Who is the real Chael Sonnen? Impersonator, con man or champ?
Nobody knew where Chael Sonnen had gotten that fake championship belt. Did he buy it off the Internet? Did he convince a UFC employee to dig through a closet and give it to him? Did he stand in line at a UFC event and buy it just like any other fan? He wouldn't say. Or rather, he would say, but the explanation he gave -- he claimed to have taken it from UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva "like a gangster in the night" -- was obviously a lie.
"Undefeated and undisputed," he shouted, holding it up at a pre-fight press conference in Chicago. It got a laugh from fans and reporters, though everyone in the room knew that neither claim was anywhere close to true. He'd been defeated plenty of times -- 11 to be exact. He'd even been defeated by Silva, the pound-for-pound top-ranked mixed martial arts fighter in the world, who Sonnen was once two minutes away from beating when he lost it in the final round. And yet here he was with a fake belt, insisting it was the real thing.
"Chael's nuts," said UFC president Dana White.
That's one way to think about it. Another is to acknowledge that Sonnen knows exactly what he's doing, and it's working. If anything, it's working a little too well. The pro wrestling-style persona, the lies, the aggressive public image campaign designed to ensure that, whether fans love or hate him, they all feel something? It's officially a success. It's brought him fame and money. It played a pivotal role in earning him a rematch with Silva at UFC 148 in Las Vegas on Saturday night. It accomplished everything it was supposed to. In exchange, all he had to sacrifice was his credibility and his name. Was it worth it? Even Sonnen can't say for sure. He isn't done paying for it yet.
He wasn't always like this. You go back three, four, five years and look at old interviews on the Internet. You see the same broad, flat face. You see the wide shoulders. You see the icy blue eyes that seem to drain of all pigment as they fix on you. But when he opens his mouth, you hear a completely different person. Nice. Humble, even. If you believe Sonnen -- a big
"I do not agree that there is any persona whatsoever," he tells me when I ask when he decided to adopt the WWE-style routine he now regularly employs. "I'm surprised you said that. I'm not sure where that's coming from. What [you] see is what they get with me."
According to the people who know him best, that's almost true. The insulting, sarcastic loudmouth we see in pre and post-fight interviews? That's not so much a character, they say, as it is his true personality amplified. Confidence becomes arrogance. Self-assured becomes smug. A biting wit becomes flat-out mean. The difference between the real Sonnen and the character is a matter of degrees.
"Sometimes I don't know if he knows the difference," says his brother-in-law, Clifton Molotore, who describes family dinners with Sonnen where the fighter will occasionally break into impromptu rants in the midst of conversation. "Then he'll look around and say, 'So what'd you think?'"
The consensus among family members is that he gets it from his father. When Sonnen's father told his then 25-year-old son that he was dying of colon cancer, he did so with all the sensitivity of a father ordering his child to go mow the lawn. Chael had already heard the news by that point and he employed the line he'd been working on in his head for weeks.
"I said something like, 'Hey, you're going to beat this thing,'" Sonnen recalls. "He just kind of looked at me and said, 'Get out of here!'"
Sonnen went outside and sat in the big Ford truck his father had recently bought, then he put his head down on the steering wheel and cried. He was crying so hard that he didn't hear his father's approaching, didn't even notice him standing there until he heard his old man's voice say, "I see you're admiring your new truck."
Just before his father died, Sonnen sat down at his bedside and laid out some future plans. It wasn't so much promises, but more like "letting him know what he was going to be up to." Some of Sonnen's plans were vetoed on the spot, like when he said he planned to marry the girlfriend he was dating at the time. Others were more serious, such as when he vowed to become the UFC champion by beating light heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz.
That was 2002, a different era for the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts. What Sonnen soon found was that, even for a former All-America wrestler from the University of Oregon, just getting noticed by the big show was no easy task. Three years would go by until he got his first shot with the UFC. He'd end up losing that fight via second-round submission to Renato Sobral. Two more fights and one more submission loss later, he was bounced out of the big time and back to the small circuit. He was closing in on 30, and then he was on the wrong side of it. He still hadn't won any title, much less the UFC belt. Time was running out. Something had to change.
Sonnen found out where he stood with the UFC almost by accident. He made his way back to the organization after the UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, bought the lesser-known World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) organization and absorbed its higher weight classes. Upon his return, Sonnen again lost via submission, this time to Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia. He would rebound with a decision win three months later, then signed on to face top Japanese middleweight Yushin Okami in the fall.
But the UFC had an event scheduled for Portland that August. A month before the fight one of the light heavyweights on the card withdrew with an injury. Sonnen figured he might as well volunteer to be the replacement. The fight was right in his backyard, after all. He didn't mind fighting someone bigger if it got him noticed by the powers that be. So he texted UFC matchmaker Joe Silva with an offer to fill in on the Portland card. He received a three-word response: "Who is this?"
"It was a little bit of an eye-opener," Sonnen said. He knew he'd exchanged calls and text messages with the UFC matchmaker before. He knew that at some point he'd likely been saved as a contact in Silva's phone. That meant that somewhere along the way, the man who decides the fates of UFC fighters had gone through his phone, seen Sonnen's number, and thought, well, don't need that one anymore.
