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Chael Sonnen on Submission Underground: ‘We’re proving a point’

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Chael Sonnen wants to show the resiliency of combat sports, even while recognizing that there’s a very real danger to holding events right now.

Build Presents Chael Sonnen Discussing Bellator MMA Photo by Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic

Chael Sonnen has never been a man shy about skirting the rules. So it’s not terribly surprising that, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been doing whatever he can to keep his Submission Underground competitive grappling events alive. The first card took place back in 2016, with Jake Shields defeating Chris Lytle in the main event. In the years since, his promotion has played host to BJJ notables like Gilbert Burns, Dillon Danis, Vinny Magalhaes, Gordon Ryan, and many others.

In a suddenly sports starved landscape, Sonnen finds himself providing one of the only remaining live competition events—both for fans looking for entertainment, and athletes looking to make a buck. All in the face of a medical crisis that has already resulted in the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the US alone. One that has medical professionals almost unanimously urging social distancing and self-isolation measures to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

And while the ‘American Gangster’ is still set on marching ahead, in a recent interview with Bloody Elbow, he acknowledged the dangers in doing so. As well as giving a little more insight into just why he feels it’s important to keep trying to find ways to stay in business. And what it would take to close the doors on his operation, if push came to shove.

“I’ll tell you what, as few as possible,” Sonnen said, when asked about ‘bringing people together’ in the midst of a pandemic. “But, at some point, yes those boys do put their hands on one another. I will share this with you, it was so challenging to try to—you’ve gotta understand, I’m a reactor, the same as you’re a reactor. Somebody else goes and decides, you gotta do what they decide. So, you’re taking all these opinions, but they kept changing.

“The very first thing that we had happen, in our state, was 250 people. That got cut to 100 people. That got cut to 50 people. We went from 50 to 10, and then it goes from 10 to 8. Oh my goodness, this is so hard. This is so challenging to get it all done. But they settled in on 8. I’ll tell you, you’ll think this is interesting: when they went to 8 – they’re gonna change it again – so we went to 4, on our own. We go, ‘Okay, let’s just go to 4.’

“So we literally had a show and there was nobody in the room aside from 4 people,” he continued. “Everybody else had to leave, even the athletes. The athletes, you know, they want to see the main event, they wanna watch Craig Jones. Nope. You have to leave. We literally put it in the contract. You get done with your match, you leave. Go watch it on Fight Pass. And they did it. The guys did it, the guys were cool. But, it was—man, it was hard.”

Over the course of the conversation, the longtime Team Quest athlete did admit, that if the government came knocking and asked him to shut down, he would. “I can talk as tough as I want about it, but if somebody came forward and said, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to do this.’ Okay, we’re not going to. We’re not going to push back.”

However, for the moment, much of what Sonnen has been hearing is praise—both for the product being aired, and for the measures he’s taken. Measures like allowing no more than 4 people in a room, and disinfecting all surfaces between matches. And in that climate, he sounds very headstrong about staying the course.

“Oh, no. No, we’re moving forward,” Sonnen said, firmly. “And it’s not really the way somebody would assume. For example, the chokeholds and the armbars, that’s really not what we’re doing here. What we’re doing here is a psychology. We’re proving a point: we never back down.

“We as a community, we’ve had to deal with discrimination, we’ve had to deal with sexism. I mean, right? Before Ronda Rousey came along, ‘Girls can’t come in this.’ We’ve had to deal with laws; we had to go hide out in places. I’m just saying, if you look at this thing as a whole—one thing is that we do not stop.

“That is one thing about this community, whatever the consequence, by the way. By the way, whatever the consequence—I don’t pretend for you that I know. But we will, on an ideal—it’s not about armlocks, it’s damn sure not about money, it’s not about championships. This is an ideal: we take on whatever challenge there is, and we go forward.”

Of course, within the climate of a pandemic, the potential consequence is that people will fall ill. Perhaps even die. Combat sports are always on the defensive about the potential dangers presented to their competitors, it’s a core part of the landscape. For his part, Sonnen is adamant that they’ve taken every precaution possible to make his events safer. But, he’s not going to avoid the fact that there’s risk involved. And if things really went wrong, well...

“You went a little deep on me there, I didn’t know you were going to ask that question, but that would not be good. Life would not be good for me. I would not be proud of myself. I can tell you that.” Sonnen admitted, when asked about the potential of facing a worst case scenario as a result of one of his events.

“And on all levels, really. Let’s say we get this damn COVID thing—the biggest coward ever, taking on women and children and won’t even show its face. Just a cowardly, cowardly thing. It’s a coward, it attacks you from the back, it’s not fair. But, I will share this with you, let’s take that out of it. When I put on mixed martial arts events, I’m aware that there’s contact. So, I’m aware of this. I’m not a prude about this. I’m also not proud of this. I know what it is. Even aside from the virus we gotta deal with, that’s a very real concern. I would never want to be a part of anything that hurt somebody.”

Unfortunately, realistically, the steps that don’t show any signs of being taken are testing and quarantine. Sonnen said that athletes fly in for his events the day before and leave the day after. Even if they may have been asked (or told) to self-isolate afterward, there’s not much way to make sure they follow through on those guidelines. And getting proper testing, sadly, is an issue all over the country—with supplies still limited, and labs seemingly hampered by the limited volume they can handle. But the problem of testing is one that the ESPN personality doesn’t necessarily see as being of primary importance.

“Now that’s a tough one too. I’ve heard a lot of people say that same thing,” Sonnen responded when asked about the importance of testing in allowing people to exit isolation measures. “I kinda scratch my head about it. Okay, what am I missing here? You want to test somebody for something that you openly admit you don’t have a cure for. What’s the point of the test? And then the test gets funny too, because somebody will go get tested and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t have it. I’m good.’ No, no, excuse me. You didn’t have it three days ago when you submitted the test. What’s that got to do with three seconds ago? Nobody has it until they have it. I’ve even seen politicians do that. ‘No I had a test, it’s all good. I guess I got lucky here.’ What’s that got to do with right now!?”

And while he does agree that it might be necessary to convince people who aren’t taking proper steps that they need to self isolate – and perhaps that he’s being a bit more cavalier than is sensible for those who are immunocompromised or find themselves in an age group especially susceptible to the worst effects of the virus – Sonnen also revealed that he and his family have already gone through their own bout with COVID-19.

“That’s one side of it. I come from a different side, because I had it,” Sonnen revealed. “My whole family had it. So, I come to you from a different side, which is: hey, once you get through those 14 days and you have an immunity for life? I mean, you can run and hide if you want. Or, you can go deal with it and get through those 14 days. You don’t really have a whole lot of other options.”

For the moment, Submission Underground 13 is set for April 26th. The event is set to feature a grappling battle between Craig Jones and Vinny Magalhaes. And unless something changes drastically in the next two weeks, it seems likely the event will go ahead as planned.