Chael Sonnen has announced his retirement. Maybe it will stick, maybe not, but now is a good time to ask - what is the legacy of Chael Sonnen in MMA?
Hear thoughts from the staff of Bloody Elbow here in this Bloody Elbow Roundtable.
Tim Burke: It's a complicated question. He brought a brashness and type of pro-wrestling character that has rarely been seen in MMA, and he did it effectively enough to turn himself into a huge draw. But it was only a character - Chael the man was a really nice, intelligent guy. He is the person that introduced the MMA world to TRT though, and that will probably be what people remember most about him way down the road. For better or worse.
Or that the Nogueiras tried to feed a carrot to a bus.
Stephanie Daniels: For me, he represents 3 things, the first of which is the most unattractive quality of the bunch: 1. Personification of the unfortunate banned substance/PED situation in MMA; 2. Entertainment; 3. Short notice pinch hitter.
Matt Kaplowitz: When Chael Sonnen fought, you never knew what to expect, even though we all knew what skills he had. But for a lot of fans, I think we came for the fight, but stayed for the show.
Chael embodied the heel gimmick of pro wrestling and gave us a boost of the unpredictable. Usually it worked, sometimes it didn't, but it always got the fans talking (either about how awesome it was or how lame it was that he sounded like a pro wrestler).
Beyond his fights (and frankly, no one will ever forget when he fought Anderson Silva the first time and pushed him to the limit at UFC 117), I think Chael's true legacy is how he sold himself and his fights. Who else could have lost a middleweight title fight, only to get a light heavyweight title fight immediately after, plus a season of TUF to promote it? Only one of the greatest talkers in the history of MMA, that's who.
David St. Martin: I'm hopeful Sonnen will be remembered more for his showmanship than anything else. His ability to sell himself was unparalleled. For a guy few would ever consider elite, the man found himself in title bouts with the likes of Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. He perfectly walked the line of legitimacy and full blown blowhard, laying the blueprint for how to flourish in a sport that demands personality. From lines about medium rare steaks, pet idiots and feeding carrots to Brazilian public transit, his ability to cut a quick promo will truly be missed.
"If Brock Lesnar was here right now, I'd take my boot off and throw it at him. And he better polish it up before he brings it back to me." - Chael Sonnen
Stephanie: The thing is, Chael is retiring directly on the heels of a failed drug test. People remember what's most recent. That sentiment is compounded by the fact that it's his 2nd time. It's definitely surfaced as the most prominent thing about his public persona, and this is coming from a big Sonnen fan. Reality sucks, but it's still reality.
Patrick Wyman: Chael raised self-promotion to the level of performance art. By doing so, also set a standard that's utterly impossible for all but one or two other fighters meet: when Dana White complains about guys not talking enough, the implicit point of comparison will forever be Chael Sonnen.
Just think about the sheer absurdity of his second run in the UFC. He talked his way into a fight with Anderson Silva, beat the holy hell out of him for 23 minutes, tapped, and then popped for a ridiculously elevated level of testosterone. He pled guilty to a felony fraud charge. He rehabilitated his image to the point that the NSAC was practically licking his feet and asking him for advice on how to regulate testosterone replacement. He managed to parlay that into becoming one of the UFC's official faces and possible future promoter. Shortly after blasting his upcoming opponent for running from a drug test, he tests positive for not one but two different banned substances. If you turned Chael's career into a fictional story, it'd be rejected for a lack of realism.
MMA will be less entertaining without Chael Sonnen.
Fernando Arbex: He was able to be hated at the highest level in Brazil and turn the table in his favour (partly because of Wanderlei's inability to understand how show business works). Sonnen is too clever, a guy in MMA that knew how to climb the ladder faster and also a very competitive fighter at 185. He was almost champion without most of the technical tools for it. He will still be a Fox commentator, and I think he will bring people to his side about this drug test situation, like he did with most Brazilian fans. But he retires never having been able to grab a (real) UFC belt.
John Joe O'Regan: Sonnen should be remembered as a world-class wrestler, competitor and showman who injected some much-needed life into the sport and inspired numerous of his fellow fighters to do the same.
Some of his trash-talk was comedy gold (though to be fair, some of it was oddly crass for a man of his intellect). But he wasn't all talk - if he said he wanted a fight or wanted to do something, he went for it.
When I think of high points in MMA, certain things stand out as snapshots in my mind. One is Fedor grabbing a kimura on Randleman after being suplexed. Another is Sonnen striding forward to do battle with Anderson Silva when the referee opened the fight at UFC 117.
