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If Bellator 222 on Friday marked the last fight of Chael Sonnen’s MMA career, it brought to a close an era in which he was consistently one of the sport’s most compelling figures. Given that mixed martial artists frequently return after announced retirements and the fact that Sonnen’s vow to retire doesn’t follow a career defined principally by forthright honesty, it’s natural to wonder whether he’ll be back. Even if he does return for a fight or two, his legacy is pretty well defined at this point, and he’s sure to end up discussed more for years to come than most of his contemporaries.
Sonnen’s rise to prominence is a striking development, given that he was a respected but not particularly noteworthy contender well over halfway into his career. That seems so long ago now when we consider what Sonnen evolved into around a decade ago. The Sonnen who fought Paulo Filho in World Extreme Cagefighting and just couldn’t find a way to get past Jeremy Horn doesn’t even feel in the memory like the same person who made himself Public Enemy No. 1 in Brazil through his repeated insults at the likes of Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
The most well-remembered portion of Sonnen’s career will unquestionably be his two fights with “The Spider.” Those were fights that not only defined Sonnen but also defined the longtime Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder. Silva through Sonnen’s help -- plus that of Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort -- went from a great fighter who wasn’t connecting with UFC fans to an all-time legendary fighter and superstar. Sonnen was the foil, the man who badgered and accosted Silva but could not defeat him in the Octagon.
Those roles could have been so much different if things had broken slightly differently at UFC 117, one of the most memorable nights in the sport’s history. The way Sonnen systematically grounded and beat up Silva for nearly five full rounds had him on the verge of a career-defining accomplishment. Unfortunately for Sonnen, nearly was the most important word in that sentence. Silva’s triangle ended Sonnen’s UFC title hopes and punctuated one of the most improbable come-from-behind wins in MMA history. It’s a story that will be told for years to come, like particularly memorable boxing matches from decades ago.
Another key component of Sonnen’s legacy will be his unique relationship with performance-enhancing drugs. Plenty of MMA fighters have used PEDs and gotten caught; plenty of MMA fighters have used PEDs and not gotten caught. Sonnen was distinct for the way he was caught, only to try to talk his way out of it. Sonnen loudly protested to anyone who would listen: the media, the athletic commissions, the fans. He made himself the victim, only to then fail multiple drug tests a few years later and then finally come clean. Plenty of athletes have loudly and angrily lied about PEDs only to then get caught. Lance Armstrong, Rafael Palmeiro and Ryan Braun were among the most shameless. However, that playbook has almost always relied on pure indignation. By contrast, Sonnen whipped out his charm and his knowledge of the subject to produce a dizzying storm of protestations, qualifications and counterattacks. It seemed at times that Sonnen had convinced himself he had never done anything wrong.
Above even the Silva rivalry and the PED controversy, Sonnen will be best remembered for his mouth. It’s why so many of us will remember his career fondly in spite of everything else. Sonnen elevated MMA trash talk to a level it had never seen before. Only Conor McGregor has an argument for being better. Sonnen recognized in 2009 that he could elevate his profile in the sport by talking, and it was off to the races from there. So many of today’s fighters clearly learned from Sonnen and have followed his lead in the way that they sell their fights.
Of course, Sonnen’s success on the microphone has been a mixed blessing. Many fighters have learned the wrong lessons from Sonnen, who had his successes but also his failures when it came to elevating his fights though his words. Sonnen often waded into the realm of self-parody, delivering his words in such an irreverent manner that it was impossible to take seriously. He played the pro wrestler of today, an oftentimes winking hero or villain for the day, rather than the pro wrestler of yesteryear who above all else wanted to convince fans of the authenticity of his character.
If there are bad lessons to be learned from following Sonnen’s lead verbally, there are also very positive lessons for today’s fighters. At its core, the value of talking trash is not to entertain or even to attract attention. The real value is its ability to infuse additional stakes into a fight. Sonnen did that masterfully, and what he said about Silva in particular offers a case study of how and why trash talk can make a fight feel so much bigger. Sonnen’s verbal barrage against Silva was so over-the-top that many fans recognized it was a game to the Oregon native. Sonnen was not angry at Silva in the way Ronda Rousey was angry at Miesha Tate. It was measured and calculated. However, that did not matter. What mattered was that Sonnen had said so much that the consequences of his not being able to back up his words were grave. If Sonnen had gone in after everything he said and been knocked out in a minute, he would have set himself apart as a laughing stock for years to come. Fans needed to see if Sonnen could do what he said he would.
On the flipside, Silva also had renewed significance placed in that fight because it would be hard to live down letting Sonnen say all the things he did about the Brazilian’s country and friends without comeuppance. Whether Silva was genuinely bothered by it all was a secondary question; what mattered was that he couldn’t afford to let this man make a fool of him after all those insults. The fight was thus of paramount importance to both sides.
This was the central insight that McGregor also understood about talking trash. Sure, his various diatribes were entertaining in and of themselves. However, the key to the whole act was that he had built himself up so big that he either had to deliver extraordinary performances or everything he said would come back at him just as hard. The consequences of his fights thus always felt so substantial because of what he had said.
The big distinction between McGregor and Sonnen is that McGregor established himself as a star very early on. Sonnen, by contrast, had fought for double the length of Henry Cejudo’s entire MMA career before he recognized the value his words could have. That Sonnen managed to make his big push after so many years and so many setbacks is a testament to just how compelling he was as a personality. He borrowed from many, but the end product was something that will be difficult to reproduce.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.