The Oregon Gangster is dead.
He was the persona worn by the UFC fighter and commentator Chael Sonnen, a ridiculous, muscle-bound combination of armour and advertising.
Sonnen has taken the worst hit of his career. He will no longer be competing in the eight-sided cage. He won't be commentating for FOX or the UFC either. The story which finally necessitated his departure involves drugs which were sort of legal and then actually illegal, idols brought low, fertility hormones, faces, heels, face-palm stupidity, and bold-faced lies.
Who has Chael been? He was a wrestler who made a late career surge, a Cinderella Man story simultaneously tainted and energized by drugs and shit-talk. Using all the leverage he could muster, he bent narrative and legality to his purpose. He has been an object lesson in the possibilities, the pitfalls and the fundamental limitations of self-improvement.
He tried very, very hard to win a belt and never succeeded. As a corollary to his efforts, he became a defining presence in modern MMA. Charming, dishonest, diligent, mercenary, sympathetic, brave, candid, offensive, he molded himself into an extension of the long lineage of hucksters quintessentially rooted in American DNA, personifying and distilling them as the real estate agent, the politician and the fight salesman. Nothing he did was revolutionary. He was familiar from the moment he opened his mouth, a throwback to that asshole entrepreneur who has popped up throughout the years.
"Step right up, step right up! See the undisputed champion of the world, Chael P Sonnen..."
I think it misses something to write about Chael from a wholly negative perspective, though: The concept of simple-cut figures has been Sonnen's stock in trade. He presented heel/face dynamics to the masses, played each role to the hilt, and raked in the proceeds. To simply paint him solely as the drug cheat and the felon is in a way to concede to the efficacy of that approach.
As a relative newcomer to the sport, I only really saw Sonnen in the UFC. So, I thought I'd look back at his fights, his progression, and say what I saw then, and see now.
The first thing most of us saw from Chael Sonnen was a triangle, back in UFC 95.
Demian Maia was and remains a jiu-jitsu prodigy and one of the most decorated grapplers in the sport. Chael was taken down quickly with an outside trip and disposed of with a beautiful mounted triangle. In this submission, the attacking fighter drapes their leg over the opponent's shoulder, and wraps the other around through the armpit and around the back of the head. The attacker tightens their legs, and the individual in the triangle has their shoulder driven into their neck. Their own body is forced by leverage, into betrayal. The carotid artery is squeezed shut, and unless they tap quickly, the fighter passes out from blood loss to the brain. So Sonnen tapped. He knew when he was beaten.
The submission is still on Maia's highlight reel, but the finish was unsurprising. Sonnen was known as a talented if one-dimensional wrestler, and jiu jitsu techniques had always been his kryptonite. He had been fighting for years at this point, drifting around in the named smaller shows like Gladiator Challenge, Bodog, Extreme Challenge, Rage on the River. This was the original MMA boom, the new fad enabling a seamy blossoming of regional events. The tour of the underbelly of the marketplace which Sonnen underwent is something which probably just isn't possible today: each show was like a struggling individual, utilizing whatever garish hooks it had to stand out and survive in a saturated market. Sonnen would build up a brief streak, and then be rebuffed. Never knocked out. Never losing a decision. A tap out every time. He'd charge forward, take down his opponents, until eventually they trapped him in a submission. His relentless style always eventually led to his demise.
The first run at the title
After the Maia fight, Sonnen was tossed to Yushin Okami in what some thought would probably be his last fight with the UFC- Top-control grinders having never been at a premium, and Okami being considered a better fighter at pretty much all the things that Sonnen was good at. Before the fight, here came the first hints of "Chael P" the shit-talker. He talked about how Okami was a "boring nuisance" that he'd "get rid of for the UFC." He also, bizarrely enough, started talking about his division's champion, Anderson Silva. "He pretends he doesn't speak English" "He can't sell a fight".
It was laughable from a stylistically dull divisional journeyman fighting on an untelevised prelim.Yet, Sonnen ran through Okami with relentless takedowns and pressure. Better at fighting, better at talking than most had guessed.
He followed it up against Nate Marquardt. A contenders bout thrown together after Marquardt had destroyed Maia. He'd initially been booked against Sonnen's long-time stablemate Dan Henderson. Henderson, unhappy with not receiving an immediate title shot for knocking out Michael Bisping, had upped sticks for Strikeforce. Chael jumped in. Once again a prohibitive underdog. Once again, he ran through the favourite.
