While he isn't retiring (for now), I was fortunate enough to be able to watch his latest high-profile mixed martial arts (MMA) bout from a mere four rows away more than one week ago (Sat., April 27, 2013) at UFC 159, which took place at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., a first round drubbing courtesy of the supremely talented -- and 9.5-toed -- Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones.
The dust has settled and fight fans have more than likely already shifted their focuses to the next event, UFC on FX 8, one that actually features a meaningful Middleweight main event between Vitor Belfort vs. Luke Rockhold. But, before the latest promotional push kicks into overdrive, I would like to take this opportunity to look back on one of the more celebrated and controversial career ascents in the history of this young sport.
That's because Sonnen's Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) career is one of many levels and nuances.
Fifty years from now, people might look back on his record and compare him -- not unfairly -- to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL back in the 1990s. The perennial also-ran has never managed to grasp a major title belt (sorry, I don't count Gladiator Challenge and Dangerzone as major) thanks to the weighty issues of the bizarre Paulo Filho and his epic last-minute collapse against Anderson Silva back at UFC 117 back in Aug. 2010.
Always the groomsman, never the groom.
Regardless, Sonnen made his indelible MMA mark the past three years of his career, which is when he started talking as often as he would attempt a takedown. Specifically, the past nine months have really changed the way many fight fans seem to look at him. While most folks weren't terribly thrilled with his mouth/promo cutting/etc., no one really claimed that he was unworthy of his position and prestige with the world's leading MMA promotion.
Until Dan Henderson got hurt.
When UFC 151 lost its main card, Sonnen
stepped up did what anyone with nothing to lose would do: volunteer to get a free lottery ticket. Facing irrelevancy after losing to pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva twice, Sonnen took the opportunity to try and get something his merits would never earn him again: A 205-pound title shot against the aforementioned Jones.
In a way, it's a shame that is going to be what he's remembered for, simply because his merits are outstanding and rank him as one of the top 185-pound competitors of this era.
Sonnen spent several years in numerous promotions beating up various toughman-level fighters while losing to nearly everyone with the grappling savvy to exploit his weakness on the ground. In fact, he would go nine years and 23 fights before defeating anyone with a sophisticated ground game, Trevor Prangley, way back at Ultimate Fight Night 4 in 2006. His career up to that point was littered with missteps up the ladder. Wins over the likes of Jason Lambert and a 21-year old Jason Miller were nice, but they were studded with losses to a 23-year old Forrest Griffin, Prangley and Jeremy Horn, among others.
Finally, after almost a decade in MMA, Sonnen started to put it together. The collegiate All-American wrestler went on a five-fight win streak that was fairly decent at the time. He managed to get past wily submission-artist Tim Credeur (at the time 6-1 with four submission wins), a 10-3 Tim McKenzie (with some reputable names on his record like a young Emanuel Newton and Doug Marshall) and UFC vet Amar Suloev, who many remember for his loss to Phil Baroni back at UFC 37, but is an old-school name many people don't recall much (he was the very first person to knockout Yushin Okami, holding wins over the likes of Murilo Bustamante, Dean Lister and Din Thomas).
This prompted the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) promotion to bring in Sonnen to face recently crowned undefeated champion, Filho, in 2007. It was Sonnen's big break, and at the time WEC was one of the top of the second-tier promotions in the sport. In fact, it was eventually purchased by UFC parent company, Zuffa, because of its success.
In what would become a recurring theme, however, Sonnen would fall in his quest for gold, getting tapped out late in the second round with an armbar.
It was a bizarre twist that would keep Sonnen from gaining a big championship win a mere year later. After beating Bryan Baker in his next fight, WEC decided to rematch Sonnen in what would be the last middleweight fight in the promotion's history. This was the time when Filho went off his rocker, and he missed weight while talking to ghosts in the cage.
Filho apparently ended up mailing Sonnen the belt after the fiasco, but it certainly wasn't the same thing as having it strapped around the waist in front of thousands of fans and television cameras. A terrible case of circumstance for Sonnen, but he would get his chance to make amends.
