Chael Sonnen was a perennial contender at his peak and he was without question among the best in the world in his division. His immense talent nearly got him the UFC’s middleweight championship when he dominated all-time great Anderson Silva until he succumbed to a last-round triangle choke at UFC 117.
But aside from his triumphs in the cage, Sonnen has long been one of the most polarizing fighters in the sport. He transformed himself from a regular contender into a first-class heel with his mastered trash talk, bravado and self-promotion. People either loved or hated him, but when his initial MMA career was effectively over a few years ago amid three performance-enhancing drugs scandals, he became public enemy No. 1 in the sport.
Sonnen last competed at UFC 167 in 2013, when he was stopped by Rashad Evans in the first round. He had lost three of four at that point and his retirement, coupled with his PED issues, appeared to mean the end of the line for the Oregonian. He was still floating around the sport as a radio and television personality, but the life of Sonnen the fighter was over.
“I went back and forth a little bit,” Sonnen told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown Show” about his return to active competition. “I’ve been in the principal’s office for a good couple of years now. I started taking the physical actions like losing the weight, getting back in shape and doing the sparring. I’ve been ready to go for a while now.”
It was revealed last Thursday that Sonnen had signed an exclusive deal with Bellator MMA, though a timetable for his return and exact opponent have not been announced. Bellator has gained a reputation over the years for scooping up UFC veterans and filling out its roster with them, but was the Viacom-owned promotion in Sonnen’s sights all along?
“The whole thing happened really, really fast,” he said. “From the first contact, to having a contract, to having a press release, it was just done. When I had thought about coming back, I never thought about going anywhere but the UFC; I always assumed it would be the UFC. I never even thought about it. I was just sitting around one day and Rory MacDonald has said something. I was thinking about going back to middleweight and he had just sent out a press release and that he was going up a weight class [from welterweight]. That was really it. It wasn’t even a challenge to Rory or anything like that [but since] he was moving up to middleweight, I knew they needed bodies, I wondered who they [had]. I sent out a text, got one back and it was three points of contact and two of them were text messages and the deal was done.”
But after losing three of his last four bouts and all three of those losses coming via knockout, what was it that brought Sonnen, who said that the reported three-year, six-fight deal with Bellator was “close enough,” out of retirement in the first place? He hasn’t been hurting for money and seemed to be doing well without getting punched and kicked.
“This is the only game that I know how to do,” he revealed. “It’s a large part of who I am and it’s a large part of my social life, too. I don’t have a lot of friends and I don’t do a lot of things socially. I had a lot of free time and I hate free time. I need something to do.
“Fame is a drug,” he added. “We always talk about post-fight depression. But it doesn’t matter if you win or you lose. You go through sort of this lull where you’ve got all this attention on you, you’ve got these goals and there’s really nothing more rewarding than achieving a goal and there’s also bigger letdown than achieving a goal and wake up the next day and ask, ‘What do I do now?’”
Sonnen said that he will likely compete at light heavyweight but if something big comes up at 185 pounds, like a fight with MacDonald, for example, he’ll drop down to middleweight. The most skepticism regarding Sonnen’s return centers around his series of failed drug tests, and many believe that is why he choose Bellator over the UFC, which has a partnership with USADA to handle anti-doping cases. Sonnen initially entered the USADA testing pool, which seemed to indicate an Octagon return. While the West Linn., Ore., native has claimed to be clean, he doesn’t hide from the past, either. “I’ve got a higher juice rate than Tropicana,” he said.