The Big Picture: Farewell to ‘The Bad Guy’

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It’s a silly human foible to want to reduce everything to its most elemental parts. It’s a product of our innate impatience, inattention and existential self-absorption. We don’t want to trudge through the bogs of caveat-addled nuance -- just get to the point, and make sure the point is somehow about me. This is why our primary exposure to complicated issues about immigration, foreign policy and economics is shouty three-minute news panels and why political campaigns are more concerned with aphoristic slogans than actual plans.

In MMA, this inclination has recently emerged as several high-profile fighters have retired. We look for shorthands and summaries to capture the entirety of a career, a decades-long journey of broadcasted wins and losses on fight night, as well as the unseen obstacles and untold trials in gyms and saunas. There was Jimi Manuwa, who took up the sport at 26 and made his pro debut two years later. He started his career undefeated for five years and 14 fights and knocked repeatedly on the door of the sport’s highest prize. He is now simply considered an exciting journeyman action fighter. Likewise, the career of Alexander Gustafsson -- a trailblazer for modern European fighters and co-author of some of the most dramatic Ultimate Fighting Championship title fights ever, a man who took the two best light heavyweights of all-time to their absolute limits -- is bowdlerized as “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” or “the best fighter that never won a title.”

It’s not that the Cliff’s Notes versions of their careers are inaccurate. Manuwa is, in fact, an exciting action fighter, and Gustafsson very well could be the best fighter to have never won a UFC belt. However, these abbreviated legacy appraisals are incomplete. It’s simply impossible to do justice to a life of fighting in a single sentence.

Chael Sonnen, who retired on Friday after losing to Lyoto Machida at Bellator 222 in New York, is a particularly challenging career to try and capture succinctly. For starters, he made his professional debut before “Titanic” hit theaters, and his 49 fights were spread across almost every major promotion in the ensuing 22 years. His career covers a lot of ground.

It’s easy to think of him mostly as a drug cheat. It’s a sensitive issue for a lot of fans, and Sonnen was an especially egregious violator. It wasn’t just the extent of his use that bothered fans, though popping several times for several substances, including once for 17 times the amount of testosterone as a normal person, certainly didn’t help. It was also his defense of his use, which is to say, to lie profusely about getting an exemption. Even for those of us who aren’t terribly bothered by performance-enhancing drugs, it’s hard to respect that type of response.

It’s also easy to think of him as a self-promoter, equally shameless and successful in his verbal campaigns. Depending on what you like about the sport, his professional wrestling shtick is either awesome or awful. Still, his ability to talk himself into lucrative fights is undeniable, though that itself is a mixed bag in terms of legacy, too. At the very least, Sonnen’s combative and abrasive personality gave Anderson Silva the push to become the sort of superstar his talent justified. It’s no small thing to be the most important rival of one of the greatest fighters of all-time.

There’s also Sonnen’s competitive legacy to unpack, which often gets overshadowed by his larger-than-life persona. As a competitor, though, Sonnen accomplished more than most. His last 12 fights were entirely against former champions from notable organizations: Pride Fighting Championships, the UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting. Before that, he fought former champions of Pancrase and the International Fight League, along with two UFC title challengers. Whatever else you can say about his level of competition -- that he was never a champion, that he lost to all the best fighters he fought and several of his best wins were against opponents well past their primes -- at the very least you have to concede that he always seemed to land himself in marquee fights. Plus, had Paulo Filho showed up to WEC 36 on weight, Sonnen would have had a little bit of championship luster on his resume.

That’s perhaps the most defining characteristic of Sonnen’s career: ambition. Sonnen was a good amateur wrestler but not nearly as decorated as another dozen or so who jumped into MMA. At the highest levels of the sport, he was almost never at a significant athletic or physical advantage over his opponents, either. Yet his career eclipsed a lot of good/not-great fighters because of his unwavering pursuit of the biggest fights and names possible. He authored chapters far more meaningful to the story of MMA than a lot of people who were otherwise more talented than he was. His maniacal determination got the better of him at times, shaving years of eligibility off his competitive shelf-life, but if his abilities matched his ambition, he would have been one of the GOATs.

There are a lot of ways to think of Sonnen, especially in his second act as a commentator, analyst and all-around media guy. There is no accurate way to sum up his legacy, and there’s really no point in trying to. His story is weird and fascinating and frustrating, perfectly suited for this ridiculous sport of ours. If his career wasn’t complicated, it wouldn’t be worth thinking about. Who knows? There may be more complications added to his legacy, if this retirement turns out like his last one.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.
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