Chael Sonnen's guilty plea on federal money laundering charges was just the capper to a very long strange 2010 for the UFC star. As weird as it all was it was just a new low for the voluble Sonnen. But the UFC's decision to suspend Sonnen for an unspecified time was something new entirely.
The UFC has suspended fighters who've failed drug tests in locales without athletic commissions where the UFC is forced to regulate themselves, but to my knowledge this is the fist time they've suspended a fighter on moral grounds.
Maggie Hendricks lists some of the capers that the UFC didn't feel merited a suspension:
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, the one-time light heavyweight champ, plead guilty last January to going on a reckless driving spree in southern California. Later in 2009, he coached on "The Ultimate Fighter" and starred in a remake of "The A-Team."
Josh Neer fought on Ultimate Fight Night 17 just over a month after his second DUI arrest, but wasn't cut from the UFC until he had two losses in a row. Chris Leben, who fought last weekend at UFC 125, was arrested for a DUI in October 2010 and a probation violation in April 2008.
We'll hear a who's who of MMA and sports punditry sounding off on the Sonnen suspension in the full entry.
SI.com's Jeff Wagenheim gives the outside MMA perspective on Sonnen and his suspension:
This suspension might be White simply creating a temporary buffer between the UFC and a newly convicted felon, with their relationship to continue, as if nothing ever happened once the smoke clears. Or perhaps the UFC truly has become tired of Sonnen's sorry act.
If that wasn't the case after the testosterone suspension, or after his Twitter feed was characterized by The Huffington Post as "racist and xenophobic," it might well be the case now that Sonnen is in legal hot water with the federal government. If so, it will represent quite a fall from grace. Before being hit with the money laundering charge, Sonnen was a rising star not just in the UFC but also in Oregon politics. He won the Republican primary (running unopposed) in a race for a seat in the state's House of Representatives last May, but dropped out of the general election a month later, saying, "A 2006 legal issue has arisen that needs my immediate attention."
Now that the legal issue has been adjudicated, brace yourself for Chael Sonnen's next tall tale. We're going to hear how the IRS had it all wrong, how he had nothing to do with the shady real estate deal ... and even if he did, he was just trying to create affordable housing for some elderly, disabled poor people ... and he had the governor's permission to do so, anyway, right here on a signed and notarized piece of paper that he can show -- oh, he must have left it at home.
E. Spencer Kyte, writing at Heavy.com thinks this is a big step forward for the promotion and the sport:
When the day comes where the UFC is viewed as a legitimate mainstream sport by the masses, there will be all kinds of well-known and well-discussed events that are mentioned as markers along the way. One such event that will probably be overlooked amidst the notable historic moments is Tuesday's suspension of Chael Sonnen.
Though it will be mentioned far less frequently than the TUF 1 Finale and the creation of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, the decision to keep Sonnen on the sidelines is a very important step towards greater acceptance.
Despite the fact that countless athletes who have appeared on a police blotter or two (or worse) are gainfully employed in other professional sports, mixed martial arts is currently held to different standards than the NFL, for example. As such, keeping Sonnen in the mix would have been deemed evidence that the sport is populated with nothing but convicts and criminals while next to no one objects to Donte Stallworth, Santonio Holmes, or Gilbert Arenas collecting a multi-million-dollar salary each year (all served league imposed suspensions as will Sonnen).
By scrapping Sonnen's scheduled fight with Akiyama and putting him on the sidelines for an indefinite period, the UFC is following in the footsteps of the other major professional sports organizations and showing that legal penalties are not the only consequences fighters need to be concerned about in these types of situations.
In taking this course of action with Sonnen, Dana White and company are setting an important precedent for the organization and its athlete: that your ability to earn a living in the UFC doesn't rely solely on what you do inside the cage and your personal conduct will be taken into consideration.
