Chael Sonnen: The Bad Guy Waves Goodbye
By Jesse Donathan
Notorious former UFC middleweight contender and ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen recently announced his retirement from mixed martial arts following a career which spanned over two decades.
A pioneer of the sport since 1997, Sonnen had a remarkably inveterate career fighting at the highest levels in mixed martial arts. An original member of Team Quest, Sonnen trained with the legendary mixed martial arts heroes Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland.
With a resume few can match, Chael holds notable victories over former UFC light heavyweight champion’s Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua as well as a victory over former PRIDE middleweight champion Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva.
Sonnen also has the unique distinction as being the only fighter in history to have stepped into the cage with Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, each with a legitimate claim to the title of greatest mixed martial artist to ever live.
“My last 13 fights were all against world champions, tell me some, anybody else who had that schedule,” Sonnen reminded the MMA media in his June 21, 2019 Bad Guy Inc. YouTube video titled, “Let’s tell the truth, Luke Thomas….”
“Oh, and by the way, of those 13 fights they spun over three weight classes,” said Sonnen in summarizing his own legacy in how he should be remembered.
Earlier in the week, Sonnen was on the wrong end of evaluations of his career by Yahoo! MMA journalists Kevin Iole and Elias Cepeda who accused Sonnen of both being one of the worst drug cheats of his era and as having a racist legacy.
In listening to Sonnen defend his career in the wake of these remarks and allegations, it occurs to me that Chael is giving these individuals far too much credit in an industry like the combat sports media where antagonistic positions trump legitimate knowledge.
“You will never be criticized by someone who does more than you,” reads former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort’s recent social media post. “You will only be criticized by someone who does less.” Sage advice for Sonnen when kept awake at night by the words of those who only arrived on the mixed martial arts scene yesterday.
Perhaps the most successful fighter still competing from the no holds barred era outside Anderson Silva, Belfort began his career in mixed martial arts in 1996 with Sonnen debuting the following year in 1997.
The fact these two fighters have competed at the highest levels of mixed martial arts all the way up until this very day is simply amazing. And in my opinion at least, worthy of both respect and admiration as a testament to their dedication and methodology in the sport.
These were the days of virtually no rules, no weight classes and it truly was as real as it could get. The legend of the Gracie family was cemented in the world of mixed martial arts when the 170-pound Royce repeatedly came out on top in the early UFC tournaments against all comers. The early tournaments themselves served to demonstrate the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in enabling smaller individuals to defeat larger opponents.
This is the kind of mindset to emerge from fighters of the era, it’s an ethos both Belfort and Sonnen have carried with them throughout their career and it’s the result of the originally intended vision of the sport. A once glorious no holds barred affair that harkened back to the days of Pankration in the gladiatorial games of ancient Greece; today mixed martial arts is a watered down, pseudo version of the real thing that many pundits would just assume to forget about altogether as they rewrite the sports history through the lens of their own inexperienced world view.
Chael Sonnen asks, what does it mean to be a good fighter but not a great fighter? For those of us who didn’t just fly into the sport on their magic carpet yesterday, to answer that question we must first establish whether or not you were a championship caliber competitor?
And the answer to the question in Chael Sonnen’s case is resoundingly yes, absolutely. Sonnen was a championship caliber fighter who literally fought against the greatest fighters of his era.
I literally watched Sonnen’s career blossom from middle of the pack mixed martial artist to nearly winning the UFC middleweight title. Chael Sonnen was Conor McGregor before there was a Conor McGregor. “The Bad Guy” pioneered the professional wrestling style of self-promotion in mixed martial arts that in many ways to this day remains unique to his particular brand and contribution to the MMA world, though his protégé, Colby Covington, is following in his footsteps to a recognizable degree.
The first time I can definitively place Chael Sonnen in memory was in his December 2007 loss to Paulo Filho. Far lesser known then than he is today, Sonnen was considered annoying by most with a laundry list of excuses for his shortcomings.
The loss to the very capable Filho was cheered by Sonnen’s detractors, which was an early indication of the natural potential Sonnen possessed in being the perfect heel in MMA. A favorable position to be in when the fans are willing to pay to see you get your derriere kicked which is exactly what promoting is all about, creating interest among the fans whether they love or hate you.
Slowly, Chael would begin to come out of his shell around this period and by 2010 Sonnen had won a rematch against Filho, smacked some other guys around the cage and was beating the brakes off Silva.
Unfortunately for Sonnen though, he lost by submission in a come from behind victory to the Brazilian in a fight that helped “Spider” Silva break through to the mixed martial arts market but not before establishing “The Bad Guy” as an elite mixed martial artist and an infamous villain that the fans loved to hate.
Which brings us back full circle to the number of negative reactions from the mixed martial arts media following Sonnen’s retirement, many of whom do not even have a proper understanding of mixed martial arts much less being in any kind of position to offer a legitimate critique on Sonnen or any other fighter’s career for that matter.
These Yahoo! Journalists only arrived on the scene yesterday; their perspective on the mixed martial arts fight game elementary at best and ideologically poisonous to those who do not take their message with a grain of salt.
Sonnen is neither racist nor is he one of the worst drug cheats of his era. For those who do not understand the promotion game, Chael came off exactly as he intended to: An antagonistic villain who deserved everything that he had coming to him. And by the looks of things, mission accomplished.
But that is all that it was, promotion; a fact that both testifies to Sonnen’s effectiveness and the lack of comprehension and understanding by many in the mixed martial arts media who simply do not recognize what it is that they are seeing, which includes the performance enhancing drug deniers of the world who UFC star Nick Diaz has a special message for.
“That’s another thing I’ll tell you right now,” Diaz explained to MMAWeekly.com. “I know all the fighters and they are all on steroids. All you mother(expletive)’s are on steroids.”