411 MMA Roundtable: Discussing The Legacy of Chael Sonnen
Posted by Larry Csonka on 06.20.2014
Following his random drug test failure for banned substances, Chael Sonnen has retired from MMA. But what is his legacy in the sport? The 411 staff takes a look!
On June 10th it was announced that Chael Sonnen failed a random drug test given by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The commission had randomly tested Sonnen in late May, and the results confirmed the presence of two illegal substances, Anastrozole and Clomiphene. Following the drug test failure, Sonnen appeared on UFC Tonight and officially announced his retirement from mixed martial arts. Sonnen took full responsibility for the test failure, noting that he and his wife were having fertility issues, and that is why he took the drugs. Sonnen has been temporary suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, pending a formal hearing. But this begs the question, what is Chael Sonnen's legacy in MMA? Lets meet our participants and discuss the topic…
WHAT IS CHAEL SONNEN'S LEGACY IN MMA?
Jonathan Solomon: Chael Sonnen as we know him now in 2014 is one of the most controversial fighters of his generation. Before his most recent run in the UFC, he was more along the lines of a journeyman fighter. He seemingly woke up from being an average nondescript fighter in 2010 after over 30 professional fights. Deciding that to make big money, to be a bigger star and get the biggest fights, he needed something extra. So, he borrowed from pro wrestling's history and began a series of promos in which he absolutely destroyed Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, the Noguiera brothers and the country of Brazil. It resulted in the first fight with Silva, in which nobody gave him any chance of winning. Unfortunately, we will never know why his beat down of Anderson came to be - was it pure skill or aided in any way by his elevated testosterone levels? It was during the time away from the sport from a suspension that he was caught up in a real estate fraud scheme and plead guilty to a felony so he could avoid prison time. Despite all that, he was welcomed back with open arms and was arguably a bigger star with wins over Brian Stann and Michael Bisping, as he continued his verbal onslaught of Silva. Their second fight in 2012 ended quicker than in 2010 with Sonnen eating big knees, concluding the fight in the second round. He managed to plot his way into a title fight against Jon Jones the following year and if not for Jones being able to finish Chael in under five minutes, he would have been the new light heavyweight champion. One of Jones' big toes was grotesquely injured due to the cage itself and if the doctor had seen it between rounds, the fight would have been stopped. That was essentially Chael's end as he went 1-1 in his final two fights before calling it a career because he rather continue testosterone replacement therapy (or not, he just rather not have to play by the rules of athletic commissions). The nicest thing you can say about Chael is that he made MMA fun while the worst you could say is he was a cheater who damaged the integrity of the sport. I won't mind not having to read stories about Sonnen and testosterone anymore, but damn could the man sell a fight better than any other person in the game.
Evan Zivin: Chael Sonnen. The man who should have been WEC Middleweight champion, if Paulo Filho hadn't missed weight. The man who could have been UFC Middleweight Champion, if he could have lasted two more minutes without getting caught in a submission. The man who could have been UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, if he had made it through the first round and the ref had seen Jon Jone's broken toe. Isn't it crazy thinking about Chael's career like that?
That will all be part of his legacy, but the most significant thing he will be remembered for is how far he got in this sport by just using his mouth. For years, if anyone knew who Chael was, it was as a decent wrestler who could beat most mid-level fighters but had poor submission defense. He was good enough to get a UFC title shot in a depleted 2010 middleweight division that Anderson Silva had all but run through, but it was once he started insulting Anderson and the Nogueira brothers and Brazil that people started to take notice. Those insults, combined with the unbelievable performance he gave at UFC 117 that proved he could "walk the walk" as much as he could "talk the talk", set him on the path that would lead him to becoming one of the 2010's most popular fighters. Whether you loved his mocking, pro-wrestling style interviews or couldn't stand the sight of the man, for the last 4 years it's been almost impossible to speak at length about the sport without thinking about the Gangster from West Linn, Oregon. He was so popular that a failed drug test and a conviction for money laundering couldn't slow him down or stop him from getting big fights and spots on TV coaching The Ultimate Fighter and hosting UFC Tonight. The man achieved way more in his career than he had any right to but his personality was what made all the difference. It was appreciated in an era of UFC filled with bland, un-charismatic fighters and, whether you like it or not, he won't be forgotten any time soon.