Older fighters having a sudden renaissance has become more of a theme in recent years, but Sonnen was one of the earliest. He hadn't really altered his style all that much- he'd just become better at it. More wrestling, more aggression, forward, forward, forward. He piled everything into his strongest suit. When most people are asked about wrestlers, they think of Hulk Hogan or the Ultimate Fighter. That kind of over-the-top salesmanship might also be what people think of when they think of Chael, but I think his personality is more effectively illustrated by "real" wrestling. The single-minded track they call the grind. It's not working? Do it better. Work at it harder.
Even if a lot of people think of Sonnen as a promotional genius, it never really came naturally to him. He worked at it. He cribbed lines from past stars, hired his own script writer. If he's caught unprepared, he can look a little lost. When talking, he's not characterized by whipcrack comebacks or freestyle witticisms, and his most telling and frequent verbal tic is the drawling, nasal "ahhh" he opens responses with when asked a question. Slowing the conversation down, weighing his answer. Again, he's an object lesson for the other fighters in the organization "You too can sell yourself. It is not innate. It is a learned skill." Like almost all the lessons Sonnen has presented, it's not one without its own pitfalls.
So, more schtick directed at Silva followed the Marquardt fight. It actually began to seem feasible that the two would fight at one point. After Silva beat Maia in a putrescent contest in Abu Dhabi, Sonnen was primed for the next shot. The insults increased.
It's been well-documented that they shifted from the frankly surreal to... well, the racist. No, at no point did he say objectively racist things. But if you're a white man, in a predominantly white sport, and you start talking about your famous black opponent while mentioning monkeys, and savages, and gangs, you're tapping into some obvious tropes.
Is Sonnen himself actually a racist? Given his relationship with men like Okami and Uriah Hall, it's doubtful, at least in the "Donald Sterling" sense. On the other hand, he also wasn't stupid enough to plead ignorance of what he was doing. There's no doubt that it generated him more money, built more interest in the fight. Ridiculous lines about feeding carrots to buses worked as smokescreens for some of the more fundamentally unpleasant conceits he was utilizing. He was piling on the advantages again, regardless of the consequences.
The actual fight with Silva was a classic. Sonnen backed up everything he had said and beat the greatest middleweight of all time from pillar to post for 23 minutes. Then, in the dying light of the last round, he got tapped out. By a triangle. He'll never be more famous for anything else.
Obviously Sonnen could have played it safe in the last. Sitting on an unassailable points lead, he could have closed up shop when he had top position, attempted to lay and pray his way to victory. Yet, he still reared up, still threw punches. The same mentality which kept him walking through Silva's punches and kicks throughout the fight kept him attacking. It was almost the sum of his career: He stayed with what had brought him to the dance before he fell just before the end, his own desperate momentum the thing which brought him down. He protested the stoppage briefly, before admitting defeat. He knew when he was beaten.
Not for long though. He went back on the campaign trail for a rematch almost immediately. Then, he failed his post-fight drug test for elevated testosterone, and was suspended for a year. The rumblings against testosterone replacement therapy had tailed Dan Henderson for a while, yet it was Sonnen's failed test which brought it to the forefront. His secondary career as a real estate agent floundered as he was found guilty of money laundering. In turn, this necessitated his departure from the state representative's race as a member of the Republican party.
Somehow, he managed to wiggle out of it all without too much damage. Testosterone replacement therapy was, after all, still "legal", so he marketed his test failure as a simple mistake. He mixed this with some pretty straightforward lies about a conversation with the Athletic Commission boss Keith Kizer. The mortgage fraud was passed off as standard-issue regulatory arbitrage... to help out the buyer, you know?
He built his way back up to the second fight with Silva, with "built" being the operative word. Not only did he crank up the insults, but he grew progressively visibly larger. It was a little odd for a man in his thirties to be expanding in lean muscle mass quite the way that Chael did. Again, it seemed like he was simply piling everything into his perceived advantages- he'd overwhelmed Silva with power, so why not get even bigger? Even stronger? Build up that leverage further?
It was a terrible idea. He bloated up from being a large middleweight to being a titanic one. When he eventually stepped in the cage, he finished off Brian Stann, and had a close, contentious decision with perpetual gatekeeper Michael Bisping.
