The rise and spectacular fall of Chael Sonnen, UFC superstar - Part one

Jonathan Ferrey

A look back at Chael Sonnen's first year as a true superstar in mixed martial arts, as he used controversial language to hype his fight with Anderson Silva, entered a guilty plea for money laundering charges and repeatedly lied to the media.

The reflexive defensiveness of MMA fans may benefit none quite like Chael Sonnen. Fans are often so willing to stand up for the sport that they forgive trespasses that would result in a sort of fan imposed banishment in other more "mainstream" sports.

In his time with the UFC, Sonnen has received more breaks than anyone else in the sport. His myriad transgressions, allegedly racially coded language, xenophobia, multiple failed drug tests, federal money laundering charges, repeatedly lying to fans and media...etc. are usually brushed aside with claims of Sonnen simply "playing the promotional game" and statements that he's "really a nice guy when you talk to him."

Nothing tells the story of a man quite like his own actions. And so, in light of recent news that Fox and the UFC have cut ties with the multiple division title challenger, today we begin a multi-part look at the rise and fall of Chael Sonnen as an MMA mega-star.

When discussing the rise of Sonnen as a fighter, one could go back to his collegiate wrestling days and discuss his rise through the regional MMA scene and the bizarre fights with Paulo Filho, but those are simply of far less interest than the way Sonnen rose to prominence on the national sports scene.

After a hiccup which amounted to Demian Maia throwing Sonnen on his head and triangle choking him, Sonnen would go on the best run of his career, picking up wins over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt to earn a title shot against arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time in Anderson Silva.

It is at this point that Sonnen, also an Oregon legislative candidate at the time, began to draw significant negative attention.

Among the first Twitter posts that truly garnered major attention was directed at Silva manager, Ed Soares, "Ed, pray to whatever Demon effigy you prance and dance in front of with your piglet tribe of savages that I decide not to CRUCIFY you."

The remarks gained traction in major outlets which rarely found space to discuss mixed martial arts, such as Huffington Post, where former National Field Director of the National Action Network, Dedrick Muhammad covered the story. Muhammad initially asked Oregonian media why they were ignoring such inflammatory statements--which Muhammad suggested were both potentially racist and xenophobic--from a candidate for public office.

When local media, such as Willamette Week did confront Sonnen on the comments, he unveiled a new form of shameless behavior, telling media that he does not have a Twitter account and that the account was fake.

This was quickly dismissed as videos of Sonnen not only shilling his account, but actually spelling out the URL letter-by-letter were quickly brought back to prominence.

At that point, Muhammad, now the Director of Economic Programs for the NAACP, covered the story once again at Huffington Post and delved into the reasons to be concerned about the comments from Sonnen:

In my research into the history of racism and racial inequality I found that much of white supremacist or European racism had as its justification a belief in religious superiority and what I will call civilizational superiority. Whether it was in relation to Native Americans or Africans in America, justification for mistreatment of these people were that they were pagans or non-Christian and were not as advanced as Europeans, in other words savages. Countries such as Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba, that have incorporated African religious and cultural traditions into their national identity and way of life, have long been seen as inferior for allowing non-European traditions to "taint" their respective national identities. So when Chael Sonnen spoke of the Brazilian manager Ed Soares as praying to "a demon effigy" and referred to Soares' "piglet tribe of savages," this was right in line with racist rhetoric that has been used for centuries.

At the UFC 115 Fan Q&A, Sonnen--seemingly content with his new shtick--would once again throw out the claim that it wasn't his account, "I do not have a Twitter account, but I am familiar with the line. People have asked me about this line and the only thing that bothers me aside from that line, aside from the whole thing being confusing...is the fact that the guy who said it only said 'Ed.'"

He even mixed in another potentially offensive line about Brazilians saying that Silva doesn't come from a "bowing culture" and that, "if you bow in Brazil they hit you over the head and take your wallet."

Sonnen would replay the "not me" shtick again after he went on Pro MMA Radio and claimed that Lance Armstrong was a cheater who gave himself cancer, "When you screw up, you have to own it. That stuff really gets under my skin. Take Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong did a number of things and he gave himself cancer. He cheated, he did drugs, and he gave himself cancer."

While Armstrong's doping was sports' worst kept secret since the root cause of Barry Bonds' mysteriously growing skull, the idea that he "gave himself cancer" was fairly extreme--that Armstrong's drug cocktail included EPO and HGH serves as a somewhat stinging footnote in this story.

Rather than own up to his comments, Sonnen told Jim Rome that the interview never took place.

"I did not, and Lance Armstrong called me about that. We’re teammates on the Nike team together. I work out in the Lance Armstrong building three days a week at the Nike campus at the world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon," Sonnen claimed. "I have never spoke of Lance Armstrong or anyone else that doesn’t have a contract in the middleweight division with the UFC."

