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Chael Sonnen marched into the Octagon as a five-to-one underdog opposite Nate Marquardt on Feb. 6, 2010 in a bout to determine who would challenge Anderson Silva next for his middleweight crown. For 15 minutes, Sonnen gloriously defied the oddsmakers, scoring relentless takedowns, doggedly defending Marquardt’s varied submission attempts and landing thunderous punches and elbows to the body and head of the former title contender. When the fight was over, both men stood covered in blood, as Sonnen was declared the decisive victor across all three of the judges’ scorecards.
Moments later, a self-effacing Sonnen spoke into the microphone: “I’m here to be the king of the mountain, or I’ll move on in life and do something else. I think I can beat any man God ever made.”
Eight and a half years after that utterance, “The American Gangster” hasn’t yet managed to reach the summit, and on Oct. 13, he suffered another setback. Comprising one quarter of the semifinals of the Bellator MMA heavyweight grand prix, Sonnen met former Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight titleholder Fedor Emelianenko in the highly anticipated main event of Bellator 208. The contest, like a full third of his professional fights, did not go his way, and like 15 of his 16 defeats, he didn’t make it to the final bell.
Sonnen had his moments -- he managed to get the Russian down on more than one occasion -- but like so many times before, he appeared to choke on the biggest stage. A poorly executed roll from back mount allowed Emelianenko to score big shots on the former middleweight, and as the opening round ended, Sonnen was offering little in the way of defense. The man who had promised to put Emelianenko “on his ass and beat a hole in his face” found himself in the obverse position, curled up on the canvas eating left hands. Referee Dan Miragliotta reluctantly intervened with 14 seconds left in the first stanza; so ended the American’s bid for the heavyweight crown.
Sonnen was affable when he attended to the post-fight media, effortlessly alternating between personas that have become all too familiar to those who’ve followed the career of Chael P. At the scrum, he was both the thoughtful analyst and the shrewd self-promoter, offering his thoughts on where he thought Emelianenko’s weaknesses could be exploited in the tournament final opposite Ryan Bader, while subtly laying a claim to a shot at the latter’s 205-pound championship when the grand prix ends. He was deliberately euphemistic in characterizing his heavyweight run -- “I made it to the final four of the baddest dudes on the planet” he submitted, failing to qualify that had required only one win over a career light heavyweight -- and at one point seemed to suggest that he was the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world.
Later at the ESPN desk, a platform where he plays a part-time media pundit opposite veteran reporter Ariel Helwani, Sonnen was the sorrowful, heart-on-his-sleeve athlete. Despite his meditative aura, he still managed to blend a healthy dose of falsehood into his introspections. He repeated the bizarre claim he’d made in the build-up to the fight that he was the official No. 1 contender for Bader’s 205-pound crown -- his record is 1-1 in that division, the lone victory coming over a semi-retired Wanderlei Silva -- and was careful to remind everyone that he’d gotten the silver medal in a sport with little in the way of competitive architecture and only two spots on the podium. As it often goes in Sonnen interviews, no one bothered challenging his pretenses, and as if to put an exclamation point on the blurred boundaries that attend sports journalism, he was presented with a consolatory “we love the bad guy” chocolate cake as the interview concluded.
How is Sonnen still here, headlining marquee events in 2018? His staying power is mystifying considering the inauspicious nature of his post-Marquardt career. Who could forget the failed drug test after his UFC 117 title bid against Silva and the awesome scale of his duplicity and hypocrisy on the issue of PEDs, the money laundering conviction that stopped an otherwise promising political career in its tracks, the shameless use of coded racism to sell pay-per-views or the emphatic, enduring failure to rise to the occasion? He fought for a world title three times, and two of them were blowout losses. Time after time, we were told that his time the apex of the sport was over.
When Sonnen failed a second and third drug test in the lead up to his lukewarm grudge match opposite “The Axe Murderer” at UFC 175, it looked as though the wheels might have fallen off for good. The same Sonnen who’d used his platform on “UFC Tonight” to rebuke the Brazilian for running from a Nevada Athletic Commission-administered drug test was exposed as a hypocrite and a liar for what felt like the hundredth time. A two-year suspension was imposed, and Sonnen’s cushy Fox analyst job was swiftly terminated; he was forced into two different kinds of retirement.
It turns out though that his turbulent fall from grace did little to quell interest in his stock in the long-term. An analyst role with ESPN appeared a few months after his Fox gig went the way of the dodos, and he went right back to rewriting history -- purporting to pin the blame for his indiscretions on regulators just like he did the first time he was caught. Less than 24 months later, Bellator President Scott Coker’s circus tent came calling, and the promotion lined up fading legends for Sonnen to try his luck against.
Since then, he has gone 2-2 against four of the biggest names in MMA’s short history and anchored Bellator’s second foray into the pay-per-view market. He still works on ESPN and moonlights as a broadcaster for Bellator when he’s not in there trading hands himself. He produces countless hours of content for his YouTube channel -- many of which are absurdly dedicated to reprimanding fighters who’ve failed drug tests -- and if Coker’s coyness at the Bellator 208 post-fight presser is any indication, he’ll very possibly be fighting for another world championship next time we see him in the cage.
In other words, Sonnen keeps doing what he has done for the last decade: fight moderately well in a cage and spend the rest of the time talking himself closer to the center of relevancy. No matter what, it seems we’ll keep on watching. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll tune in to see him finally atop that mountain.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.