When he finally fought Silva again, he dominated him in the first round, and then simply could not catch him in the next. In their first contest, Sonnen had been bottled lightning, typified in a moment where he somersaulted adeptly out of a caught kick. This time around, the fight ended when he made a clumsy, whirling backfist, falling under his own weight and momentum. Silva delivered a precision knee to his sternum as he fell against the cage, and then the Spider summarily beat his rival until he went foetal.
There was still a little controversy- Silva's ability to stop takedowns had been at least partially enabled by grabbing Chael's shorts. To his credit Sonnen didn't contest it. I think again, this is part of the wrestler mentality. It's a sport with a sea of gamesmanship under the surface. With over a hundred matches per year, binary and numerical natures quickly assert themselves- you win or you lose. The incidentals don't matter. Sonnen probably knows that.
Realistically, Sonnen was probably too big at this point to even make middleweight any more. So his sojourn at 205 began. He talked himself into a ludicrous match against the current champ, Jon Jones, and was slaughtered in the first round. Ironically, Jones broke his toe- a freak incident while pushing for his own takedown. If he hadn't finished Chael, he would have lost his belt in one of the most unlikely TKOs of all time.
Later, Sonnen fought Rashad Evans. The two fights against Jones and Evans were very different to his traditional losses. Whereas normally he could snap up the takedown, in these he was simply run over. His new "advantages" of strength and size were useless. More to the point, his opponents were adept MMA wrestlers, who were more ferocious hitters than Sonnen could ever have dreamed of being.
These two losses sandwiched a win over the ex-light heavyweight champion, Shogun Rua. It's his greatest single triumph. Sonnen took him down, then as his opponent struggled to reverse position, Chael locked up a guillotine choke for the tapout. The win is often referred to as bring endemic of Shogun's decline, but the credit belongs entirely to Sonnen: Rua has always been legendarily poor at defending the takedown, but would always fight tooth and nail to get back to his feet and regain the advantage. That Chael brought out such an unexpected and beautiful counter to Rua's tendencies was bittersweet. It showcased what Sonnen could do at his best: the surprising technical improvements, the thoughtfulness, the coming together of strategy and courage. Although many hate to hear it, it probably would have worked on any version of Rua to step foot in the octagon.
During all this, Sonnen had been keeping busy outside the cage. He joined the UFC and FOX as a commentator, establishing himself as one of the faces of the company. He was articulate, candid. Dana White said that one day, Sonnen could take over from him, and run the UFC as its president.
The last thing we've seen from Chael has been a triangle. This time a metaphorical one between him, aging brawler Wanderlei Silva and resurgent title contender Vitor Belfort. Chael had spent the latest Ultimate Fighter show in Brazil coaching against Silva, and with a combination of well-timed goads and simple professionalism had managed to do the impossible: he turned popular opinion of the fan-favourite against him, in his home country. Silva helped. He was irrational, irate, in poor shape.
Sonnen continuously predicted that there was no way that Silva would actually turn up and fight him at the end of the show. He was right. Silva dropped out, and dropped out of a drug test. Sonnen was thrilled, telling everyone how Wanderlei ran away, triumphantly proclaiming how Wanderlei had lived his entire professional life under "the suspicion of performance enhancing drugs." Vitor Belfort was tapped to step in.
Although it was by this point highly doubtful that Sonnen could make 185, he tried to angle for making their 205 lbs fight some kind of odd catchweight #1 contenders match at middleweight. He wouldn't have a chance. Vitor's own failed test, which had itself precipitated the banning of Testosterone Replacement Therapy, was brought to light. It became very doubtful that he would be licensed.
Within the triangle, Sonnen, convicted drug cheat and felon, suddenly looked like the most honest man in the room.
Until he failed his own drug test, for anastrozole and clomiphene. Testosterone-producers / oestrogen-inhibitors, the drugs were supposedly used to kick-start his own production, which had plummeted since TRT was made illegal. Facing a ban of at least a year, Sonnen announced his retirement.
At this point, he probably could have survived. Like the prior TRT error, the mortgage fraud, he could have spun it, was in fact already spinning it. FOX even put him on stage, where he explained how he and his wife were trying for a child, bloviated about how he had taken the regimen without checking with the NSAC because he didn't think he had to, talked bizarrely about how it shouldn't have mattered because it was "out of competition."