I am not trying to say that was on par with what Fedor did, just that it stuck in my mind. To that point, fighters faced with Anderson had looked anywhere between fearful and awestruck; they were intimidated. The way Sonnen stormed straight forwards was exhilarating to anyone following the sport at the time - fighters just weren't doing that against Anderson.
Sonnen brought skills and he brought entertainment which, as I class MMA as sports-entertainment, I commend. He may have inspired a few too many copycats and led to a dumbing down of MMA rhetoric but overall the sport will be a duller place without him.
On the flipside, somewhere deep in Zuffa HQ there is an altar and shrine to Sonnen and his money-making powers. The steps in front of it are slick with the blood of the sport's credibility, slaughtered that Chael may make it rain.
Sonnen has held political office and is an intelligent, astute man whose ability to think on his feet matches his ability to scramble after a takedown attempt. Like the best politicians, he was able to sidestep the worst potential troubles by talking absolute bollocks and running rings around his listeners.
His reasonings and excuses on the various occasions he got caught out were masterpieces of sophistry; we all knew he was talking shite but nailing down the specifics was difficult. However, it was the way the UFC tacitly approved all of this which, I believe, was the beginning of the sport's current and ongoing tarnishing.
Overall? Sonnen is something of a flawed genius. He badly wanted to be a champion and while he never made that, he has achieved eternal notoriety. He'll be happy with that.
Brent Brookhouse: I'll play the bad guy here. I can't romanticize the guy that much. Poorly ripped off old school wrestling promos, constant untruthful BS, multiple drug test failures, an act that often bordered on (if not fully resided in) racism and jingoism. I'm a pro-wrestling guy and someone who has followed boxing since he was a little kid. So I'm familiar with 'playing a character" and "selling a fight." But Chael's shtick was so distasteful to me, and piled on top of dishonesty and tainted by failed drug tests.
The first fight with Silva will forever be a great MMA memory, but I don't think he has some place as "one of the greats" or really anything beyond an interesting character. Even if we go from the opening bell of the first Silva fight his time in the spotlight includes a 3-4 record (the best win being a controversial decision over Michael Bisping which Dana White scored for Bisping), a felony conviction, four stoppage losses and two failed drug tests.
Stephanie: Brent and I are on the same wavelength, but for different reasons. I'm more of a butthurt fan because I feel like Chael robbed me of a great entertainer, something he was pretty masterful at and something the UFC is in short supply of.
David Castillo: Well, expecting this to be unpopular, here it goes, but he led a decent career until he reinvented himself in the same way Alistair Overeem reinvented himself; the difference is, Dana White had Chael's back at every turn. However, that "reinvention" coincided with the whole TRT debacle, in addition to his guilt in the case of mortgage fraud that sidelined him for awhile. It's easy to envision a parallel universe where a promoter less inclined to his theatrics (and wrongs) made him take the Judge Dredd long walk treatment (a fate that would have been in keeping with his career up until the latter half of his UFC tenure). Keep in mind, I don't mind showmanship. I think it's a nice departure from the robotic "I gave 110% out there" speeches that hide an athlete's true identity.
But Sonnen straddled that line between symbol and charlatan of spectacle, becoming the latter by virtue of his lack of remorse for anything. He's never claimed any sort of responsibility for his past, and even his retirement reeks of your standard issue political dog and pony show: a whiff of controversy, and what better way to avoid tough questions than to distract everyone with the faux-obituaries that must now be written? For a white collar criminal, this is a white collar move.
I know this is all glass half empty whining, but surely you can be a blowhard and not be connected to money laundering, steroids, and discriminatory remarks all at the same time, right? I think this is why I tend to feel like Sonnen wasn't the pro wrestling billboard genius he's often viewed as. I think who he pretended to be is as much a part of him as who he was when he wasn't selling Chael Sonnen the fighter. I don't really care either. Sonnen developed into a a solid fighter, and 3 title fights to punctuate the last seven fights of his career is something not many fighters will ever claim. But humans have a lot to do with how your legacy is viewed, so here's my human reaction. If nothing else, this is how Sonnen deserves to be viewed: as much a flawed fighter as he was a flawed personality who nonetheless dug up as much success as he could with his flaps, his fists, and a little fortuity.
Nate Wilcox: Matt Lindland summed it up: "Second Place Sonnen."
Join us tomorrow for part 2 including our discussion on if Chael is a future UFC Hall of Famer.