Wyatt Beougher: I think it goes without saying that I'm the biggest fan/apologist for Chael Patrick Sonnen on the staff for this site. And as frequently as I've defended him from criticism over the years, the way he's going out of MMA still bothers me. He agreed to coach a season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil against Wanderlei Silva, and considering there was no love lost between them before the season started, I don't think it's an exaggeration that people considered the eventual coaches' fight would be a grudge match. When rumors got out that there had been a physical altercation between Chael and Wandy during the season (well before it actually started airing), interest grew even more, and now we're deprived of that fight. Fortunately, Wanderlei essentially fled a random NSAC drug test and he's now lying about saying that it's due to diuretics he was using to reduce inflammation from a wrist injury he sustained in February, so Chael doesn't even come across like the biggest scumbag in this missed opportunity for a fight.
And that's pretty much Chael in a nutshell - "The Bad Guy" isn't just a nickname, as he's had his share of issues with drug tests and real estate dealings and promo plagiarism, but when he's not playing the Chael Sonnen character, he's an intelligent and likable enough guy that you can more or less overlook that stuff. On top of that, he was the most outspoken and entertaining fighter in the UFC in a time where they sorely needed that, and kudos to Chael for adding years to his career simply by talking trash.
Think about it - if he'd just been some schmuck who beat Nate Marquardt to earn a title shot at Anderson Silva and then lost to him, he probably would've been relegated to gatekeeper status before being cut and finishing his days in Strikeforce or Bellator. But because he said a bunch of outlandish nonsense about Anderson Silva, whose popularity in the US was at its nadir after a few terrible title defenses, Sonnen became arguably the hottest act in MMA. When it actually looked like he was going to be able to back up all of his brash words in their first fight, it made Silva's comeback win the stuff of legend and marginalized the fact that Sonnen had the same testosterone ratio in his body you'd expect from a young bull elephant.
And that's another aspect of Chael's career that was fortuitous for him - he ended up being in the right place at the right time to get matched up repeatedly with people who were either less liked or just generally less likable than he was. Whether it was Paulo Filho during his descent into depression and drugs, Silva during his run of lackadaisical title defenses, Jon Jones after his DUI revealed that he wasn't quite as squeaky clean as he'd led people to believe, or Michael Bisping at any point in his career, Sonnen was generally the lesser of two evils when he stepped into the cage. Pretty impressive considering the level of garbage trash talking that he did.
In summation, Sonnen was a pretty good fighter (who made some pretty awful decisions) throughout his career who found his niche and capitalized on it.
Jeffrey Harris: Say what you will about Chael Sonnen, but he reached a level of success in MMA that fighters dream about and aspire to, despite the fact that he never won a major title. He reached a level of success that few fighters ever will reach. Sonnen got to a level that him posting a random tweet or insult would suddenly become major news in the MMA industry. While you can look at Sonnen's record and argue that he was a middling fighter, he was able to exploit his time in the spotlight to its maximum potential. Did Sonnen have limitations in the cage? Most definitely. But he is also a good wrestler and a tough, adaptable worker that managed to make the most of his gifts at the right time. he was never good enough to get to that elite level, but his name value brought him a level of notoriety that people took notice whenever he was fighting someone, even when those fights were match-ups that he would clearly lose (vs. Rashad Evans, vs. Jon Jones). Part of that comes from the fact that no one expected him to put in the type of performance he did against Anderson Silva. I was watching the fight live. It was the first live UFC event I had ever been to at UFC 117. I was completely enthralled by the fight, Sonnen's performance, and Anderson Silva just managing to capture victory from the jaws of defeat at the last second. It was a magical night unlike any other.
That performance helped build the myth of Chael Sonnen. At the time, anyone doing what he did to Anderson Silva made him a commodity. Finally, someone was able to make Silva look vulnerable. Before that fight, many fans were fed up with Anderson after several lackluster title performances against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, and Demian Maia. Sonnen knew how to push the right buttons to get the fans, the casual fans, and the MMA industry into a tizzy. Say what you want about how stupid or horrible the things Sonnen said were. The fact is that they worked. Controversy creates cash, and that's exactly what Sonnen did. Just by talking about the nutty things Sonnen would say, people were basically eating right out of Sonnen's hand. It didn't matter that many of the things he said were not true. The things he said made him the perfect bad guy. For the people who hated Silva and his antics, Sonnen felt like a breath of fresh air.
Some might criticize and insult Sonnen by calling him a convicted felon. Do you know who else is a convicted felon? Alexander Gustafsson. Gustafsson served jail time for felony assault. Is Gustafsson a horrible, disgusting human being? Another convicted felon, WWE Hall of Famer Booker T. Is he a horrible person? Just because he plead guilty to a real estate crime that he served no jail time for doesn't make him a horrible person. Plenty of figures in combat sports have done much worse and went on to have successful careers, and pundits do not harp on their misdeeds 24/7.
