Mixed martial arts have seen more dangerous strikers, slicker submission grapplers and even wrestlers superior to this onetime Olympic alternate. Never in the sport's history has there been so masterful a practitioner of the martial art known as wordsmanship though.
While this discipline is a vital element of the fight business, it's too often practiced clumsily or halfheartedly. Chael Sonnen however is a highly evolved black belt, right down to choosing to wrap the honorific strap around his head in the shape of a black hat.
Sonnen will be most remembered as a talker. That will be his enduring legacy in part even in the aftermath of his abrupt retirement as a fighter on Wednesday, which came one day after news broke of a failed drug test. We'll continue to be reminded of the man's loquaciousness week after week on UFC Tonight. His well-suited role as co-host of the Fox Sports 1 show aside, Sonnen will go down as the greatest ever at talking up a fight until everyone else can't help but talk about it.
He wasn't all talk, though. Sonnen's legacy also will reflect some shining moments inside the octagon and, even more admirably, a willingness to step in there with anyone at any time.
Yet while he was a matchmaker's dream, he could be a regulator's nightmare. This recent run-in with athletic commission rules -- in which the 37-year-old tested positive for two banned substances, resulting in him being pulled from next month's fight with Vitor Belfort -- was the second of Sonnen's career. Both times he's tried to talk his way around the offense, and that's the disquieting part of his legacy.
These discordant elements blended together to form an in-your-face performer who, even in his divisiveness, drew lots of fans willing to pay to watch him. Some forked over their dollars, because they wanted to watch him back up his bold talk. Others opened their wallets, so they wouldn't miss seeing him eat his words. Everyone's money was good at this carnival.
The root of it all, of course, was the fighting. If Sonnen didn't have the fight in him to back up his words, we wouldn't have continued to talk about him, right? Despite being just 7-7 in his UFC career (28-14-1 overall as a professional), Sonnen showed himself capable of performing under the bright lights. Three times he competed for a championship, and on two of those occasions he came oh so close to walking away with the belt.
The fight for which Sonnen will be forever remembered is his 2010 challenge of Anderson Silva. This was the pre-Chris Weidman version of Silva, a middleweight champion so untouchable -- 12-fight win streak, six dominant title defenses -- he'd taken to fighting light heavyweights just to give himself a challenge. Then along came Sonnen, who dutifully put Silva on his back round after round, and even got the better of the standup exchanges. Sonnen was cruising down the home stretch of what was looking like a shocking upset. But suddenly, magically, with barely two minutes left in the fifth round, the blanketed champ clamped on a triangle armbar and the unthinkable went poof!
Sonnen had a way of never really coming out the loser, though. His response to what anyone else would have thought of as a disheartening defeat was to unleash a cartoonish perspective on what had gone down. He painted a picture of himself as the rightful champ -- after all, he was on top of and in control of Silva for the better part of five rounds -- and "The Spider" as overmatched rube. Sonnen even started carrying a replica of a UFC belt, slinging it over his shoulder for an ESPN interview. But when the sequel came, with the whole MMA world whipped into a frenzy, the ending was no kinder. This time Sonnen lost by second-round TKO.
So that was that for his middleweight title hopes. It was time to move on ... to a light heavyweight title fight.
Sonnen's greatest achievement as a wordsmith, ignoble as it was in the big picture, was to get booked a fight with Jon Jones. Sonnen was coming off a knockout loss and hadn't fought at 205 pounds for seven years, and even that bout had been a one-off following several years as a middleweight.
Yet there he was, volunteering to step in after an injured Dan Henderson, his friend and training partner, pulled out of a 2012 challenge of Jones a little over a week prior to their scheduled fight. "Bones" didn't accept Sonnen as a short-notice replacement opponent, and UFC 151 was canceled in its entirety, but Sonnen had succeeded in stepping into Jones's spotlight. Within a few months they were coaching against each other on The Ultimate Fighter and building toward a title fight.
Sonnen didn't fare very well against Jones. He was taken to the mat to start and beaten up the rest of the way. Yet, this mismatch might very well have concluded with the challenger being crowned champion. Shortly before Jones finished him off with punches and elbows at 4:33 in the first round, the champ broke his left big toe. So, if Sonnen had survived for another 27 seconds -- a tall order, for sure, considering the beating he was taking -- the fight most assuredly would have been stopped between rounds, because the foot injury was so grotesque. Imagine that: King Chael, the battered monarch.
That kind of muddied, muddled championship picture is what the UFC should have ended up with, really, for making this foolish fight in the first place. That Sonnen could talk himself into an unwarranted title shot is the downside of his gift for gab, but the fighter is not to blame for trying to sell himself. Dana White and his matchmakers should have known better.
Likewise, the fight promotion bosses also played a role in fueling Sonnen's run as a rule breaker. The two substances found in the fighter's system in a surprise drug test administered last month by the Nevada State Athletic Commission are anastrozole and clomiphene.
Sonnen said he was taking both substances as part of the regimen his doctor recommended for weaning him off testosterone replacement therapy. When Nevada banned TRT back in February, it stood to reason fighters would need time to make a healthy transition. The UFC didn't do its due diligence in determining how long it should wait before scheduling Sonnen and its other TRT refugees. The promotion now has a July 5 card, featuring Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey title fights, that's marred by having three fighters -- Sonnen, Belfort, and Wanderlei Silva -- removed because of performance-enhancing drug issues. This isn't a good look for the summer's marquee fight card.
Ultimately, the rap falls on the fighters, and Sonnen has acknowledged he's the one responsible for the failed drug tests. If only he had said that and nothing more. But on Tuesday he went on Fox Sports 1, and tried to muddy the picture. He suggested he wasn't in the wrong, because he was tested out of competition, but commission regulations clearly state banned substances cannot be found in an athlete's system either in or out of competition. He talked about how the rules have changed and are hard to decipher, but the list of banned substances is easily accessible online.
Bottom line: Sonnen played dumb, and he's far from it. Listening to his interviews should be enough to clue you in to the man's intellect. Perhaps he's too smart for his own good. Sonnen spent some time pursuing politics, until a shady deal he was involved in as a real estate broker scuttled both of those careers simultaneously. Imagine him assuaging a hesitant homebuyer or parrying a conundrum in the Oregon House of Representatives. He seems like a guy who could talk his way out of anything.
Or not. Back during the buildup to the Anderson Silva rematch, Sonnen's unfiltered mouth led him over the line on several occasions, particularly in some xenophobic comments about Brazilian culture. Sonnen wouldn't break character long enough to cast these harsh words as nothing more than shtick, but even if he had, he'd still would be in the wrong. He'd probably defend himself by pointing to the big picture -- he riled up a lot of paying customers, and Silva as well, in advance of the rematch -- because that's essentially what he did in announcing his retirement.
"I have to put my health first and my family first," he said during the opening of UFC Tonight, before alluding to the positive effect clomiphene had on a fertility issue he's faced. "If I know what I know now, that [the banned drugs] are going to work, get my wife pregnant, let me have a family, I will do the exact same thing 20 times. If it puts me out of compliance 20 more times, then let's stop. I will remove myself. There is going to be a day where I don't have the title of fighter. That was always going to happen. I never want there to be a day where I don't have the title of parent, father and husband. My health has got to come first."