After stumbling in his Octagon debut against Demian Maia, Sonnen would rebound with a dominating decision against tough gatekeeper Dan Miller at UFC 98. He then derailed Okami's shot at a title fight by ending his three-fight win streak against the favored Japanese wrestler. This was the fight more than most that really showed the UFC fanbase just how good Sonnen was -- Okami was 9-1 in his last 10, defeating the likes of Evan Tanner, Mike Swick, Alan Belcher and Dean Lister -- falling only to then middleweight kingpin Rich Franklin.
In this match Sonnen completely outworked Okami in the wrestling department and exposed his middling stand up.
The win over Okami earned him a title-eliminator bout against favored Nate Marquardt, who was on a buzzsaw tear -- the best of his career -- having knocked out Martin Kampmann, Wilson Gouveia and the same Maia who had earlier bested Sonnen.
However, "The Great" fell to Sonnen in a "Fight of the Night" at UFC 109 and the latter earned his title shot against Silva.
I want to belabor this point for a minute because this had been Sonnen's career now for more than one decade -- a guy who went out and either won or lost, but no one had ever really paid attention to often if at all.
That was about to change as Sonnen started talking and people started responding.
People who equated cutting promos on the microphone to professional wrestling hated it for the most part. However, people like Brock Lesnar had attracted a huge amount of current and former fans of that particular brand of entertainment, and they liked hearing this from someone who didn't come from that background.
That didn't stop pretty much everyone from thinking that Sonnen was going to be destroyed by Silva since he had exploded everyone who engaged him (Maia and Thales Leites had both backed down from him for much of their fights). Then Sonnen (and testosterone and perhaps a broken rib) took it to Silva at UFc 117, shutting out the champ for 4.5 rounds in their fight.
It took the slick Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Silva and the continued failings of Sonnen at the worst opportunity to change that outcome at the last minute. Then he was subsequently popped for absurd levels of testosterone and the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) suspended him, killing a blockbuster immediate rematch with the Brazilian and rendering all his talking and bragging as nothing more than a artificially fueled sham.
Or was it?
UFC 117 was a fairly decent success with a reported 600,000 pay-per-view (PPV) buys. People outside the hardcore fanbase had paid attention to Sonnen for the first time in his career. Many people didn't even know about the steroid bust because they aren't big followers of this sport outside of watching half of the events.
Yes, there are people out there who didn't know he was suspended for steroids. I had this actual conversation with two co-workers a few weeks ago. One guy said "No he didn't, he has a medical exception." I had to explain what really happened, and I'm sure there are plenty of other people who just fork over a few dollars every month and don't actually read anything online.
So Sonnen continued talking, and continued winning. He choked out Brian Stann and snuck by Michael Bisping. Again, he didn't talk his way there, he earned it by beating a pair of Top 10-ranked fighters in back-to-back fights. The talking accompanied it, but there was no reason from a competition standpoint that the rematch shouldn't happen.
We all know what happened next in the UFC 148 main event shortly thereafter.
It was in this aftermath that the mouth overtook the accomplishments and Sonnen "earned" his coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17 opposite "Bones" and the title fight in which he was abysmally dominated little more than one week ago.
Look, I don't need to go into the race-baiting, the criminal past, the cheating or any of the other negatives. I've typed out enough words on the promo-cutting to really dump on a fighter who I'm trying to give some praise to. Sonnen has competed in 41 professional prize fights. And he deserved to be in every single one of them on his merits alone with one exception.
And that shouldn't define a career.
Sonnen could never grasp that brass ring, but like the Bills comparison earlier, that never meant that he didn't belong in that competition (aside from his time against Jones).
In closing, when we look back on the career of Chael Sonnen, be it now -- or whenever he actually retires -- it should be that of an athlete who was good enough, by hook or by crook, to make it to near the top of his chosen profession and was stopped three times by perhaps the two greatest fighters of their generations.
The circus bit was a great way to exploit something that a large segment of fans liked and that lazy media ate up. The exploitation shouldn't diminish the way he spent the majority of his time.
I look forward to reminiscing about the rest of his future career, but if he doesn't have one outside of catchweight fights against Rich Franklin or rivalry bouts with Wanderlei Silva, I think this his legacy is fitting regardless of what happens next.
Win, lose, draw or jaw.