5 Defining Moments: Chael Sonnen

By Brian Knapp Jun 30, 2020

Chael Sonnen was a self-made superstar who talked his way into becoming a marquee attraction with over-the-top arrogance and rewrote the book on villainy in mixed martial arts.

The outspoken Oregon native made his MMA debut on May 10, 1997 and announced his retirement on June 14, 2019. During the 22-plus years that elapsed in between, Sonnen compiled a 31-17-1 record and tested himself against many of the sport’s all-time greats. Among them were 11 former Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting Championships titleholders, including Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz and Michael Bisping. While a major championship eluded him, Sonnen remains an influential figure inside and outside the cage.

As time puts more and more distance between Sonnen and his competitive exploits, a look at five of the moments that came to define him:

1. Theater of the Bizarre

Sonnen was dumbfounded by what he experienced inside the cage against embattled World Extreme Cagefighting middleweight champion Paulo Filho at WEC 36 on Nov. 5, 2008 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida. After the Brazilian entered the bout five pounds overweight, he proceeded to execute a woefully passive game plan against Sonnen. Much to the dismay of those in attendance, it curbed the action between the two middleweights and led to restlessness throughout the arena. Filho mounted virtually no offense, save for a few submission attempts in the first round. He retreated repeatedly to his back in an effort to bait Sonnen into engaging him on the ground. The Team Quest rep outstruck Filho 16-1 when the two stood and avoided danger when the action hit the ground, as he earned a unanimous decision and handed the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt the first loss of his career. Still, much of the post-fight talk surrounded Filho’s disinterest and unwillingness to compete.

2. So Close, So Far

If Sonnen had a true rival, it was Anderson Silva; and he pushed the longtime UFC middleweight champion to the brink in the first of their two confrontations. Pinned beneath the gritty Sonnen, “The Spider” executed a triangle armbar and submitted the challenger 3:10 into the fifth round of their UFC 117 headliner on Aug. 7, 2010 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Sonnen tapped only once, but it was enough to draw the attention of referee Josh Rosenthal, who moved in and called for the stoppage. The American clearly won the first four rounds and started with a bang, as he rattled Silva with a straight left mere minutes into the match. From there, he controlled the embattled champion with stifling top control and wide-ranging strikes on the ground: punches, hammerfists, elbows and slaps to the ears. An NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Oregon, Sonnen successfully secured takedowns in three of the five rounds and advanced to top position in all five. He absorbed his share of damage, as Silva picked his spots with elbows from the bottom, one of which cut Sonnen badly above the left eye. As the two middleweights entered Round 5, the heavily favored champion found himself in an unfamiliar state of desperation, needing a stoppage to retain his title. With his nemesis grinding away on top, Silva deftly slid the choke into place. Sonnen tried unsuccessfully to counter the maneuver, but with no means of escape, he raised the white flag with less than half a round remaining in the fight.

3. No Bones

Sonnen’s mouth wrote several checks his body could not cash. In his third failed attempt to capture Ultimate Fighting Championship gold, Sonnen withered in the face of the otherworldly talents of Jon Jones and succumbed to first-round punches and elbows from the light heavyweight champion in the UFC 159 main event on April 27, 2013 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Jones buried his latest challenger 4:33 into Round 1. Sonnen met the champion with his patented bulrush, only to be confronted by superior strength, talent and technique. Jones took down the onetime NCAA All-American three times in their brief encounter, as he bullied him in the clinch and on the ground before ultimately finishing his rival “Ultimate Fighter” coach with a brutal knee strike to the body and a volley of unanswered punches and elbows. The champion did not leave the cage unscathed, however. Sometime during his scrap with Sonnen, Jones suffered a gruesome break to the big toe—one of the bones protruded through the skin—on his left foot. Had the fight waded into a second round, it seems almost certain that referee Keith Peterson would have noticed the injury, halted the match and awarded Sonnen the title.

4. Throttled Legend

A two-time middleweight title challenger, Sonnen recorded his first Octagon victory at 205 pounds on Aug. 17, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, where he submitted Mauricio Rua with a first-round guillotine choke in the UFC Fight Night 26 headliner. Sonnen elicited the tapout 4:47 into Round 1. “Shogun” traded takedowns with the outspoken Oregonian early on but ultimately found himself on the bottom. Sonnen suffocated the Brazilian with frustrating positional control and peppered him with ground-and-pound. As Rua attempted to return to his feet, Sonnen snared him with the guillotine, dropped into full guard and finished it there. With that, he became the third man to ever submit the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix winner.

5. Taking a Bow

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida cut down Sonnen with a flying knee and follow-up punches in the second round of their Bellator 222 co-main event on June 14, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sonnen succumbed to an accumulation of blows 22 seconds into Round 2, then announced his retirement from mixed martial arts. Machida met his adversary’s forward pressure with stellar defensive work in the clinch, as he managed to create separation midway through the first round with a pair of wicked body kicks, uncorked a concussive flying knee and swarmed for a potential finish. Sonnen survived the initial onslaught and used the one-minute interval between rounds to clear the cobwebs. However, Machida caught the Oregon native with the same flying knee in the first standup exchange of the middle stanza, chased him to the canvas and sealed the deal with punches and hammerfists.


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