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Back and Forth: Chattin’ About Chael

If you’re a regular reader here at Five Ounces of Pain (and we certainly hope that you are) than you should be familiar with myself and Jeremy Lambert. We’ve both been regular fixtures in the weekly Grappling With Issues feature, but today we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of tackling six topics in the world of MMA we’re just going to focus on one. We’ll each share our opinions about this topic in a back-and-forth discussion, and you’re encouraged to join in by using the comment box below.

The first thing Jeremy and I need is something to discuss. Fortunately we’ve got an individual who is back in the news lately, and whose relevance in the world of mixed-martial arts has increased dramatically within the last year of his career. He’s a fighter who is a proverbial wellspring of talking points, and he’s known just as much for his actions inside the cage as he is for his activities and attitude outside the cage.

By now you may have figured out that I’m talking about Chael Sonnen

Towards the tail-end of 2009 Sonnen made a huge statement about his place in the UFC’s middleweight division with a dominant win over perennial contender Yushin Okami. He followed that up with an equally dominant performance against Nate Marquardt, and his win there catapulted him right into the #1 contender’s slot and a match-up with UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva. While few people gave Sonnen a shot at winning the gold he went on to shock the entire world by decisively winning four straight rounds against the man many call the best fighter alive. Sonnen had UFC gold in his grasp before Silva was able to lock up a triangle choke and save his title with just minutes to spare. 

Surprisingly enough, that dramatic losing performance would be the highlight of Sonnen’s career thus far. From there it all went downhill.

First there was the revelation that Sonnen had failed his post-fight drug test after UFC 117. That meant that he would have to forfeit his opportunity for an immediate rematch with Silva, a fight that was all but certain to happen following Sonnen’s impressive showing in his first UFC title shot. In his appeal to the California State Athletic Commission he had his suspension reduced to six months, but questionable statements made regarding discussions with Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Keith Kizer have come back to haunt Sonnen as he attempts to get re-licensed.

In addition to his problems with the athletic commission, Sonnen has also had to face criminal charges relating to a money-laundering scheme from his other job as a realtor in Oregon. While Sonnen could have faced some serious jail time he has instead entered a plea of guilty and come away with a stiff fine and several years on probation. His legal problems forced the UFC to “freeze” Sonnen’s contract, putting another obstacle in the way of his second shot at a UFC title, but he’s taken care of those problems and can now move forward with his fighting career.

I want to go back to the mood everyone was in following UFC 117. At that time it seemed like a forgone conclusion that Sonnen would get an immediate rematch with Silva, despite the fact that he lost the fight cleanly. Normally immediate rematches are used when the first fight ends controversially, but here it almost seemed like Sonnen had come so close to winning the belt that everybody just wanted to see if he could do it again. So I guess my first question for you, Mr. Lambert, is this: did you want to see Silva vs. Sonnen 2 after watching their first fight?

Lambert: As harsh is it might sound given Sonnen’s performance, I didn’t want to see Silva vs. Sonnen 2 immediately after UFC 117. Look, I know Sonnen put up the best fight of anyone against Silva in the UFC and I know he was a mere two minutes away from capturing the title and if Tito Ortiz had pulled him aside after he lost via triangle choke to Forrest Griffin in 2003, maybe he wouldn’t have got caught in another triangle, but he lost and he got finished. How many fighters get immediately rematches after losing a title fight where they were finished in UFC history? Randy Couture (a fluky occurrence and was 1-1 with Vitor Belfort) and Andrei Arlovski (a weak heavyweight division, was 1-1 with Tim Sylvia). That’s it, that’s the list. And in both those cases, Couture and Arlovski got their immediate rematches after they lost the belt, not after they failed to capture the belt. It’s not even like Sonnen was a long time dominating champion who lost, he was the challenger who got the title shot thanks in part to Belfort getting injured for the 10 millionth time.

After Sonnen went down in flames against Silva, I wanted him to fight Belfort while Yushin Okami got his shot at the belt. I didn’t think Belfort deserved a title shot either with a catchweight win over Rich Franklin and a long layoff so Sonnen and Belfort could fight to determine the #1 contender and Okami could get a title shot that he earned years ago. Instead Sonnen screwed himself over in worse than a Jenna Jameson solo video, but I’m sure we’ll get into that later.

Adam, I know you were pretty over Sonnen’s schtick by the time UFC 117 rolled around but were you ready to deal with it for another few months or so leading to a rematch or did you think Chael should have a new target to fire at?

Tool: I wasn’t a fan of the immediate rematch idea either. Sonnen lost, so he should have to work his way back up to get a second shot. I’ll give him his props for doing better against Silva than anyone else has in the UFC, but at the end of the night he tapped out and that was that. Maybe Vitor Belfort wasn’t the most deserving contender either, but at least he hadn’t already lost to Silva in the year prior to their meeting. 
I guess as far as Jeremy and I are concerned, it was a blessing that Sonnen’s tests came back positive following his UFC 117 drug screening. As a huge fan of Anderson Silva I took a small bit of enjoyment out of the fact that Sonnen cheated and he still couldn’t beat the champ, but I’m sure that Sonnen doesn’t see it that way. After all, in his eyes he didn’t do anything wrong. In his appeal to the athletic commission he claims to have gotten permission for his testosterone treatments, but of course he has no documentation stating that such permission was given.
While dealing with his licensing issues for one career he also got hit with felony charges relating to his other job as a realtor in Oregon. The double-whammy of legal issues has kept Sonnen on the sidelines for the last eight months, and in the meantime the UFC’s middleweight division has chugged right along. My question to you then Jeremy is this: have Sonnen’s legal problems killed all of his momentum from his UFC 117 performance? Or do you expect him to come back and be right there “in the mix” at 185 lbs.?

