May 20, 2011

"You just simply can't spit on me and tell me it's raining."

That was the message the California State Athletic Commission delivered to Chael Sonnen on Wednesday in denying the UFC middleweight contender's appeal of his license suspension, keeping the garrulous grappler out of the Octagon for an indefinite period. No coaching slot on The Ultimate Fighter, which begins taping in a matter of weeks. No No. 1 contenders fight against presumed coaching counterpart Michael Bisping. No foreseeable shot at redemption against champion Anderson Silva. Nothing but a backbreakingly unending game of limbo.

Originally, CSAC executive director George Dodd told my colleague Ben Fowlkes, reporting for MMA Fighting, that Sonnen is barred from reapplying for a license until May 18, 2012, one year after his hearing. But on Friday Dodd conceded that he had misinterpreted a commission rule and Sonnen is in fact eligible to reapply once his current license expires June 29. He will be required to appear at another hearing, however, and judging by the reported tone of this week's meeting, he could face that year-long ban after all.

Why is Sonnen's career being put on ice? If the line of questioning at his Los Angeles hearing was any indication, the sanctioning body's decision was influenced not simply by the 34-year-old's positive drug test last summer but even more so by an obstinate history of dishonesty.

For an example of that history, start by directing your eyes upward. The pithy quote above about spit and rain was not spoken by any of the California commissioners. Those are the words of Sonnen himself, delivered during an online radio interview last summer in criticizing Quinton "Rampage" Jackson for blaming a bizarre 2008 police chase on his overuse of energy drinks. Chael also had some choice words that day for Silva, whom he was preparing to fight, but the rambling Q&A with Pro MMA Radio really hit its stride when Sonnen brought up another athlete who's been tied to performance enhancing drugs. "Lance Armstrong cheated," said Sonnen. "He did drugs. He gave himself cancer."

A pretty outrageous thing to say about the cyclist, eh? Problem is, Sonnen soon was claiming he never said it. On camera with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, he denied having ever spoken a word about the seven-time Tour de France winner, or even having been interviewed by Pro MMA Radio's Larry Pepe. Sonnen reiterated his denial during an appearance on Jim Rome's ESPN radio show, even after the offending audio was played back for him on the air. "It sounds like a guy with a Hispanic accent," argued Señor Sonnen dismissively. Wow.

Of course, the CSAC was more concerned with a different Sonnen untruth, one spoken last December during a hearing to appeal the one-year suspension and fine that the fighter had been assessed a couple of months earlier after he tested positive for a heightened level of testosterone. Chael testified that Keith Kizer, executive director of Nevada's commission, had told him he did not need to report his testosterone replacement therapy. Only after the California commission had voted to cut Sonnen's suspension in half did we learn that Kizer had never spoken to Chael.

The CSAC sure had egg on its face after that. And you got the sense that even though Sonnen had an explanation, as he always does -- he'd been told of Kizer's approval not directly but by his manager, Matt Lindland, he later clarified -- the effusive fighter was destined to pay a price.

But was it a fair price?

We all know Sonnen has a tumultuous relationship with the truth. He's also a convicted felon, having pled guilty in January to money laundering in connection with a 2006 real estate deal he brokered. But should those transgressions factor into his MMA licensing any more heavily than him being a trash-talking blowhard does? If the CSAC's job is to police cheating and make the sport safe for fighters, shouldn't Sonnen sit out a reasonable-length suspension for the failed drug test, then be allowed to go back to work?

The UFC has been conspicuously silent on the matter, and its fighters haven't publicly gone to bat for Sonnen, either. Except for one, interestingly enough. A guy whom Chael has referred to as the UFC's "idiot-in-residence." "Gutted for Chael Sonnen," wrote Michael Bisping on his Twitter feed after the ruling was announced. "People make mistakes. He paid his dues and should be allowed to continue his career. Real shame for the guy." Of course, it's also a real shame for Bisping, who had been hoping to continue his own career with a reality TV stint and the No. 1 contender fight expected to follow. When all that's at stake, it's understandable that the polarizing Brit would throw his support behind even a guy who's called him "Spitbing," in reference to Michael's crass spitting incident following his contentious last bout.

Sonnen isn't the easiest guy to feel sorry for. He's WWE blustery and smarmy, a bag of hot air whose stench of spitefulness never lets up. At least when the cameras and tape recorders are rolling. After I characterized him as "arrogant" and "delusional" in a piece earlier this year, accusing him of showing "no respect for the sport and its fighters," Chael quietly sent me a pleasant e-mail thanking me for the coverage and even complimenting the writing in my stern critique. Clearly, the guy sees the Octagon and its surroundings as his stage. And that's no doubt contributed to him getting on the wrong side of the CSAC.

After his suspension was reduced last December, Sonnen went on the ESPN2 show MMA Live and, rather than showing gratitude or contrition, declared himself cleared of all charges, in the process going on attack against the commissioners. "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.'"

Sonnen paid for that bluster five months later when, in a suit and looking nice, he showed up in front of the California commission this week. "If I don't get my license today, I'm effectively retired," Sonnen contritely told the CSAC, according to's Josh Gross, who was live-tweeting the hearing. "That came from the boss, Dana White." None of the commissioners shed a tear.

But am I alone in thinking that it should be White, not the CSAC, who determines Sonnen's fighting future? If the UFC president was to decide he doesn't want a convicted felon representing his company, so be it. Right now he has under his employ a fighter who has failed a record three drug tests (Josh Barnett), a fighter who led police on a dangerous car chase (Quinton Jackson), plus fighters who've been involved in such TMZ fodder as domestic disputes (Tito Ortiz) and bar fights (Matt Hughes). The UFC is not an assembly of altar boys. But a company has to draw the line somewhere.

That decision has been taken out of the hands of the UFC. Sure, Dana and Co. could try to find a jurisdiction that would defy California and sanction Sonnen to fight. But how would that look to legislators in New York who, during the long battle over whether to sanction MMA in the big media market known as the Empire State, have repeatedly heard the UFC mantra that it embraces regulation and oversight? Sonnen is a fighter on top of his game -- he's the No. 2 middleweight in's rankings -- but he's not worth losing New York over.

So the CSAC, which didn't bother to put in a call to Keith Kizer back in December to verify Sonnen's story before originally softening its suspension, now is playing hard ball. It even dragged Chael's money laundering conviction into Wednesday's hearing. Seems to me the only relevance of the real estate deal is that I now feel forewarned against enlisting Chael's help in buying a new house. (That's not even a factor, really, in part because Sonnen lost his realtor license as part of his plea deal, also in part because Oregon, where he was licensed, is too rainy for this East Coaster.) The California commission is acting not merely to protect fighters and the sport of mixed martial arts. It's trying to save face. By punching Chael Sonnen in his.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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