The Competitive Legacy of Chael Sonnen
On June 14th, 2019, Chael P. Sonnen announced his retirement from professional mixed martial arts. This decision sent shockwaves through MMA news platforms and social media. Articles were written, opinions were shared, and the ever-present controversy that surrounded the second half of Sonnen’s career did anything but wane.
But Chael Sonnen has thrived on chaos for many years. Outspoken and brash, Sonnen visibly enjoyed the tumultuous reactions his mouthy façade catalyzed time and time again. But there’s one thing in the fight game that clearly meant more to him than being a heel—the love of competition.
Love of Competition
Sonnen’s competitive drive can be observed across multiple platforms. There’s his 20+ year professional mixed martial arts career, during which he found immense success as a PPV draw. He also fought 49 times across 20 different fight promotions, in three different weight classes. In addition to his success in MMA, Sonnen has a slew of wrestling accomplishments from his 15+ years of competition. He eventually became a Division 1 All-American at the University of Oregon. And with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Fabiano Scherner, Sonnen has competed in multiple submission grappling matches. Nobody would ever accuse Chael Sonnen of being lazy.
Media Personality and Public Figure
Sonnen’s hard work isn’t limited to sports competitions. He has also found success in front of a microphone. Well-spoken and extremely articulate, Sonnen naturally took to commentating and MMA analyst work. He has worked in media roles for ESPN, FOX, the UFC, World Series of Fighting, and also in Bellator. Recognizing a demand for himself, Sonnen made a natural transition into podcasting. His podcast ‘You’re Welcome with Chael Sonnen’ allowed him to simultaneously develop his Instagram and YouTube channels.
Put simply, Sonnen already had the audio. He just needed a camera. After adding some artistic finesse to his videos, Sonnen amassed a YouTube channel with over 400,000 subscribers. He has close to that same number of followers on his Instagram page. He’s also written two books, cohosts ‘Ariel and the Bad Guy’ on ESPN+, and has participated in multiple reality television shows. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more active figure in the media.
So when the time came for Sonnen to hang up his gloves, he was understandably upset when some media members chose to highlight his career lowlights in the aftermath. Rather than pointing to his known superlatives, some headlines focused on the times he had tested positive for banned substances. Although he has since buried the hatchet with some of the individuals he felt had targeted him, Sonnen released a retaliatory video on his YouTube channel shortly after the media firestorm began. In the said video, he called out some of the media members he thought had done him wrong in the wake of his retirement. Rather than rehashing the distant low points, I’ve decided to speak with some people who have known Sonnen personally.
Chris Leben on Chael Sonnen
TUF 1 alum, UFC veteran, and current bare-knuckle boxer Chris Leben trained with Sonnen for the first five years of his MMA career. When contacted by MMASucka, Leben described some of Sonnen’s talents he had observed in the early days at Team Quest:
“Chael has one of those double legs that technically everything about it is wrong. But for some reason, nobody can stop it. And when that guy is on top of you, there’s not too many people that have been able to deal with that well either.”
Sonnen’s wrestling was a focal point in preparation for any one of his opponents. Having started wrestling at the age of nine, grappling to Sonnen was like driving a car for most adults. It was second nature. Leben also worked closely enough with Sonnen to see a side of him that the general public may be unfamiliar with.
“When it came to fight day, Chael had an interesting way of preparing. As I remember it, all the cards we fought together on, Chael slept all day. He always brought his baby blanket. Which being that he was a grown man now, [it] looked like a hand towel. He would throw it over his face and sleep anywhere. We’d go to the venue and he would do more sleeping. A real quick warm-up and then he would go fight. Crazy, I never seen anything like it.”
According to Leben, Sonnen told him that he had slept with his baby blanket every day of his life. While this information isn’t overly pertinent, it perhaps highlights a softer side to the outspoken ‘Bad Guy.’
Joel Suprenant on Chael Sonnen
Speaking directly with MMASucka, Sonnen’s former training partner and former podcast co-host Joel Suprenant shared some punch list items that he felt made Sonnen great:
- [The] longevity of being the best in the room; spanning for 20 years.
- Literally only losing a handful of rounds.
- Fighting 15, maybe more world champions.
- Changing the vernacular of promoting a fight with a cross of pro-wrestling and boxing.
- Fighting anyone at any weight.
- Never turning down a fight, all the while never enjoying fighting.
A Legacy Built
When the WEC was folded into the UFC, Chael Sonnen returned to the UFC roster. It wasn’t long after this that Sonnen drastically changed his approach to media. He commanded attention and once all eyes were on him, he performed impressively. He had a newly adopted persona that would single-handedly change the direction that our sport was moving in. As his media appearances grew in tandem with his paychecks, many fighters began to take notice. Sonnen was re-writing the playbook for success before our very eyes.
And although Sonnen encountered many hurdles that would arguably diminish his star power along the way, his mark had already been left. When Sonnen was telling Anderson Silva to erect a statue of his likeness in his living room, his own words were building that exact monument as a permanent fixture on the MMA landscape. Chael Sonnen inspired dreamers to dream, fighters to entertain, and outsiders to become fans of MMA. He pushed the limits of his opponents in the cage and broke through the seldom-touched boundaries of MMA fight promotion. To call his career legendary wouldn’t quite articulate the enormity of what Sonnen did for the sport. He didn’t need a belt to capture our imaginations; he only needed an audience.
And even in retirement, Chael Sonnen continues to draw a crowd. As long as that competitive drive continues to burn within him, you can expect the many onlookers to stick around.