Sonnen eventually got on the card and showed up in Los Angeles that October as a nearly 2-1 underdog against Okami, a massive middleweight who was on a three-fight winning streak in the UFC. To the surprise of many, Sonnen throttled the Japanese contender for all three rounds before winning a unanimous decision. His next fight was even bigger, a showdown with top contender Nate Marquardt. The winner would get the next shot at the champion. This time Sonnen was an even heavier underdog, but still he outwrestled Marquardt and survived a late submission scare to win another unanimous decision. In less than a year he'd gone from the verge of unemployment to a title shot against the top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
But even before the Marquardt fight, Sonnen had set his sights on the biggest names. He'd successfully generated headlines for himself by taking aim at the champion, claiming that Silva -- a Brazilian who regularly conducted interviews through his manager and translator Ed Soares -- actually spoke perfect English. He took aim at Silva's character and his manhood, calling him a "fraud" and a "coward."
It was a calculated effort on Sonnen's part, and it worked. Few fighters seemed eager to insult the champion who was known for not only destroying opponents, but occasionally mocking them in bizarre fashion during title defenses. Silva had so thoroughly dominated the UFC's middleweight division for the past four years that he'd begun to seem almost bored with it, and in turn fans were beginning to lose their patience with him. In other words, Sonnen's timing couldn't have been better. It was, he said, his "moral obligation to beat this guy." Fans ate it up.
That few people thought he could accomplish this didn't seem to matter. At least he'd force Silva to do something. At least he'd rouse the sleeping dragon and get him to breathe a little fire his way. One way or another, Sonnen could guarantee a beating that would be worth the pay-per-view price. It just wasn't supposed to be Sonnen who dished it out.
People always want to know what went wrong that night. As if he knows. "I get asked about it a lot," he says. "And I don't have the foggiest idea what happened."
He remembers showing up in Oakland that week and dialing up the trash talk in pre-fight interviews. He remembers turning the pre-fight press conference into a one-man stand-up comedy routine, at one point insisting he was "sore, tired, under the weather, overtrained, under-motivated and still tough enough to beat this guy." He remembers standing in the center of the UFC cage -- a 30-foot wide, eight-sided enclosure known as The Octagon -- on fight night, watching the champion make his way down the aisle. He remembers shouting at him to hurry up and get in there.
After that, nothing. Not the takedowns that planted Silva on his back again and again. Not his four-round mauling of the middleweight champion. Not the surprising domination that led to him beginning the fifth and final round up four rounds to zero on every judges' scorecard. Not the last takedown he nabbed in the waning moments, which left him in total control from the top position and nothing left to do but survive the final two minutes. Not the obvious submission setup that everyone but him saw coming.
Then Silva's legs snapped up and wrapped around Sonnen's head, trapping his arm against his neck and cutting off the blood flow through the carotid artery. It was the same triangle choke submission he'd succumbed to three other times in his career, and now he was caught in it once again, this time in the biggest fight of his life. Two minutes left. Far too long to stay in a choke like that without losing consciousness. With his escape route cut off, Sonnen reached up with his one free hand and tapped out.
"I thought the fight was kind of boring," Sonnen says now. "I remember afterward they came in and gave me the [bonus] check for Fight of the Night, and I thought it was sympathy."
The bout was later voted Fight of the Year at the World MMA Awards. Even before the fighters had packed up and left town, talk of a rematch was already swirling. Nobody had come so close to dethroning Silva during his four-year title reign, and nobody had blown it so thoroughly and completely in the dwindling moments of such a sure victory. It was a devastating loss for Sonnen, but he was all but guaranteed another chance in the very near future. What he didn't know as he shuffled out of the arena that night was that his troubles were only beginning.
It started in a doctor's office, well before a UFC title fight was anything more than a dream. In 2008, during a routine pre-fight physical, Sonnen mentioned to his family practitioner that he felt like he got sick more than most people. Once or twice a month, ever since he was wrestling at the University of Oregon, he seemed to come down with a cold or flu.
"I just thought it was from training and cutting weight," he says. "I didn't think that much of it." His doctor suggested testing his hormone levels. Sonnen agreed, and, according to both he and Dr. Mark Czarnecki, it was discovered that he was suffering from abnormally low testosterone, diagnosed by Czarnecki as a result of hypogonadism. Shortly thereafter, Sonnen began treating the condition with bi-weekly, self-administered injections of testosterone, all of which, he still insists, was "perfectly legal."
What he didn't do, however, was disclose this treatment on his pre-fight medical questionnaires. Throughout several fights in Las Vegas over the next few years, where the Nevada State Athletic Commission requires all fighters to disclose medical treatments, Sonnen made no mention of testosterone. That's because his manager and training partner -- former UFC fighter Matt Lindland -- had spoken to NSAC executive director Keith Kizer about Sonnen's testosterone and was granted permission to use testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT), but was told not to mention it on pre-fight forms.
