The end of both Chael Sonnen's fight and broadcast careers came suddenly and with sadness. It was only weeks ago that the fighter was set to fight in a featured bout on one of the UFC's biggest cards of the year, UFC 175, and UFC president Dana White openly suggested that one day Sonnen could replace him as promoter of the MMA powerhouse.
Real fight fans always root for fighters to make enough money to save during their relatively short careers and also to come up with alternate sources of income in order to provide for themselves. After all, there are no pensions or company retirement plans for former fighters.
We’ve had enough brain damaged fighters compete too for long, become broken down casino greeters or knuckle-breakers in order to pay bills. So, it’s always nice to see some of these warriors “make it.”
Sonnen appeared on his way to becoming one such fighter. Sonnen was an independently wealthy realtor before ever cashing his first big MMA check.
And, in recent years, he became one of the UFC’s highest-paid athletes, all while balancing that work with television broadcast jobs that suited him and which he could have likely continued to hold well after his retirement from fighting.
However, after a 2011 felony money laundering conviction, the once successful realtor Sonnen essentially lost one main source of income. The second failed drug test of his career prompted him to drop out of a big-paying fight and to retire from fighting altogether, last month.
Now, Sonnen’s third failed drug test moved the UFC and FOX Sports to drop him as a broadcast host and analyst. Sonnen recently defended some of his banned treatment and drug use by saying he needed the drugs to have children with his new wife.
It is that same drug use, however, that has contributed to Sonnen losing his last remaining major sources of income just as he is starting a family. Sonnen, still a young man in his thirties, has to find new ways to support himself and his family now.
Even though FOX and the UFC were justified in firing Sonnen, if only because he embarrassed them both by using their broadcasts to spread misinformation and outright lies about banned performance-enhancing drugs at a time when MMA is coming under increased regulatory scrutiny, no one can take satisfaction in him and his family’s misfortune at this time.
Walking the line
Sonnen walked a thin-line these past four years, since he either created or revealed his over-the-top and incendiary personality to the world. He finally leaned too far over to one side, we guess.
FOX Sports and the UFC didn’t seem to care that Sonnen had already failed a drug test, been convicted of a felony and spent years spewing bigoted speech to promote fights when they hired him as a broadcaster and made him a public face for their companies. If anything, Sonnen’s increased notoriety from those failures, crimes and offensive speech appeared to make the well-spoken fighter more appealing to FOX Sports and the UFC as a front-man for their broadcasts.
Until, it didn’t.
It is easy to criticize Sonnen, and this writer has done it plenty, but it’s also important to recognize the way the entire MMA world, all of us, tacitly encouraged Sonnen to continue to be Sonnen – use drugs, lie about it, commit crimes, say crazy and offensive things on television, over and again – right up until we excoriated him for being Sonnen.
There’s at least a duality to all human beings and Chael Sonnen’s public persona and displayed character has always appeared to be filled with paradoxes. There was the Chael Sonnen who improved greatly as a fighter over the course of his career, and then there was the Chael Sonnen who overshadowed those athletic accomplishments with a self-made circus act.
Sonnen provided great perspective and analysis as a television host and commentator but also used those same air waves to make light of domestic abuse, insult entire nations and ethnicities and defensively obscure the truth when he was backed against a wall. Sonnen routinely insulted prospective opponents in the most personal ways but also had a great deal of respect among many of his fellow fighters.
I remember one such UFC fighter sharing a story with me in order to defend Sonnen. Sonnen came up to that fighter after one of his own bouts and introduced a small child.
The child was a huge fight fan and Sonnen was going out of his way to make sure that the little guy got to have a great time backstage at the UFC event. “This is Johnny* and you’re his favorite fighter in the world,” the fighter told me that Sonnen said to him.
“It would mean a lot if you could sign your autograph for him and take a few pictures.”
Naturally, the fighter happily obliged Sonnen and the child. A few moments later, the fighter heard Sonnen – now just a few feet away – give the same spiel to another fighter, claiming that he, in fact, was little Johnny’s favorite fighter in the world and that it sure would mean a lot if…well, you get the idea. Sonnen did this all through the locker rooms, supposedly, and got ‘lil Johnny a pile of autographs.
That story, of generosity and time-taken for a fan behind closed doors, typified Chael Sonnen to this fighter who told it to me more than the trash talk, failed tests and criminal history. Far be it from any of us who don’t know Sonnen personally to disagree.
Even that story reveals the fascinating and ultimately destructive duality of Sonnen, however. There’s no reason to doubt that Sonnen was nice enough to spend time with a young fan, but would any of the fighters have likely have refused Sonnen if he hadn’t lied to them about their being the young fan’s “favorite fighter?”
If those warm moments would have been made public and made headlines, a fitting and very Sonnen-esque one could have read, “Sonnen does good, lies unnecessarily.”
