With the exception of freak cases—such as Mark Hunt—it is hard to think of many fighters who have turned their careers around the way Chael Sonnen has.
Sonnen went from middle-of-the-pack middleweight to one of the biggest pay-per-view attractions in the UFC. Sonnen's success came through two means: First, he talks constantly, brashly and humorously. Second, he grinds down more exciting fighters and makes them look average.
Trash-talk is an age-old method of getting people to tune in to fights if you are, to put it frankly, not an entertaining fighter. Who can forget the pay-per-view success Tito Ortiz was, even when he was a decade removed from finishes over fighters not named Ken Shamrock?
A fighter can talk all day about how he's going to destroy his opponents, and it doesn't matter that he doesn't manage it; people will tune in hoping to see the trash-talker get knocked out.
Who can forget Sonnen talking up his bout with Jon Jones to the point where many forgot it was just a tune-up match for the light heavyweight champ? Ironically, Jones' injuries in the Sonnen and Belfort fights indicate there is no such thing as a truly safe fight, but that's another story entirely.
Trash-talking aside, Sonnen puts a brutal pace on opponents and simply wrestles them on the feet and grinds on them from the guard. His striking is one-dimensional and awkward and his defense on the feet is porous at best, but it doesn't matter. If MMA has proven anything, it's that very few men can knock a fighter out before he gets to the clinch. Specific to Sonnen, a stand-up game is largely unnecessary.
Sonnen is known more as a blanketing top player than a powerful ground-and-pounder, but his skill from inside the guard deserves some examination. His ground game is peculiar because it defies what is generally taught as the primary principle of fighting from inside the opponent's guard, which is to keep your hands off the mat.
If a fighter in guard leaves a hand on the mat, he can expose himself to the overhook and all the attacks that can come off that. Or he leaves himself vulnerable to the rubber guard or Shawn Williams guard, which are used to move to omoplata and get out from underneath the opponent. He also exposes himself to the underhook, which can be used to take the back if the opponent can get his hips out.
Here is Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (Sonnen's upcoming opponent) demonstrating an omoplata against Ricardo Arona as Arona places his hands on the mat rather than on Rua. Don't look into Shogun's success too much; this was years ago when he was in the best form of his life and had two healthy knees, but it demonstrates the principle well.
Sonnen spends a remarkable amount of time in the guard, postured down and with his hands on the mat. He gets away with it because of his ability to stop opponents from moving their hips and his hands.
Take what I consider to be the best example of a textbook Sonnen performance: his destruction of Nate Marquardt. Each time Sonnen got Marquardt to the mat, his hands would be on the floor, underhooking or overhooking an arm to set himself up for ground strikes.
Each time, Sonnen would circle a hand in and jam his palm underneath Marquardt's chin to stretch him flat, creating space to free his arm and strike. Sonnen prevented Marquardt from moving his hips out to make use of his underhooks, and each time he could get his hand on Marquardt's chin, he would step one leg up and begin landing punches to the rib cage.
Body strikes on the ground are consistently undervalued. In the few performances where I have seen good body strikes on the ground, I cannot help but think they affected the bout significantly.
Matt Hughes had great success against BJ Penn in their second match with elbows to the body from guard, as did Antonio Rogerio Nogueira against Tito Ortiz. Quinton Jackson used fantastic elbows to the body throughout his PRIDE tenure and Georges St-Pierre gassed out BJ Penn in their second meeting with hard punches to the body as he stood to pass.
Sonnen's brutal cross-facing and chin-pushing not only wear opponents down and limit their options, they also set up some nice strikes. Sonnen very rarely postures up in guard like Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones, preferring to stay low, push off his opponents to arm's length and drop hard elbows.
Sonnen is more of what I would term a static ground-and-pounder than a dynamic one.
Where men like Fedor Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez would batter their opponent while passing guard and hit them more as they tried to recover guard, using the movement to open the path for strikes, Sonnen is very good at holding position and muscling out short strikes.
Sonnen can pass guard, but he lands far fewer effective strikes when he gets caught up in half guard or even when he gets to side control than he does from closed guard.
In their second bout, Anderson Silva actually looked to be trying to get to half guard—where Sonnen is far less effective—with strikes rather than staying in closed guard. Whether Silva desired to be in half guard or not, Sonnen landed with none of the effectiveness from half guard that he did from closed guard in any round in their first meeting.
The one occasion on which Sonnen consistently postures up is once he has put his opponents' head against the cage and they have nowhere to shrimp away to. From there, Sonnen will stand, drive his hips forward and come down with heavy punches on his crumpled foe.
Similar to the infighting boxer who does his most damaging work once he has an opponent on the ropes, Sonnen does his best ground-and-pound once he has moved his opponent into the fence.
Sonnen can pass the guard and has shown some neat tricks from there, submitting Brian Stann after pulling a neat transition to change sides from side control, but at his best, Sonnen is in the closed guard to exploit the MMA world's lack of top-notch guard play.
Sonnen's greatest strength, however, is also his greatest weakness. He is, by all intents and purposes, his own worst enemy. Driving such a high pace from guard while simultaneously not playing it safe from a traditional jiu-jitsu perspective, he has often found himself on the wrong end of a submission.
There are numerous "lowlights" out there like this one that illustrate the difficulty Sonnen faces against truly savvy guard practitioners.
His high pace also tires him out and makes him reckless. At the beginning of each round against Marquardt and Silva, he would drive forward at exactly the same pace and attempt a takedown. Sometimes, he would get it clean and easy, but other times, he would eat a hard kick or knee as he dived after it.
In the second Silva bout, he waded forward and ate a nice backstep counter which visibly changed his demeanor before he attempted a wild spinning backfist and suffered the highlight-reel TKO we all remember so vividly.
We will look at the details of his bout with Shogun later in the week, but for now it is sufficient to say that Sonnen at his best serves to separate the chaff from the grain. He is a man who can take down just about anyone within 15 pounds of his own weight and will force him to work from guard.
It is said that the truly great boxers can box their own game, but can stand and fight when they must. A good mixed martial artist can play his game, but being slammed onto his back and put through the meat grinder with a fighter like Sonnen in his guard that will tell you whether a good mixed martial artist has what it takes to be great.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.