Chael Sonnen's failed drug tests, wrestling antics taint MMA legacy

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Chael Sonnen's failed drug tests, wrestling antics taint MMA legacy
Chael Sonnen's failed drug tests, wrestling antics taint MMA legacy

UFC contender Chael Sonnen retired as a mixed martial arts fighter on Wednesday, leaving in his wake an extraordinarily complicated legacy.

A day after he learned he'd failed a surprise drug test administered to him on May 23 by the Nevada Athletic Commission, Sonnen co-hosted Fox Sports 1's "UFC Tonight," on Wednesday and announced he's leaving the sport he's impacted so dramatically over the last five years. "I have to put my family first," Sonnen said to co-host Kenny Florian. "If I know what I know now, and I know that this is going to work and I'm going to be able to get my wife [Brittany] pregnant and look forward to having a family, I'm going to do the exact same thing 20 more times, which is going to put me out of compliance 20 more times.

Wanderlei Silva (R) was initially supposed to take on Chael Sonnen in UFC 175. (MMA Weekly)
Wanderlei Silva (R) was initially supposed to take on Chael Sonnen in UFC 175. (MMA Weekly)

"Let's just stop with that. Let me remove myself. There is going to be a day when I no longer have the title of fighter. That's just a reality, Kenny. But I don't ever want there to be a day where I don't have the ability to have the title as parent and father and husband. My health has got to come first."

Sonnen learned Tuesday that he tested positive for Anastrozole and Clomiphene, which he was taking as part of his post-cycle therapy to wean off Testosterone Replacement Therapy. Sonnen had a Therapeutic Use Exemption for it, but lost it on Feb. 27 when the Nevada commission banned it.

Quickly, most other state commissions, as well as the UFC, followed suit.

That left Sonnen in a quandary, and he admitted not long after the ban was implemented it might force his retirement. But he was licensed on May 13 to face Wanderlei Silva at UFC 175 on July 5. When Silva avoided the drug test on May 23 – ironically, the very one that ultimately caught Sonnen – the UFC quickly put Vitor Belfort in his place.

Sonnen's failure had a great trickle down effect. Belfort on Wednesday was yanked from the card by the UFC when it couldn't get him an opponent for July 5.

And when Francisco Aguilar, the chairman of the Nevada commission, learned Belfort was off the card, he pulled Belfort's licensing hearing from its June 17 meeting because it has a stacked agenda. Belfort also used TRT and admitted his levels were elevated in a surprise test Nevada gave him in February.

Fans screamed for more testing, but while the testing has increased, so, too, has the number of positives.

Sonnen tried to distance himself from illegal use and said he was trying to follow procedure to get off TRT and because of his infertility issues.

Rashad Evans prevails against Chael Sonnen in their light heavyweight bout during UFC 167. (USA TODAY Sports)
Rashad Evans prevails against Chael Sonnen in their light heavyweight bout during UFC 167. (USA TODAY Sports)

Sonnen suffers from hypogonadism, and can't produce sufficient testosterone. After the highlight of his career, a masterful performance in a dramatic final-round loss to Anderson Silva in a middleweight title bout at UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010, in Oakland, Calif., Sonnen failed California's post-fight drug test.

He had a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 16.9:1, which is nearly three times the limit that California allows (6:1) and nearly 17 times the average man, which is 1:1.

Though his suspension was technically for failure to report his TRT usage, Sonnen never adequately explained his exceptionally elevated ratio.

The therapy is designed to keep a low-producer in the normal range, and commissions allow a ratio of up to 6:1 to account for the rare occasion when a person naturally produces more than the 1:1 average to rule out false positives.

His greatest gift as a fighter was his ability to talk, and he used it big time to try to save himself from punishment from the California commission.

He frequently spoke in circles and made outrageous statements that had no basis in fact. Initially, he was successful and had his sentence reduced, but when then-Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer disputed some of what Sonnen said, he was brought back before the California commission. It found he'd perjured himself and reinstated the original penalty.

Throughout his career, Sonnen was a man who was difficult not to like. Even before he adopted a professional wrestling persona, he was a thoughtful, insightful and charismatic interview subject who would routinely fill reporters' notebooks.

But despite success in the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion, Sonnen never was a major figure in the sport until he adopted the wrestling gimmick in 2009.

After decisively beating Yushin Okami at UFC 104, Sonnen landed a fight against Nate Marquardt at UFC 109, with the winner becoming the No. 1 contender and getting the right to face Silva.

From that point forward, Sonnen played the role of a pro wrestling villain in nearly every public appearance.

He was exceptionally good at it and he made people laugh, and sports are all about entertaining. But at a time when the UFC was trying to distance itself from wrestling, Sonnen was blurring the lines.

He'll forever be remembered for his relentless trash talk leading up to both of his Silva fights and for his surprisingly strong performances. He won each of the first four rounds at UFC 117 and was two minutes away from becoming champion when Silva submitted him with a triangle choke in one of the most dramatic finishes in the sport's history.

Jon Jones defeats Chael Sonnen during UFC 159. (USA TODAY Sports)
Jon Jones defeats Chael Sonnen during UFC 159. (USA TODAY Sports)

Nearly two years later, he faced Silva again at UFC 148 in what turned out to be a mega-event that is believed to have sold nearly a million pay-per-views. Sonnen dominated Silva in the first round, but made a mistake in the second and Silva quickly finished him.

Sonnen, who turned professional in 1997, finishes with a 29-14-1 mark overall and 7-7 in the UFC. He was 0-3 in UFC title fights, losing twice to Silva and once to Jon Jones in a light heavyweight title fight, but he was the rare fighter who would fight anyone in any division at any time.

"If I told him to go fight [UFC heavyweight champion] Cain [Velasquez], he'd do it," UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports. "That's the kind of guy he is."

When the UFC landed a deal with Fox and its sports networks, Sonnen suddenly had a new career. He is brilliant as a broadcaster and helped popularize the sport with his colorful analysis.

He was also a friendly, affable sort who rarely said no to an interview and did much to help shove MMA into the mainstream.

But there was always a sense of suspicion surrounding him, as if he didn't shoot straight. Many within the sport have privately wondered about the reason he needed to go on a TRT regimen.

When Sonnen requested a TUE to fight Rashad Evans at UFC 167 last November, an endocrinologist retained by the Nevada commission cast doubt on his claim of hypogonadism.

Karen Herbst told the commission he needed a TUE because he was taking testosterone for so long, but she said it was unclear that there was a "definitive diagnosis of hypogonadism."

Sonnen, though, was defiant in that regard and frequently said, "I need it to live," regarding his testosterone use.

On Tuesday, after he was informed of his positive test, he went on Fox Sports 1 to explain himself. He flat out lied at several times, once telling interviewer Mike Hill that the substances in his system are legal out-of-competition. That is demonstrably incorrect.

Sonnen was in full pro wrestler huckster mode, trying to fast talk his way out of a bad situation yet again.

Rarely leaving his character made him more and more unbelievable as time passed.

He is an intelligent, witty man with a gift for broadcasting, and he'll have a long and successful career in it. He did much to create interest in MMA and the UFC and to help explain it wasn't a bunch of Neanderthals beating each other with clubs but highly trained world class athlete competing in a major league sport.

Ultimately, for all the great things he did in the cage and his ability to promote the sport, history will remember him for his positive tests and use of testosterone.

It could have turned out much differently.

Sonnen, and MMA fans around the world, deserved better.

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