Lambert: It’s a little bit of both actually. The legal problems have killed his momentum because he was scheduled for an immediate rematch and now he’ll need to win a fight or two before challenging for the belt again but at the same time, he’s still “in the mix” thanks to his mouth. Anyone with the gift of gab in MMA can get themselves a big fight, even if they haven’t earned it. Just look at Jorge Rivera. A mid-level fighter for his entire career, but because he made some videos calling out Michael Bisping, he found himself in the co-main event on a PPV. As long as Sonnen runs his mouth and people notice him, he’s going to be in the spotlight.

Speaking of the spotlight, it’s been long rumored that Sonnen would be one of the coaches (possibly against the aforementioned Bisping) on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter. With this season’s TUF ratings hitting their lowest points ever thanks in large part due to the lack of conflict between Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos, do you think UFC should turn to Sonnen and his tongue to help revive the series and create the drama that every reality series desperately seeks?

Tool: If Spike executives have their way I’m sure they’d love to put Sonnen in the coaching position. After all his egotistic, abrasive, and oftentimes humorous personality is practically made for reality TV. If he were to get a coaching slot against Bisping that would probably be the first time in history when I’d actually be rooting for Sonnen, so there’s that too.

All that being said, I would have to question the logic behind putting Sonnen into such a high-profile position after all the drama he’s endured. Nevermind the fact that the man has pled guilty to felony charges; he is fresh off of a suspension for taking a banned substance in a title fight. The UFC needs to make it clear that while guys who fail their drug tests will be allowed back into the company, they will not be given the kind of promotional push that a coaching spot on “TUF” would allow. 

So if he’s not on “TUF,” what should he do? Sonnen’s hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission has been pushed back to next month, but unless he’s completely unreasonable at that hearing he should be licensed to fight again once it’s all over. The UFC is starting to fill up their cards for August and beyond, so who should be the man to welcome Sonnen back to the octagon?  

I say go ahead and make Sonnen vs. Bisping. “The Count” has been bucking for high-level opposition in the hopes of getting a title shot, and other than Anderson Silva himself you can’t get much higher in the rankings than Sonnen. Unless the UFC decides to start bringing in Strikeforce fighters sooner than later I think this particular “U.S. vs. UK” match-up is the best option available. 

What do you think Jeremy? Who should get the chance to have Sonnen talk smack about them for the next few months?

Lambert: I’m all for Sonnen vs. Bisping because the levels of hyperbole from both men leading up to the fight would be off the charts and I won’t feel bad if either man loses. UFC has booked an October 15 date in England and that seems like the perfect time to do Bisping vs. Sonnen. Even if Sonnen doesn’t get re-licensed, he could still fight in England with no problem. Now would UFC try and upset the commissions by allowing Sonnen to fight on their card overseas? I doubt it because Dana usually hates going against commissions but would it really kill them? When Antonio Silva was suspended in the US, he fought over in Japan, and then came back to Strikeforce in America with no problem. Of course, Silva is, by all accounts, a gentle giant and a very nice person while Sonnen is, well, Sonnen is Sonnen.

I do have to comment on Tool saying that, “unless Sonnen is completely unreasonable at that hearing he should be licensed.” This is not out of the realm of possibility. If Sonnen has been anything in the past year, it’s unreasonable. I can honestly say that I would not be shocked if Sonnen shows up to his hearing and starts accusing Mexicans of tampering with his drug sample or misremembering facts. This is the same guy who said, “I don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.”

I pose one final question to you Adam: If Chael Sonnen’s career ended tomorrow, how would you remember him?

Tool: I would remember him in lots of ways. I’ll remember the times he’s actually made me laugh with his various soundbites and interviews. I’ll remember the times he’s made me cringe with his vaguely racist remarks and poorly executed one-liners. I’ll remember the time he brought me to the edge of my seat by nearly beating my favorite fighter. I’ll also remember the time he had a front row seat to the self-destruction of another fighter’s career. I’ll remember him as the uncrowned final WEC Middleweight Champion, but I’ll also remember that he tried to pull one over on everybody the first time he tried to win that title. I’ll remember him as the guy who nearly won UFC gold, and the guy who sabotaged what could have been an immediate rematch for that same belt.

I’ll remember him dominating other great middleweights like Nate Marquardt, Yushin Okami, and Dan Miller. I’ll also remember him tapping out to guys like Demian Maia, Paulo Filho, and Renato “Babalu” Sobral (and Forrest Griffin…and Jeremy Horn (twice)…and Trevor Prangley). I’ll remember him as one of the best middleweight fighters of the last few years, and one of the most inconsistent fighters of all time.

Mostly though I think I’ll remember him getting submitted by Silva, because that never gets old for me.