He refused to back down. As Rome continued to push the issue, Sonnen recalled a phone call from Armstrong, "He said I heard your interview. What are you saying about me? I said well that was the first I heard about it. He broke the story for me. I thought he was kidding. And I didn’t even think it was him. I’ve only talked to him on the phone a couple times. I didn’t really know what was going on. He blindsided me, and now you’re the third person to bring it up. Someone asked me about it yesterday too, but I assure you Jim, you will not see any footage of any such interview, complimentary or derogatory, on that topic."

After claiming that there are multiple impostor online accounts on Myspace and Twitter claiming to be the real Chael Sonnen, Rome played the audio of the interview at which time Sonnen claimed the guy had "a Spanish accent." He would conclude the interview by claiming that he could not make it any clearer that the interview was not with him.

Following the Sonnen "say it and deny it" tour, a mysterious "2006 legal issue" forced Sonnen to drop out of the race for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives. Which we would later find out was a money laundering case which would eventually see Sonnen plead guilty. Sonnen effectively agreed to use a home repair company as a front to move money for a kickback for a buyer to purchase a home. His guilty plea and court case would be handled in January of 2011, but here's a bit on the case from the U.S Attorney's office (emphasis mine):

Sonnen, a licensed realtor in the State of Oregon, admitted that a financial transaction he conducted was designed to conceal or disguise the ownership and control of the proceeds of wire fraud. The scheme involved Joel Rosabal and Chadwick Amsden, employees of Crown Point Enterprises, dba Lighthouse Financial Group (Lighthouse), a mortgage brokerage service based principally in Vancouver, Washington, with operations in Oregon and elsewhere. Rosabal and Amsden submitted a materially false loan application on the buyer’s behalf to Decision One Mortgage, a subprime lending institution that is now defunct, for the purchase of residential property located at 11249 SE Rolling Hills Lane, Portland, Oregon. Sonnen acted as the realtor for the transaction. Sonnen submitted a false letter and Sales Agreement Addendum instructing the title company to pay loan proceeds to a plumbing company for repairs to the home. In fact, Sonnen knew and had negotiated with Rosabal that no repairs would be performed on the home and the funds designated to the plumbing company would instead be paid to the buyer as a cash incentive to purchase the home. This agreement was not disclosed to Decision One Mortgage. Once the loan was funded, the title company paid over $69,000 to the plumbing company and the plumbing company, in turn and at Sonnen’s direction, paid $65,000 to the buyer of the home.

Of course, before the federal money laundering charges were handled, Sonnen actually stepped into the ring with Silva on August 7, 2010, putting on a career best performance in controlling almost every second of the fight prior to getting caught in a last second triangle choke that allowed Silva to retain his UFC middleweight crown.

Sonnen's time being revered for his stunning performance would be short lived as the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) announced that Sonnen had failed his post fight drug test. His testosterone-to-epitestosterone levels were off the charts at 16.9:1. Normal male levels are 1:1 and the athletic commissions allowed as high as 4:1, a level many felt was too high to begin with. Sonnen being at nearly seventeen times the normal male ratio was a shock, but he would reveal that he suffered from hypogonadism and was using Testosterone Replacement Therapy. During his testimony, Sonnen would state that he had been granted an allowance for use of the hormone therapy by Nevada and that he thought the exemption carried over to all other states.

The Sonnen smooth talk led to the CSAC reducing his suspension from a full year to six months and reclassifying it as a failure to disclose his hormone therapy, this despite that he was well over any allowable testosterone ratio even had the exemption been in place.

Amazingly, it turned out that Sonnen had slipped a pretty big lie in the story as Keith Kizer, then executive director of the NSAC, stated that they had never granted an exemption for TRT use, but that he had "never spoken to Sonnen."

Kizer explained in an interview on Pro MMA Radio, "I immediately leaned forward in my chair and thought, what? It was amazing to hear that. They even asked him again and he said the same thing. Like a week or two later, after I'd denied that we'd spoken, even saying I'd never spoken to him in my life, he was on Inside MMA and they confronted him about it and he left the impression that we'd talked."

Kizer continued by explaining a bizarre meeting with Sonnen, "When I got face-to-face with Chael, his explanation totally changed but it still made no sense. He finally explained something about his manager but it was all really strange. It was a really weird thing. Sometimes when you dig a hole, you have to keep digging."

At nearly 2,000 words, we've but touched on the first year of Sonnen's time in the brightest light of the UFC's sun.

Tomorrow we continue with the rematch, more title shots, more failed drug tests, more "coded language" and simply more Chael being Chael.

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