He was the ultimate lightning rod for controversy.
Chael Sonnen utilized a heel schtick straight out of professional wrestling’s playbook and landed opportunities that may not have been available to him otherwise. The Milwaukie, Oregon, native retired in 2019 with a 30-17-1 record, having fought for world titles in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting. Sonnen was a prototypical grinder—18 of his 30 professional wins resulted in decisions—who defeated a number of high-profile opponents during his 22-year career, including Quinton Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua and Michael Bisping.
As Sonnen settles into retirement, a look at some of the rivalries that elevated his stature:
Horn beat Sonnen thrice and finished all three bouts. (Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)
Horn was Sonnen’s kryptonite. The evidence: Over a two-year period, Sonnen faced “Gumby” three times and lost all three times, twice by submission and once by technical knockout. Their final encounter saw Horn submit the Team Quest mainstay with a second-round armbar at UFC 60 on May 27, 2006 in Los Angeles. Sonnen offered his verbal submission 77 seconds into Round 2. The first round was in many ways a microcosm of the onetime NCAA All-American wrestler’s career, as he controlled much of the action with takedowns, top control and ground-and-pound, only to find Horn restricting blood flow to his brain with a tight guillotine choke. Sonnen escaped, but it was a harbinger of what was to come. He struck for a takedown inside the first 10 seconds of the middle stanza, set up shop on Horn’s guard and immediately wandered into danger. Horn rolled his hips for an armbar, made subsequent passes at an omoplata and a triangle choke, then returned to the armbar for the finish.
Sonnen dominated Marquardt to secure a title shot. (Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog)
In a near-virtuoso performance that cemented his place as one of the world’s premier middleweights, Sonnen defeated the former King of Pancrase by unanimous decision in the UFC 109 co-main event on Feb. 6, 2010 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. All three judges scored it 30-27 for the Team Quest standout. Marquardt twice threatened with guillotine chokes. He also cut the hubris-infused Oregonian with an elbow from the bottom. Sonnen was relentless in neutralizing his opponent’s considerable offensive firepower with overwhelming top control and stout ground-and-pound. An underdog yet again, Sonnen seized command from the start and never let up. Leaning heavily on his amateur wrestling background, he grounded Marquardt at will and left the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt few openings to exploit. His takedowns were many. Marquardt, in a last-ditch effort to prevent defeat, cinched a tight guillotine choke in the third round, but fatigue got the best of him and allowed Sonnen to escape. Marquardt reversed position late and fired away with some of his own ground-and-pound, though his efforts went for naught. Six months later, Sonnen was in position to challenge an all-time great for the undisputed middleweight championship.
Silva twice took care of business against Sonnen. (Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)
Sonnen for the better part of five rounds did exactly what he said he was going to do to Silva, but the longtime middleweight king turned the tables in a split second. Stuck underneath the gritty American, Silva secured a triangle armbar and submitted the challenger 3:10 into the fifth round of their UFC 117 headliner on Aug. 7, 2010 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Sonnen tapped only once, but it was enough to get the attention of referee Josh Rosenthal, who moved in and halted the bout. Sonnen 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 wound up in 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 tormentor grinding away on top, Silva deftly slid the triangle into place. Sonnen tried to counter the maneuver, but with no means of escape, he surrendered with less than half a round remaining in the fight.
The rematch some two years later was not nearly as tense, as Silva put away his rival with a knee to the body and follow-up punches 1:55 into the second round of their UFC 148 main event.