With the weight of suspicion on him, it's doubtful he could have returned to the UFC to fight. However, he probably could have made it back to the commentary booth. One of the things which could have actually helped him was the collective weight of his failures: there's a certain odd sympathy for the failed drug cheat. Unlike Barry Bonds or Ben Johnson, karma had denied him ultimate success. He could have still slunk back as a living testament to the adage that "cheaters never prosper." It would have made him a little more bearable to the public.
Then his second drug test came in. This time for human growth hormone and EPO. Made famous by Lance Amstrong, these are the cadillacs of PEDs. There was no spinning this one. The UFC and FOX cut their ties almost immediately.
Sonnen always took his losses well. He'd give credit to his opponents, rarely tried to weasel his way out or jump on excuses. There was one notable, lacking factor: contrition. Personal responsibility. He would never say "I messed up." Instead, he would always say: "The other guy did a great job." Even his acceptance of defeat was always based around the positive, around forward motion.
Now he's been beaten once more, and this time it has a sense of finality. Of course, he was knocked out and submitted on multiple occasions, but this time, it's the all-important image of The Oregon Gangster which has been crushed, the thing which kept him rising back time after time, like an ancient Egyptian's ka pouring back into his body. It will be interesting to see whether this time he can say, honestly:
"I fucked up."
Throughout the years, Sonnen always reserved a special ferocity for drug cheats, real and imagined, including those from outside his own sport. There is of course Wanderlei Silva, who ran away from his own drug screen. Sonnen called Lance Armstrong a "cheater who gave himself cancer" long before the truth about the cyclist came to light. He went after Juan Manuel Marquez. I could never be sure exactly why he did it. It might have been projecting some kind of self-loathing. He might have used it as a smokescreen ("This guy hates drug cheats! He must be honest!"). He might have just seen an easy way to get more attention and money by insulting famous figures. He might, simply, enjoy messing with people. Probably some combination of the above.
"If I don't mean it, I won't say it."
while he discussed how he hated people who faked selling fights. Not only was it patently absurd (he obviously didn't believe in people feeding carrots to buses, or that Ed Soares was a member of a pygmy tribe), but it illustrated something which I felt always lurked under the surface with Sonnen. He was capable of parsing his own prejudice, sorting through his own psyche for what was useful, what could be applied as leverage, used for forward momentum. He almost certainly does have some small, innate cultural distaste for earring-wearing black men who dance to Michael Jackson. He recognized that. Picked it out. Used it. It's a marginally terrifying concept.
Watching Sonnen explain his drug tests reminds me a little of the ex-Prime Minister of my own country, Tony Blair, when he tells people earnestly about how the Iraq war was such a great idea, really it was. I get the impression that he's not something quite so simple as a liar. He's something which is probably worse. He is a man who has literally convinced himself that he is telling the truth, who is capable of aligning his thought process in a direction which suits him and then thundering down it like a railroad track, the truth, the past and the present and unwavering reality be damned.
There's a story from Mark Munoz, about how Chael tried to use an illegal submission technique on him in a college wrestling match. Munoz:
"'...Years later we end up having dinner together and my wife is sitting at the table and she gets pretty upset, saying 'What's Chael Sonnen doing here? I hate that guy; he tried to hurt my husband.' Out of the blue, she said 'So, can you tell me why you did that?' He pretty much explained himself and… he's a good guy, man. He was like 'Can you blame me? I was getting beat!'
So I guess...if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying."
I suppose that's as good an explanation as any. He was getting beat on the regional circuit, in the WEC, in the UFC.
In his litany of sins, if there's one you can't accuse him of, it's not trying. He poured everything he had into the skills that he was good at, that defined him: to rush forward and to pressure and to take down. He painstakingly learned to sell himself, until the persona around him took on a life of its own. He relentlessly made himself bigger, and stronger. He lied relentlessly in pursuit of what he wanted.
Eventually in the macrocosm of his life, as in the microcosm, it all fell down around him. The drugs which took him to his title shot grew him fat with an armour of useless muscle, slowed and tripped him, left him fighting naturally bigger men. The lies and the exaggerations have strangled him, killed the credibility and the repute which they bought him in the first place.
We'll never know whether it was a good idea, whether the money and the fame earned has all been worth it for Chael Sonnen. But at least we can try to look back and see what drove him there, what kept him moving forward again and again, pressing down into situations from which there was no escape, which would close around him, until everything went dark.