For better or worse, Chael Sonnen personified modern-era MMA

Let’s get one thing straight from the jump: That nugget about Chael Sonnen never winning a world championship? It needs to be accompanied with an asterisk.

Paulo Filho missed weight by a whopping seven pounds for his planned WEC middleweight title defense against Sonnen at WEC 36 on Nov. 5, 2008. But it was Sonnen who bore the brunt of the punishment.

Sonnen won the bout on across-the-board 30-27 scores, but Florida’s athletic commission had ruled it a non-title affair, thereby penalizing the guy who had done nothing wrong. (Filho, it should be noted, recognized the injustice, and followed through on a promise to mail the belt to Sonnen’s home).

But then, it’s sort of fitting this is how it went for “The American Gangster,” who called it a career on Friday night at age 42 after losing to Lyoto Machida via second-round TKO in the co-feature bout of Bellator 222.

Few have embodied everything about this traveling carnival of a sport called mixed martial arts – the good, the bad, the hilarious, the infuriating, the inexplicable, and everything in between – like the pride of West Linn, Oregon.

Sonnen boasts victories over seven men who held UFC, Pride, Strikeforce, and WEC titles – Filho, Nate Marquardt, Brian Stann, Michael Bisping, “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson – but those wins never occurred with the belts on the line at the time those fighters held them.

He also embodied everything fight fans profess to love. Did you ever hear about Sonnen pulling out of an important fight? Or backing down from a challenge? Sonnen stepped up to the biggest tasks, even the ones which sounded insane, like when he agreed to fight Jon Jones on nine days’ notice in an attempt to save UFC 151.

Sonnen, of course, capitalized on this episode after the show was canceled, parlaying it into a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” coaching against Jones, followed by a light heavyweight title fight at UFC 159.

“The Bad Guy” had a sense for seizing opportunities combined with a 21st-century version of an old-school wrestling heel’s ability to talk people into the arena. That not only helped his own bank account, but it gave the rub to those he fought: Anderson Silva was part of a double-title bill at UFC 112 for his middleweight title defense against Demian Maia because he was considered a poor draw.

Then Silva’s next title defense was against Sonnen at UFC 117, igniting the rivalry which helped Silva turn the corner from world-class talent who couldn’t draw to beloved legend whose stature matched his skills.

(And UFC 117 was where Sonnen gave his finest performance, pummeling Silva for four-and-a-half rounds, right up until he made one split-second mistake and Silva caught him. There’s always layers with Sonnen).

Sonnen’s delivery in hyping his feuds always came with a wink and a nod, the unstated idea he knows he’s full of it, and you know he knows he’s full of it, but we’re all playing along. And he was able to get away with it because underneath his showman’s bluster is one of the finest analytical minds which has ever graced the sport.

Sonnen not only has the technical knowledge, he also has the ability to take complicated subjects like high-level grappling exchanges and explain them in a way easy for a casual fan to understand, which guarantees he’ll have commentary gigs for as long as he wants them.

And that’s the subtle difference between Sonnen and the trash talkers who have since emerged. Let’s use a pro wrestling comparison, here: Twenty years ago, putting a wrestler through a table got a huge reaction from the crowd. Then they had to put them through two tables to get the same response. Then they had to light the tables on fire. Give them another five years and they’ll probably shoot wrestlers out of cannons through the tables.

We’ve kind of seen the same progression here in MMA trash talk. Sonnen’s nuances gave way to Conor McGregor, which gave way to a host of people trying too hard to be the next Conor, which inevitably produced Colby Covington, who had Sonnen’s schtick down with none of the charm or wit.

Always layers, with Sonnen. Not so much with others.

No, I’m not avoiding the elephant in the room. I know Sonnen got nabbed for cheating more than once. I’m just going to come out and say something which has been danced around: In a people business like journalism, you tend to give more more slack to people who were good to you, personally, than those who weren’t. It’s simple human nature.

Sonnen could give a writer the material they sought like few who have ever played this game. That’s why you’re not hearing as much about his indiscretions this morning as you might if it was another fighter with both similar accomplishments and a similar track record.

And anyway, there’s no doubt Sonnen paid a steep price for his second suspension. He lost a lucrative FOX Sports gig just as he was branding himself the game’s leading fighter/broadcaster, and he was still headlining and co-featuring big PPV points cards when he had to step away. That’s plenty of punishment for his actions.

Sonnen always knew how to stay relevant, so it’s no surprise he returned for one more headline run in Bellator after three years out of the cage. Let’s hope Sonnen doesn’t subject us to a “Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock in Bellator”-type spectacle five years down the road, because it became apparent over the past couple years Sonnen lost a step, and he’s not going to get a better sendoff than putting down his gloves in the middle of the cage at Madison Square Garden.

Whether Sonnen was good or bad for the sport seems moot. He simply was MMA, the whole entire roller coaster ride personified. And since a technicality robbed him of that world championship designation he earned in the ring, being the face of an era isn’t a bad consolation prize.

For more on Bellator 222, check out the MMA Rumors section of the site.

Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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