For me, the most indelible image of Chael Sonnen was at UFC 55. Renato Sobral is dominating the fight. Sobral is the one scoring the takedowns from the clinch, and batters Sonnen at one point with a high kick, which he follows up with several punches that rock Chael. Thirty seconds are left in the first when Sobral applies an ankle lock. With the camera situated in front of Chael as he's gripping the fence, all that's heard in response is the sound of Sonnen screaming in pain.
Most fans are aware of this moment, and the Sobral fight was probably one of the first fights that came to any mind for those scratching their heads while Sonnen claimed to have "never lost a round" in his interview with Ariel Helwani.
Given the persona he's created for himself, one wonders whether or not Chael's cry of pain at UFC 55 has been his most sincere outburst ever since.
Recalling that moment is not an attempt to ‘be cute', or to fondly remember Sonnen's failures. Instead it's a vivid reflection of what has changed (besides the move to MW), if anything has changed at all.
Who is this guy and where did he come from? Is he playing to the crowd, or is this who he is? I think the fact that he's nurtured and developed this "character" of his tells us that he is who says he is, at least in part. But that's not to say his words deserve any more weight. He has a record of mortgage fraud and money laundering, and was the architect of a circus involving CSAC over rules he broke. If his words do deserve weight, a pinch of salt comes first.
None of this is news, or even insight. But for the first time, his performance at UFC on FOX 2 reminded us that the reinvention of who he is did not bring with it a reinvention of how he fights.
Sonnen deserved his title shot, and he beat very good fighters to get there. But against Bisping, we still saw the awkward standup. We saw the anxiety and predictability of Chael getting the fight to the ground because he needs to, or else his flaws are laid bare. Except we saw him struggle with the latter, while validating the former against Michael Bisping. To set up a fight against Anderson Silva.
The fight wasn't terrible, but the performance by Sonnen wasn't masterful. And it merely lent credence to the admittedly oversimplified narrative in the aftermath of UFC 117 that Silva was injured enough to be truly hindered, and that Sonnen was juiced enough to be truly effective. Even his usually clever post-fight speech felt forced, rushed, and no matter how inspired an attempt at imitation, was "incongruous", as Nate Wilcox put it.
Sonnen can ‘crack wise' with his barely contained xenophobia with the MMA media. He can play games with the California State Athletic Commission, or Decision One Mortgage. But he can't play games in the cage against Anderson Silva, and his bout this weekend did little to convince the "blowhards with their blowdarts" he's ready to replicate his performance in Oakland when the summer rolls around.