Style over substance
With how much he angered Anderson Silva, it can be easy to forget that Chael Sonnen earned his first title shot. He dominated Paulho Filho, he beat Yushin Okami, and he beat Nate Marquardt.
Chael Sonnen was the unquestioned number one middleweight contender when he faced “The Spider” in 2010, regardless of his inflammatory trash talk. Sonnen then went in the cage and dominated Silva – on the feet and on the ground – before falling victim to a submission in the final seconds of the final round.
The fight was an all-time great and near-historic upset. As such, Sonnen likely would have been granted an immediate title shot even if he hadn’t later tried to discredit Silva and spout nonsense about being the “real” champion.
In that case, Sonnen’s impressive fighting abilities earned him title shots. It was Sonnen’s lies under oath and the resulting suspension for suspicion of perjury that delayed the rematch.
The conventional wisdom has been that Chael Sonnen somehow talks his ways into big opportunities. History will show, however, that it was actually his talking that ruined all of his biggest ones.
Perhaps the UFC and FOX would have even continued to overlook Sonnen’s continued violations of law and regulation if it hadn’t been for all his blustery and inaccurate defense of himself on their broadcasts.
I’ll save the performance-enhancing drug (PED) finger-wagging for others. Let us be clear – most high-level amateur and professional athletes in most sports use drugs and treatments that are banned or illegal.
We know that Chael Sonnen has used banned drugs for years and still uses them to this day. It is also quite likely that most of his international wrestling matches and professional fights came against opponents who used the same or similar drugs and treatments.
The point in saying that isn’t to defend Sonnen’s drug use but to illustrate how dangerous it can be to throw stones while sitting in a glass house. Sonnen piously blasted Wanderlei Silva for supposedly using banned drugs even though he himself had already failed a drug test and would go on to fail two more.
Sonnen used banned substances and then defended himself by telling the California Athletic Commission that he had private conversations with a top regulator during which he was basically given permission, outside of normal procedures. That was not only an apparent lie from Sonnen, but it was a brazen attempt to drag someone else’s reputation and career down in order to try and save his own.
Sonnen even once said during a recorded and aired interview that champion cyclist Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer from PED-use and condemned him as a fraud for not coming clean. Sonnen went on to fail a drug test himself shortly after and then claim, incredibly, that he had not made those comments about Armstrong.
“Lance Armstrong did a number of things and he gave himself cancer,” Sonnen said in 2010.
“He cheated, he did drugs, and he gave himself cancer. Well, instead of saying, ‘Hey listen, I cheated and gave myself cancer, don’t be like me,’ he actually made himself the victim and then went out and profited something like $15 million from this ‘Hey, poor me, let’s find a cure for cancer’ campaign instead of just coming clean and saying, ‘Look, here’s what I did, I screwed myself up, and I hope people learn from my mistakes.’”
Of course, the whole world heard Sonnen say what he did and his Big Lie strategy didn’t work. And, while Sonnen has not raised millions of dollars to fight cancer or other serious diseases, he did indeed profit from his own cheating (including using some of the same drugs Armstrong has since admitted to using) and lies, all while refusing to take responsibility for his actions.
However, any gains Sonnen made were short-lived and his very human mistakes are only pronounced and made fatal by his feigned sanctimony, hypocrisy and aggressive blasting of others. Perhaps if Sonnen had come clean after his second or third failed drug tests and said something like, ‘Look, I used some of these drugs to try and keep up with other, younger athletes, in a sport and athletic world where these drugs are common, and I got caught,” he could have retired from fighting in peace and been allowed to keep his broadcast positions.
Perhaps not. Even so, Sonnen would have finally appeared genuine and sincere, and could have avoided the fraud label he so licentiously smacked on others over the years.
Who is the “real” Chael Sonnen and what is the real story that should be told about him? The first is impossible to say, for sure.
What is certain is that it didn’t have to turn out this way. We could have known Chael Sonnen as a guy who worked hard, improved and went from being a fighter who got submitted regularly while fighting on regional circuits to becoming a three-time world title challenger.
Those accomplishments are real, they are truth. Sonnen became practiced in obscuring the truth when it came to his mistakes, however, and so his reputation for lying outlandishly now outshines his accomplishments on the mat.
Chael Sonnen fought 43 times in a pro MMA career that lasted 17 years. He worked hard, improved and peaked to the point that, in the last four years of his career, he competed for world titles three times.
That could have been the story.
Unfortunately, the last four years also saw Chael Sonnen lower the level of MMA discourse with bigoted and misogynist rants, fail three drug tests, be convicted of one felony, lie and obfuscate about all of it while never fully taking responsibility for any of it.
While we may never know the “real” Chael Sonnen, that has certainly become his story.