Chael Sonnen went on Fox Sports 1 on Tuesday afternoon and talked.
Boy, did he talk. Just talked and talked.
Sonnen spent nearly 15 minutes on the network—where he works in the awkward dual role of paid analyst and active fighter—trying in vain to explain away the failed drug test that will likely knock him out of UFC 175.
This part was not a shock. We expect as much from the man universally regarded as MMA’s best orator. During the latter years of his long, curious fighting career, Sonnen has likely come to believe he can talk his way out of almost anything.
The surprising thing was how unconvincing it all was.
Speaking with Fox anchor Mike Hill, Sonnen remained defiant as he admitted testing positive for Anastrozole and Clomiphene, two prohibited substances often associated with steroid use. He freely copped to taking both, but only as a means of transitioning off testosterone replacement therapy, after the Nevada State Athletic Commission banned the controversial treatment in February.
He talked about his health, his family, his plans to appeal the failed test, his hopes for the future and other stuff, too. Lots of other stuff.
For a little while there, he was on a roll, his famous gift of gab working its magic once again. Before the interview even started, Sonnen had Hill apologizing to him for initially referring to the prohibited substances he’d been taking as “illegal” instead of merely “banned.”
The 37-year-old fighter also more or less correctly articulated his best argument: that the NSAC left TRT users without a clear path forward when it abruptly voted to outlaw the stuff a bit more than three months ago. For years, he and others relied on TRT with the tacit blessing of both the commission and the UFC and then, suddenly, were told to kick the habit.
In conversation with Hill, Sonnen scored a few valid points, and it seemed like he might sort of pull this off. Then the segment started to drag. Sonnen’s rhetorical strategy wandered off the path, and he began running himself in circles.
He made repeated references to failing an “out-of-competition” test, despite the fact Yahoo's Kevin Iole reports he’s been licensed to fight at UFC 175 for nearly a month.
He asserted that Anastrozole and Clomiphene are perfectly legal when an athlete isn’t competing, even though that’s verifiably not true. He talked of the NSAC “changing the rules” when it banned TRT, even though the substances he actually tested positive for have both been against the rules for much longer than that.
Just spoke to Travis Tygart of USADA. Confirms that Anastrozole and Clomiphine are banned in and out of competition.— Kevin Iole (@KevinI) June 11, 2014
He confessed to taking HCG, a banned drug he actually hadn’t tested positive for, and one that earned UFC fighter Dennis Siver a nine-month suspension and a hefty fine when the NSAC caught him using it at UFC 168.
Perhaps most laughable, Sonnen said he never got the chance to disclose to the commission which drugs he was taking and commented he felt like there was no way for combat sports athletes to keep track of fluctuating NSAC rules.
“The rules are very unclear…,” Sonnen said. “If I challenge you right now to go find them out, how are you going to do it? Is there a website you can go to? Is there an 800 number you can go to? Is there somebody’s office door you can knock on? No. This is how we find out the rules. They never tell us the rules until they tell us we’re in violation of them.”
Even in his own version of events, Sonnen admitted knowingly ingesting banned substances. When the NSAC outlawed TRT, he simply traded the controversial treatment for a pair of out-and-out prohibited drugs. At base, that’s the truth here, and Sonnen was unable to do an end run around it, no matter how many different ways he tried to explain himself.
Somewhere in there, his story crossed from merely implausible to fully absurd. The more he talked, the worse it got. We found ourselves unable to suspend our disbelief and, maybe, it dawned on us that Sonnen’s schtick was starting to wear a little thin.
He’s been running this one-man campaign of misinformation for some time now. Longer than anyone probably thought it would last. When his swaggering, professional-wrestling-style personality first gained notoriety during the lead-up to his bout against Anderson Silva at UFC 117, it seemed like a brilliant, but ultimately flash-in-the-pan kind of con.
He failed a drug test in the wake of that first, epic loss to the middleweight champion, too. At the time, Sonnen blamed it on a procedural misunderstanding, and then showed up at a California State Athletic Commission meeting with his team of lawyers and his personal physician and talked.
He talked and talked.
The CSAC reduced his suspension from one year to six months, but MMA fans wondered which Chael was sitting up there in front of the commission, and whether he was playing us all. We also wondered: How long could he keep this up?
For years, it turned out. Sonnen just kept grinding, working his patter. In the process, he effectively transformed himself from inconsistent midcarder to one of the UFC’s biggest stars. He even dragged Silva out of the pay-per-view doldrums and turned him into a bonafide draw. All told, he fought for UFC titles three times but never won one.
In small doses, it was easy to tell Sonnen the man from Sonnen the character. When he charged Silva’s manager with worshiping "a demon effigy" or accused the Nogueira brothers of trying to feed carrots to a bus. That was the act.
The guy who would show up battered and defeated after losses and pour his heart out about the pain and the things he’d done wrong? That was the real Chael.
Eventually, though, the line between the brash heel and the hardworking, hard-nosed amateur wrestler blurred. Call that an occupational hazard; one that tends to befall guys who are really, really good at pretending to be someone else.
By the time he showed up to coach opposite Wanderlei Silva on TUF: Brazil earlier this year, he’d become completely immersed in his own creation. When the two brawled on the set of the reality show a few months ago, people refused to believe it was real.
Perhaps the last successful performance in Sonnen’s tired stage act came six days ago, when he sat on the set of Fox Sports Live and lambasted Silva for reportedly skipping his own NSAC drug test.
Silva had just been removed from a proposed bout between the two at UFC 175 and Sonnen—ever the showman—didn’t mince words. For months he’d been predicting that Silva would find a way to squirm out of their fight and his glee was palpable at having been proved right.
“Wanderlei Silva has always operated under a shadow of speculation that he’d been taking performance enhancing drugs,” Sonnen said, “but he’s never tested positive, so you can’t say things like that. That all came to a halt on Saturday. He failed a drug test. As a matter of fact, he ran from the drug test. He refused to take it.”
Those words obviously took on some cruel irony on Tuesday. The “shadow of speculation” around Sonnen got so thick we couldn’t see him anymore and he proved powerless to find his way out.
In the past, when he’s decided to bury a problem (or a person) in verbiage, it’s worked. The guy is such an articulate and high-volume wordsmith that he always managed to be successful, sometimes against very long odds.
Now, though, that spell is broken. Fans no longer know when they’re supposed to believe Sonnen and when they're not. Maybe they no longer even care to try.
That makes it very difficult for him to go on TV and convince us this second failed drug test is just another misunderstanding. Maybe he’s telling the truth as he sees it, but with all the bad behavior we’ve witnessed from him over the years, we’re well within our rights to be skeptical.
Funny thing about those old pro-wrestlers Sonnen worked so hard to impersonate during his high-profile UFC run. Back in wrestling’s old territory days, it was standard procedure for a bad guy to blow into town, thrill the fans for a few months with his evil and cunning, and then blow out again before his act got too stale.
Maybe now it’s time for Sonnen to shuffle off down the road awhile, too.