"What had happened was the manager that I had at the time alleged we were given approval from Director Kizer, with one condition: don't bring it up again," Sonnen said during a May 2012 hearing before the Nevada commission. "He said that Director Kizer had told him, 'You're cleared, you don't need to mention this again.' So we relied on that information, and roughly two years ago Director Kizer said, 'Wait a minute, that's not the conversation we had.'"
When Sonnen showed up in Oakland for his title fight with Silva, however, he was under the jurisdiction of the California commission rather than the Nevada one. Though he claims he disclosed his testosterone use to California State Athletic Commission officials in several different ways, executive director George Dodd recalls it differently.
"He never stated it anywhere, except for the day of the [pre-fight drug] test," said Dodd. "That's when he told us."
Not only had Sonnen never officially applied for or received a therapeutic-use exemption allowing him to undergo TRT in Nevada, the California commission didn't even allow for such exemptions and still has no formal application process for it. When Sonnen told him before the fight that he'd been using testosterone, the only thing Dodd could do was wait for the drug test results to come back, he said. When they did, it was bad news for Sonnen.
A little over a month after his loss to Silva, the CSAC informed Sonnen that he'd tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone. A normal adult male generally has a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 1:1. World Anti-Doping Agency standards allow for as high as 4:1. According to Dodd, Sonnen's ratio was 16.9:1, which triggered an immediate suspension.
In his book,
Things would soon get worse. Shortly after running unopposed for the Republican nomination for Oregon State Senate representative in District 37, he withdrew from the race citing a pending legal matter. That legal matter was a federal investigation into money laundering charges stemming from a home sale that Sonnen had brokered in 2006, shortly after receiving his realtor's license. Sonnen was accused of using the plumbing company owned by his mother to filter more than $69,000 for repairs that were never done, then funneling that money to the straw-buyer of a home as an incentive to buy the house.
"It was the third deal I'd ever done," he says. "This person wanted to do the deal this way, that person wanted to do it this way. I asked my bosses and they said, 'Do it.' I didn't know there was anything illegal about it."
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Kerin, Sonnen "played a small role in a much larger criminal conspiracy." More than 10 people were prosecuted under the investigation. Sonnen opted to take a plea deal. In January 2011, he plead guilty to federal money laundering charges and was sentenced to two years' probation, plus a $10,000 fine. He also lost his realtor's license, and had his political career ended. In his book, he claims that his lawyer encouraged him to accept the deal, telling him: "They've chosen to bring you down. They've chosen to end your political career, and it's going to happen."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," Kerin says in response to allegations that the prosecution was politically motivated, before adding, "but he's a very charming person." Or, as Deputy District Attorney Karen Chappelle put it when Sonnen was brought back before the California State Athletic Commission in May 2011 for a special hearing to determine whether he perjured himself during his earlier appeal, as well as whether his felony conviction brought "discredit" to the state for licensing him: "[Sonnen] always has someone else to blame ... I don't know how you can ever trust him."
You strike a certain bargain when you sign up to be the bad guy. The bad guy doesn't get to complain when he thinks he's been treated unfairly. He doesn't get to whine or even explain. He can't admit to feeling humiliated by a felony conviction on his record. He can't tell you about the indignity of having to explain to his new girlfriend's parents why he needs permission to leave the state before he can drive up to Washington to meet them. The bad guy cannot apologize, even when he's sorry. The bad guy can only get badder.
That's what Sonnen did when the headlines turned against him. Too much testosterone? Must have caught him on a low day. Felony money laundering conviction? That's just him being a gangster. It doesn't mean he really believes it, or that he doesn't still get upset when people bring it up.
"It's like a guy goes to jail, does his time, and then when he gets out you say, 'Hey, let's go down there and throw rocks at him,'" Sonnen says. "That's how I feel."
When the felony plea deal followed the suspension for testosterone, the UFC had enough. It opted to temporarily "freeze," Sonnen's contract, ostensibly to give him time to get his personal issues sorted out. When he came back, the bad guy was as bad as ever. He also got the testosterone issue sorted out, in a manner of speaking.
In May 2012, after appearing before the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Sonnen was granted a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone. He joined a growing list of UFC fighters with permission from the state of Nevada to inject the hormone, and though many are still suspicious of a 35-year-old pro fighter who says he's low on testosterone, Sonnen adamantly rejects the notion that it's cheating. Some think of testosterone as a performance-enhancer, but it's much more for him.
"It's a life-enhancer," he says. " If your body produces testosterone naturally, fine. Mine doesn't."
And maybe he's telling the truth, but how would you know? This is the same man who once said in a radio interview that Lance Armstrong "gave himself cancer" through drug use, then, when confronted about that statement by Jim Rome, denied ever saying it, putting it off on an impersonator with a "Hispanic accent." After all that, how much credibility does Sonnen really have left?
That's only one of the problems he's faced with now. Another is the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Brazilian who has every reason to want to hurt Sonnen badly and rid himself of this loudmouthed menace who's been denigrating him in public for the last two years. If Sonnen loses again, it's unlikely that any amount of pro wrestling shtick will earn him a third crack at Silva. Unless he wants to be remembered as little more than an entertaining foil to one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time -- if not the greatest -- Sonnen has to win, and he knows it.