Assuming the story is true, the most heinous villain in MMA history may have been born via innocuous text message during the summer of 2009.
That’s when a previously unremarkable middleweight named Chael Sonnen contacted Joe Silva, offering to move up in weight to fight on short notice at UFC 102. Brandon Vera’s opponent had just dropped out of a scheduled light heavyweight bout in Sonnen’s hometown of Portland, Ore., and Sonnen was cooling his heels after a win over Dan Miller three months earlier. To him, the timing must have felt serendipitous.
No harm in asking, right?
Silva replied in three words: Who is this?
It seemed the UFC matchmaker had lost his number.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to blame the full extent of what came later on a single text, but it’s clear that around this same time Sonnen vowed that nobody in the fight game would ever again forget his name. The ensuing three-and-a-half years saw him craft one of the most improbable second acts the sport has ever seen, marching to three separate title shots while simultaneously launching a campaign of verbal scorched earth against whomever crossed his path.
He became, in his own words from last week’s UFC 159 weigh-in, the bad guy. The act (by turns hilarious and infuriating, cavalier and pitiful, innovative and rote) pushed him to heights far beyond what was expected from the unheralded, middle-of-the-pack fighter he’d been for much of his career.
And now it’s over. For all intents and purposes, Sonnen’s run among MMA’s elite reached its inevitable conclusion Saturday, when Jon Jones pounded him out inside the first round of their absurd light heavyweight title bout.
Its usefulness had likely ended weeks or months earlier, as Sonnen appeared to coast into this fight on promotional fumes. He did what he could to spread the hype, running his usual patter and deploying his best prepared material whenever anyone put a microphone in his face, but you could kind of tell his heart wasn’t in it. Or maybe hard-core fans just weren’t buying his shtick anymore; not against Jones, and not after watching him fumble two previous championship opportunities at middleweight.
This time the bad guy got outwrestled and out-struck and, maybe above all else, outfoxed when Jones thoroughly beat him at his own game. Somehow, he still almost won, though the fight only really got interesting after it was over. When referee Keith Peterson jumped in to call a stop to things just 27 seconds before the end of the opening stanza, he did it to save Sonnen from further punishment, but soon it became clear what he’d really saved was Jones’ title reign.
The champ’s toe was obviously broken and leaking blood and had Sonnen been able to survive until the end of the round there was a good chance some ringside doctor would’ve made him the champion. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and now Sonnen finds himself at loose ends for what must feel like the umpteenth time in his circuitous 16-year career. He was hesitant to discuss his future in the immediate aftermath, but the few words he shared with us inside the cage following the fight sounded eerily like a retirement speech.
“I'm not going to be one of the guys to hang around,” Sonnen said. “If there’s not a road to the title, then this sport isn’t for me. I believe that was probably my last opportunity.”
The high-minded thing to do, of course, would be to call it a career and transition to the next phase of life as a color commentator and television personality. Sonnen could certainly still be a viable member of the active roster, but he’s right to think he’s done as a championship contender and if we’re ever going to believe anything he says, it should be that he would never be happy going back to mediocrity.
No, far better for him to go out on top, or at least as close to the top as he was able to claw and scratch on the power of his wits and his wrestling, and maybe with some help from modern medicine. The trip back down would be too sad an end for Sonnen, as it would effectively signal a return to the forgettable first act of his career, when he was plagued by inconsistency and poor submission defense and appeared doomed to finish up as one of the biggest fighters on the smallest shows.
In the end, he turned that perception on its head, winning 10 of 12 fights from 2006-10 and using his unparalleled gift of gab to transform himself into one of the UFC’s most unique pay-per-view draws. At times it was fun, at others it was pure drudgery, but it was interesting more often than not.
Consciously remaking himself as arguably the most despised figure his sport has ever produced proved to be a terrific marketing strategy for Sonnen, but it was never one with a tremendous shelf life. An integral part of his antics was that he was performing them at the highest level. Somehow it just wouldn’t be the same leading up to fights against the Wanderlei Silvas, Rich Franklins or Cung Les of the world.
From here out the paydays would only be smaller and the spotlight dimmer. Most future matchups would be anticlimactic for a guy whose entire strategy was to tell an epic story.
Sonnen’s place in MMA history is as secure as it is likely to get. In other words, his work here is done.
We’ll never forget his name now, and that means the bad guy has already won.