It took this perfect storm of high-profile disgrace for the UFC to do anything about Sonnen or even acknowledge that maintaining his employment at this time is problematic. However, the UFC's decision to freeze Sonnen's contract is meaningless as a punishment. There is no length of time attached to the freeze and UFC President Dana White is framing it as an attempt to give Sonnen the time he needs to straighten out his "personal life" as opposed to his "complete mess of a life".
This is all in line with the UFC's dogged insistence on staying out of almost any matter that their contracted fighters get themselves into. Stole the Statue of Liberty? That's not our problem, the police can handle it. Tested positive for the zombie virus from "The Walking Dead"? That sounds like something the commission should take care of. The palatability of this stance boils down to the perception that combat sport athletes, unlike their stick and ball brethren, are independent contractors and not representatives of a league. Not surprisingly, the UFC wants it both ways on this front since they also go to great lengths to ensure the UFC brand remains synonymous with MMA to the point that MMA is an unfamiliar term to many casual fans.
The result is that, much like the NFL or NBA, the UFC is able to use its brand name league status to position itself as the premier source for MMA without fans even realizing it. In other words, the UFC's structure in regards to its competitors is far more similar to that of major sports leagues than it is to boxing or kickboxing. Furthermore, in their ideal world the UFC would have the kind of unbreakable strangle hold on talent that only major sports leagues enjoy.
The point here is that the UFC's stance on fighter misconduct is built on a false foundation that is starting to catch up to them. Sonnen is merely the manifestation of that inevitability and the UFC's response thus far not only amounts to a cop-out, but also serves as a guarantee of future headaches. After all, there is a sound rationale to why the major sports leagues have strict personal conduct policies and much of it has to do with their desire to separate the personal follies of the athletes employed by the brand from the brand itself. By attempting to avoid the matter altogether, the UFC is only emboldening its athletes to produce fodder for TMZ.
Even without the UFC suspension, Sonnen faced a serious hurdle in getting re-licensed by Nevada even after he serves his suspension with the California State Athletic Commission. Cage Side Seats spoke with NSAC ED Keith Kizer:
...with regards to Sonnen getting re-licensed in Nevada (since they recognize other commissions' suspensions) "if Mr. Sonnen wants to get a license here in Nevada, it's probably best if he appears before our commission as opposed to me giving him one administratively."
Sonnen claimed that Kizer was lying, but that this was a-okay. He was just doing what he had to do since he was bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to not say anything about what he knew about Sonnen's private medical records in his capacity as a government official. Among other things, HIPAA established new privacy guidelines for Protected Health Information (PHI) in the US. PHI is information held by a "covered entity" having to do with an individual's health care or health status that can be linked to the individual.
Being pretty sure that athletic commissions are not covered entities (and even without any prior knowledge, it's Chael Sonnen), I emailed Kizer. I think you can guess what he said.
He wrote that "HIPPA [sic] does not apply to the NSAC as we are not a medical provider." He added that "I have never spoken with Mr. Sonnen on any matter. He has informed me that he wants to fly to Las Vegas and explain to me why he thought he had the OK to use TRT in Nevada. Senior Deputy Attorney General David Newton and I are awaiting him proposing a date for such a meeting." With UFC suspending him after cancelling his fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 128 in light of his guilty plea on money laundering charges I expect that it'll be a while before that happens.
It's not just Nevada either, Dave Meltzer (via Wrestling Observer, subscription required) lists some other areas where Sonnen may have a hard time:
It is also possible even if he does return to UFC, the felony conviction could keep him away from fighting on shows in Canada, which has not let performers into the country at times with felonies, most notably Jim Cornette, who was denied entry in recent months off an assault conviction in the 80s (Cornette had performed and worked regularly in Canada for decades without it ever coming up) and Ron Killings (R-Truth).
Chael Sonnen is something else. It's ironic that the utterly postmodern view of the truth as a fungible asset that can be manipulated at will that made him such a compelling fight promoter ("This guy will say anything!') has now caused him to be entangled so deeply in a web of deceit that now he can't even be allowed to fight in a cage.