Are Sonnen's issues with TRT, banned substances, and PEDs completely his fault? Yes. Sonnen basically became one of the poster boys of the TRT issue and made it a major thing in the industry, exposing other users of TRT. But honestly, I refuse to believe that all of Sonnen's contemporaries and peers who have not been caught are completely, innocent choirboys. Just as I refuse to believe all the fighters in Pride FC were on their honor system and not taking PEDs. Many people labeled as legends or the best in their sport were probably all juicing. Randy Couture was on TRT. Dan Henderson was on TRT up until it was banned. Frank Mir and Forrest Griffin were both using it in their early 30s. Quinton Jackson admitted to using it as well when he was about 33 years old.
Chael Sonnen's legacy is that at his peak, he was one of MMA's top superstars, bar none. He'd have his failures, then he would come right around with an impressive performance that got everyone behind him again. Sonnen understood that the public wanted spectacle. Did he do so by evoking professional wrestlers? Yup. And he did that because it works. No one cared when Cassius Clay won an Olympic gold medal. People took notice when he started modeling a persona after Gorgeous George, a professional wrestler, and changed his name to Muhammed Ali and started being outspoken and calling himself the greatest ever. Fans of combat sports want spectacle. They want big personalities. Chael Sonnen understood and fed off that almost as well as any other. MMA fighters do not really need to copy his act, but they could definitely learn a few cues from Sonnen on how to promote themselves. It's OK to be themselves, but when you have a microphone in front of your face or if there is someone out there you are aiming to fight, don't act like a deer in the headlights. Sonnen's legacy is that no matter what, he was one of the industry's biggest success stories.
Robert Winfree: It's no secret I'm not a big fan of Chael Sonnen, but the man has had an undeniable impact on the current product in the world of MMA. Sonnen was a decent fighter with a very specific skill set, in this case wrestling, that he played to. Purely based on in cage action Sonnen wasn't all that special, in fact the only memorable fight he had was against Anderson Silva at UFC 117, but Sonnen's ability and willingness to talk people into the building was undeniably a breath of fresh air when compared to the typical fighter interview which felt like it was the same thing over and over again.
Sonnen's legacy as a fighter will always be a little bit tainted by his drug test failures and the whole issue regarding testosterone replacement therapy in MMA, the fact that most of his fights aren't terribly interesting doesn't help either, but if people remember Sonnen a few years from now it will be for his talking. Sure he borderline plagiarized some classic professional wrestling promo's, but that got him into a totally undeserved title fight with Jon Jones. Sure he got crushed in the first round, but he got the fight and the payday associated with it. Sonnen's legacy, assuming he genuinely has one several years from now, will be that force of personality can overcome a relatively mediocre skill set and get you opportunities.
Alex Rella: Chael Sonnen's legacy in MMA is definitely something to think about. Will he remembered as a high level gatekeeper, a choker, a multiple time number one contender, cheater, ultimate showman, or just an above average fighter that knew how to play to his strengths? Or even worse, will he just be forgotten as time goes on?
I've been a huge fan of his since the WEC so my views might be a bit biased, but I think he'll be remembered fondly over time in spite of his many faults. Yes, he was suspended twice and his career will be ending in rather lackluster fashion, but not nobody can deny the guy made things exciting for years. Everybody knew he was a one-dimensional fighter, even he joked about it in his book, but that still didn't stop him. Sonnen would get in the cage and charge right at his competition full force as soon as the fight would start. Leaving the other stuff out, it's hard to deny how great his wrestling was or that he was a top fighter in the UFC over the past couple years.
But you can't discuss the career of Chael Sonnen without mentioning the way he built up fights. Yea he borrowed from old wrestling promos, but the way Sonnen ripped apart guys was just amazing sometimes. Sonnen destroyed Anderson Silva, Wanderlei, the Nogueira Brothers, and Jon Jones on the mic. The way he did it too made you either want to see him get in there and back it up or see him get destroyed by them.
Sonnen loved to come across as a heel, but I think he showed his real character while coaching two seasons of TUF. He cared more about coaching and helping out the young fighters more than any other coach that I can remember. The way he trained with them, brought in people to train or talk to them, or how he comforted them after heartbreaking losses. If you don't believe me, just go back and listen to how his Brazilian fighters thanked him at the recent TUF Finale. And they're from a country he's been making fun of for years.
I do believe that Chael is one of those guys that genuinely needs TRT for his well being, but he didn't follow the rules or fill out the proper paper work twice and he was suspended for it. That's his fault and his career will always have that hanging over it, but I'll remember the guy that wrestled and trash talked his way into some huge fights. He was less than two minutes away from becoming the UFC middleweight champion and 27 seconds away from becoming the UFC light heavyweight champion. Chael Sonnen never won that UFC title, but he was one of the last few fighters I was always excited to see compete.
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