When a 42-year-old fighter decides to hang up his gloves, it’s not quite as shocking as Georges St-Pierre stepping away from the sport at the age of 32 while holding a title. However, when Chael Sonnen announced his retirement after being TKO’d by Lyoto Machida, it did come out of the left field, and many now find themselves reflecting on one of the more fascinating stories of a fighter who never had a belt wrapped around his waist, but still leaves as a champion.
For better or for worse, Chael Sonnen is the man who almost single-handily brought MMA, and more notably, the UFC to the place they are at now where fighters look for every and any opportunity to talk trash and call out names they view as “money” fights. While it’s become a painfully tired act now – when Sonnen introduced this strategy, people found it to be a breath of fresh air, and most importantly, entertaining.
‘The American Gangster’ (as he so famously called himself) made every UFC Q&A, television appearance, and post-fight interview an event. “Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!” is as good as a post-fight speech gets. He was, undeniably, the most captivating fighter in the sport during his historic two-year rivalry with Anderson Silva, and during that time also laid out the blueprint to get ahead without stepping into an octagon.
But for those who simply say Sonnen was all talk and no action, they have misjudged West Linn’s favourite son. Although he was ahead of the game when introducing “trash talk” at such a high level, Sonnen always had a foot in the old school. Many have imitated the MMA legend’s press conference antics, but they’ve forgotten a rule he lived and died by in his professional career, “Anytime, anyone, any place, anywhere.”
Whether it was a risky fight, short notice fight, or a matchup with the most feared man in the sport, the former three-time number one contender stepped up every time. That’s why he’s the only man who has fought Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Fedor Emelianenko, and that’s why for the longest time, he was the only man to humanise the then invincible ‘Spider’ Anderson Silva. Hell, he might also be the first man to get a title shot in a higher weight class after losing a championship fight.
The reason Chael Sonnen’s career has been so fascinating is not just because of his pro wrestling like theatrics in and out of the cage, but it’s also due to his many low points in his professional career. Through all the trash talk, when it mattered most, Sonnen came in second place almost every time. Unlike, Conor McGregor and Muhammad Ali, who are similarly known for their entertaining interviews, Sonnen could never solidify his claims to greatness in the eyes of the fans because he never got past the finish line. That’s why his statements went from being semi-serious to purely amusing in the latter part of his career.
Also, how can anyone forget the moment that led to his first retirement from MMA? A USADA test showed that the fighter had been taking banned substances – a revelation that humbled and embarrassed MMA’s loudmouth, and effectively ended his association with the UFC. In the blink of an eye, he went from one of the sports biggest stars to a no good cheat. But like his career has shown, every time our ‘American Gangster’ was down, he would get back up.
Due to his intelligence and quick wit, Sonnen is now a big part of ESPN’s team that cover mixed martial arts, he has a successful podcast and remains a part of Scott Coker’s plans for Bellator’s announce team. So it’s clear, resilience has played a big part in this man’s career.
Despite the shortcomings and mistakes he has made over the years, one cannot overlook the bravery Chael Sonnen has shown during his career. He has owned everything, the good and the bad, and in doing so, has come out of every bad situation better off. That is the spirit of a champion. Fighting former world champion after former world champion is what a true champion does. And accepting your wrongdoings and earning everyone’s respect all over again is the sign of a true champion. So despite never having that big gold belt over his shoulder, Chael Sonnen leaves this sport as a champion because he is a shining example of how to act in good and bad times.