded him throughout his sports career, something he promised his late father that he’d win, against Silva. Then the roof came tumbling down on him. Some have sympathy, and others felt he brought it all upon himself. Some are happy to see him back, feeling he adds color to the sport and makes things more interesting, plus want to see the Silva rematch. Others despise his pro-wrestling-style interviews, perhaps take his words more literally than they should, and also feel the UFC was taking advantage of a loophole in getting him to fight without him being cleared in California.
"I don’t want to take you through the entire process of what I was thinking," said Sonnen about the past year. "Because the truth is, I went through the entire gamut of human experience in less than a year. I felt world domination at my fingertips. I felt frustration bordering on despair. And I felt everything in between. One thing I do have to say is that I never stopped fighting or pushing myself. I always had my eye on the next fight, no matter how far away it seemed.
"I made it clear that I wanted to fight anyone, just so I could get back in the Octagon. I meant it. I would have fought anyone, from the world’s most elite down to the bowels of Black House [Silva’s training camp]. I was getting frustrated, for sure. I not only wanted to get back to fighting itself, I wanted to get back to work for my fans. I have the world’s most bad ass backing in terms of my fan base, and they deserve so much better than the middleweight division as it would stand without me. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I left them with the likes of Bisping and the dozens of useless Silvas that have tricked the ignorant turkeys into thinking they are decent, legitimate fighters. This is not just a career for me, this is a public service to spare millions of fans from the curse of their own terrible taste."
He wanted back so much that he, at one point, was in talks about facing Lyoto Machida, a friend of Anderson Silva’s and a weight class above him.
Ultimately, the fight didn’t happen because it didn’t make sense. The big fight is Silva vs. Sonnen, and should both win their next fights, it is likely to happen. Switching weight classes and facing someone as formidable as Machida could throw a major monkey wrench into the Silva rematch.
"You wouldn’t [Sonnen and Machida would fight], given the clear differences in weight class and capability between us, but there was a discussion between us about it. Actually, let me rephrase, there was a conversation between me and his handlers about it. I can’t say for certain whether Lyoto was just nervous about his English, or if he had more fun with the smoke-and-mirrors style posturing that he learned from Anderson, but I never had a direct talk with him about it, because he didn’t want to. He sent press releases, he sent his scuttling little minions, he did everything possible to seem like he was accepting my challenge without doing so. I was excited about the idea when it came up.”
“I would have fought him with any weight discrepancy between us because I’m in this business to knock some heads around. That apparently scared Lyoto. People can lay plenty of criticisms on me, but I don’t duck when someone calls me out."