January 04, 2011

Chael Sonnen is smarter than you. It doesn't matter if you're a Nobel laureate, the brightest light in Mensa or even Yogi Bear. The self-satisfied UFC middleweight is smarter than the average bear, too, and he's certain he is brainier than you as well. That is what gets the man in trouble.

The 33-year-old, his fighting career already under suspension by the California State Athletic Commission for failing a drug test following his near-miss defeat to champion Anderson Silva last August, on Monday was revealed to be in trouble with the government again -- this time the Internal Revenue Service -- for playing by his own rules. He didn't just exaggerate a couple of business meal deductions on his Schedule C, either. Sonnen pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., to money laundering related to mortgage fraud.

And on Tuesday the UFC added to Sonnen's troubles -- or perhaps extended a helping hand, depending on how you look at it. Dana White told TMZ he'd "frozen" the fighter's contract indefinitely. "Chael Sonnen has gone through a lot in the last few months," said the UFC president, "and we think it's important for him to focus on getting his personal life together before focusing on his career in the UFC."

The fraud conviction is no joke. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. However, as part of a plea deal, according to a story in The Oregonian, prosecutors will recommend that Sonnen, who has worked as a real estate agent in addition to his careers in the UFC and in Republican politics, be placed on probation for two years at his sentencing on March 28. Sonnen reportedly also has agreed to surrender his Realtor's license and pay a $10,000 fine.

The charge stems from a 2006 home sale in Portland that, according to a U.S. Attorney's Office press release, Sonnen admitted "was designed to conceal or disguise the ownership and control of the proceeds of wire fraud." Plain language: A mortgage lender agreed to pay $69,000 to a plumbing company owned by Sonnen's mother for repairs, and the work was never done, the money diverted to a straw homebuyer as a kickback. Sleazy.

Now, some who are bullish on Sonnen's relentless fighting style in the octagon (or maybe like his right-wing politics) will be inclined to reserve judgment until we've heard from him on the matter. And let there be no doubt that we will hear from Chael, though perhaps not until after sentencing, because the federal prosecutors who cut him the deal are not going to like what Sonnen says. Despite his guilty plea, he's going to tell us why he was right and the U.S. government was wrong. Chael has an answer like that for everything. Because he's smarter, remember?

There is precedent for the smarminess we all know is coming. Just last week Sonnen went on ESPN's MMA Live and pontificated on his California suspension, which stemmed from post-fight tests that revealed an abnormally high testosterone-to-estrogen ratio, an indicator of steroid use. At a Dec. 3 appeal hearing, Sonnen testified that he has been undergoing testosterone replacement therapy since 2008 to address hypogonadism. He claimed he had disclosed his testosterone usage to commission members long before the Silva bout. But there's no documentation of any past disclosure, the commission said, and Chael did not report his testosterone use on a pre-fight questionnaire in which he did list his other medications.

Naturally, in his TV appearance Chael painted a different picture, a rosier one that might as well have had a rainbow-colored unicorn at the center, for all the fantasy world it depicted. "They said I didn't disclose," he said on the ESPN show. "I proved three different ways that I did." Apparently Chael confuses the words claimed and proved. The commission clearly didn't buy his "proof." The four members initially were deadlocked 2-2 in a vote to uphold the year-long suspension, then as a compromise settled on reducing the suspension to six months while maintaining the $2,500 fine.

Sonnen's take? "Listen, there's no such thing as a six-month fine," he said. "If somebody broke the rules, they serve 12 months. This isn't like traffic court, where you drop the suspension because the guy showed up in a suit and looked nice. I came in, I put my case forward, they dropped it to six months. That's the same thing as saying, 'We were wrong.' "

Uh, no it's not, Chael. I know you're smarter than me, the athletic commission, even the whole state of California, but the only thing that would have said "We were wrong" is if the commissioners had dropped the suspension entirely. Which, in your world, they apparently were not smart enough to do.

Nonetheless, Sonnen's drug-related banishment ends on March 2, and with three UFC events that month, he was expecting to fight in one of them. Chael and Wanderlei Silva had been trash tweeting for weeks, but MMAjunkie.com reported this week that Sonnen would instead face Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 128 on March 19 in Newark, N.J. That's not going to happen now that he's suspended.

It seemed like an odd matchup, anyway, pitting arguably the UFC's second-best middleweight -- a guy who was dominating the champion before being caught in a fifth-round triangle choke -- against someone who's lost his last two bouts to mid-level competition (Chris Leben, Michael Bisping). It seemed like a sign that perhaps the UFC was souring on Sonnen, his mouth and his misdeeds.

White insists he's not turning his back on Sonnen. "I spoke with Chael earlier today," he told TMZ, "and he agrees that setting priorities in his life is the best thing for him right now. I sincerely hope Chael is able to straighten out his personal life." Likewise, Sonnen's manager, Mike Roberts, sent MMAFighting.com an e-mail that characterized the suspension as a mutual decision rather than something imposed on his fighter. "Chael Sonnen and the UFC have mutually decided that Chael will take some time off from his fight career to focus on the resolution of some personal issues," he wrote. "Chael looks forward to returning to the octagon in the near future and resuming his quest for the UFC middleweight title."

That remains to be seen. This suspension might be White simply creating a temporary buffer between the UFC and a newly convicted felon, with their relationship to continue, as if nothing ever happened once the smoke clears. Or perhaps the UFC truly has become tired of Sonnen's sorry act.

If that wasn't the case after the testosterone suspension, or after his Twitter feed was characterized by TheHuffington Post as "racist and xenophobic," it might well be the case now that Sonnen is in legal hot water with the federal government. If so, it will represent quite a fall from grace. Before being hit with the money laundering charge, Sonnen was a rising star not just in the UFC but also in Oregon politics. He won the Republican primary (running unopposed) in a race for a seat in the state's House of Representatives last May, but dropped out of the general election a month later, saying, "A 2006 legal issue has arisen that needs my immediate attention."

Now that the legal issue has been adjudicated, brace yourself for Chael Sonnen's next tall tale. We're going to hear how the IRS had it all wrong, how he had nothing to do with the shady real estate deal ... and even if he did, he was just trying to create affordable housing for some elderly, disabled poor people ... and he had the governor's permission to do so, anyway, right here on a signed and notarized piece of paper that he can show -- oh, he must have left it at home.

Chael throws out this stuff like he actually believes it, both before fights and after legal troubles. Is he delusional? He's still in denial about the triangle/armbar combo that a beaten-down Anderson Silva slapped on late in the fifth round at UFC 117 to save the day and his championship belt. Sonnen fully expects the rematch -- whenever that happens now -- will be five full rounds of dominance, sans the sub. He says this despite the fact that he claims not to work on submission defense in training and despite the fact that he's been subbed so many times -- in eight of his 11 losses -- that his octagon entrance music should be Taps.

Maybe it's not delusion. Maybe it's the arrogance that comes with an utter lack of respect. Chael Sonnen can fight, there's no questioning that, but he seems incapable of separating the fight inside the cage from life outside of it. He shows no respect for the sport and its fighters. It's one thing to talk trash in order to hype a bout. But Sonnen makes a fool of himself by referring to the great Georges St-Pierre, who's not even in his weight class, as "a French-Canadian Minnie Mouse." And when he utters such cowardly nonsense as, "If Brock Lesnar was here right now, I'd take my boot off and throw it at him, and he'd better polish it up before he brings it back to me," you start to wonder whether it's Chael, not Brock, whom World Wrestling Entertainment should be after.

You also start to wonder how much a smart guy like Dana White would mind.

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