Sonnen's Fighting Future in Doubt

By Todd Martin May 18, 2011
Chael Sonnen (above) had his indefinite suspension upheld Wednesday. | File photo:

LOS ANGELES -- The California State Athletic Commission voted 4-1 on Wednesday to uphold an indefinite suspension of middleweight Chael Sonnen. The decision effectively eliminates the possibility that Sonnen will be allowed to coach on the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter” opposite Michael Bisping, with Sonnen and his attorneys arguing prior to the ruling that it could signify the end of his MMA career.

On April 19, the commission announced that Sonnen was indefinitely suspended for two violations of the California Code of Regulations, Title 4, Section 390. The section holds that licensees for boxing and MMA may have their licenses revoked for conduct which discredits their sport. Sonnen was found to have violated the section by making untruthful statements under oath at a Dec. 2 hearing and for pleading guilty to a charge of money laundering in the state of Oregon on April 8.

Sonnen’s difficulties with the commission began last August when he tested positive for an elevated testosterone level prior to his fight with Anderson Silva. Sonnen’s elevated testosterone and subsequent explanations became a source of great public scrutiny, but were largely irrelevant to today’s hearing.

Wednesday’s hearing focused specifically on the guilty plea for money laundering that came a month after his six month suspension was lifted as well as Sonnen’s specific remarks about alleged conversations with Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Keith Kizer.

Karen Chappelle, the supervising deputy attorney general representing California, questioned whether Sonnen could be trusted to tell the truth. She labeled Sonnen’s money laundering conviction for knowingly issuing a kickback check a crime of deception and fraud. Additionally, she accused Sonnen of dishonesty in claiming that he had a conversation with Kizer which could only have taken place between Kizer and Sonnen’s then-manager, Matt Lindland, and may not have happened as Sonnen described.

Chappelle painted a portrait of Sonnen as a person who will say one thing and then readily change to another position if questioned on it. She thus argued against giving Sonnen another chance at this time.

“Everyone deserves a second chance. The question is: how many second chances?” Chappelle remarked during her opening statement.

Sonnen’s attorney, Steve Thompson, argued in response that the judge in the Oregon case gave Sonnen a lenient sentence because of his citizenship and remorse. He pointed to Sonnen’s community service and attached letters from parents whose children’s lives were positively impacted by Sonnen.

Regarding Sonnen’s comments about his alleged conversation with Kizer, Sonnen and his attorneys repeatedly focused on the adjective “imprecise” to describe Sonnen’s words. Thompson argued that Sonnen did the best he could in answering questions and that he had no intention to mislead.

Thompson suggested that when Sonnen referred to conversations “we” had with Kizer, it was his way of referencing Lindland. Thompson said that Sonnen’s language was being parsed unfairly and that Sonnen never said “I” spoke to Kizer, only “we.” Kizer responded on video from Nevada by pointing out another part of Sonnen’s affidavit where Sonnen said the Nevada commission “told me” as opposed to “told us.”

Finally, Sonnen and his attorneys sought to influence the commission by describing the stark contrast in Sonnen’s future life depending on whether the commission ruled in his favor. Sonnen said he is working two non-MMA jobs presently and that it is a tough situation. He added that if his license remains suspended, UFC President Dana White has informed him that he will effectively be retired.

If, on the other hand, the commission ended Sonnen’s suspension, Sonnen could attempt to become licensed in Nevada. Sonnen noted that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” in 18 days to coach on the 14th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” opposite Michael Bisping. Sonnen claimed that the winner of a bout between himself and Bisping would become No. 1 contender for the middleweight title and receive a title bout on free television. Sonnen said that this would be the biggest fight in the history of MMA.

“I’ve worked for this chance my whole life, since I was nine, and I don’t want to retire today,” Sonnen stated soberly and deliberately. “I volunteered in my community 18 hours a week the last decade. Never had a drop of alcohol in my life. Never smoked anything. I’m dubbed by Sports Illustrated and ESPN the greatest [Sonnen spelled out an expletive] talker in all of sports. The reality is I’ve never used profanity. Using [spelled-out expletive] a moment ago is the closest I’ve come to using profanity. I’m truly embarrassed from the last hearing and until now... I will not make these mistakes again. I will not ask for forgiveness again. Please just let me go back to work.”

The commission proved unsympathetic to Sonnen’s claims. Each commissioner cited both the Oregon conviction and Sonnen’s December testimony as reasons for upholding his suspension, while focusing more on his testimony.

“Past actions are the best indicator of future performance,” Commissioner Eugene Hernandez remarked in voicing his concern about Sonnen’s future conduct.

Commissioner Dr. Christopher Giza questioned Sonnen and his counsel’s repeated use of the word “precise.” He suggested that Sonnen was not imprecise, but rather untruthful.

Commissioner John Frierson said that he is an advocate of second chances, but that he found it very hard to give a second chance in this case.

Only Commissioner Anthony Thompson voted against a motion to uphold Sonnen’s suspension. There was little debate, with the commission alternating criticisms of Sonnen at the end of the hearing.

Prior to the final vote, Sonnen’s friends and family in attendance voiced their frustrations with the, by then, obvious decision. Sonnen’s mother stood up during public comments to make some of the day’s most effective remarks in favor of Sonnen. She noted that Sonnen doesn’t always pay close attention in reference to his remarks about Kizer. She added that Sonnen needs testosterone and that the commission could decide on that prior to his fight. She then concluded by emotionally defending her son’s character.

“Why would anyone bring up that they were approved in Nevada if they knew it was a lie?” she asked. “He didn’t need that to get past the commission in California. He believed it because he was told that. Some of this just needs to get down to basic common sense. You’re talking about suspending his license indefinitely. He’s done if you do that! This kid has not slept. He’s hardly eaten. He is remorseful. He is sorry whether you keep his license or throw it away.”

Following the commission’s ruling, one of Sonnen’s attorneys continued to plead with the commission to reconsider. He spoke of all the positive things Sonnen could do for the commission to show his remorse, while the rest of the room began to pack up and depart. Eventually, Sonnen’s side was informed that there could be no further discussions between attorneys and the commission after the conclusion of the hearing.

Sonnen’s team gathered in the lobby of the downtown state building minutes later. They passionately argued amongst themselves about the ruling. A resigned and stoic Sonnen stood away from the circle, looking downward and not engaging with the others.

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