Chael Sonnen's Retirement Ends UFC's Most Unlikely & Controversial Success Story

Chad DundasMMA Lead WriterJune 12, 2014

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If there’s one thing about Chael Sonnen’s 17-year MMA career that everyone can agree on, it’s that he got results.

The rest? That’s kind of a gray area.

Even Sonnen’s retirement announcement left room for speculation. Its proximity to his latest failed drug test and the revelation there were two different versions—one that aired live on Wednesday’s UFC Tonight and an apparent do-over that showed up online the next day—raised valid questions about his motivations.

It’s possible this whole thing is just another artful dodge.

One thing, though, can’t be debated: If retirement sticks, Sonnen’s departure from the cage closes the curtain on one of the UFC’s most unlikely and controversial star turns.

The fight company scored an estimated 600,000 pay-per-view buys the first time Sonnen fought Anderson Silva at UFC 117 and nearly a million when they met a second time at UFC 148. He and Jon Jones cracked 500,000 at UFC 159 and his co-main event against Rashad Evans at UFC 167 helped Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks sell 630,000.

Sonnen accomplished each of those feats as the betting underdog and in spite of the fact he ended up losing all of the bouts. The very notion that prior to Wednesday’s positive test he remained a significant UFC draw despite a 3-4 record since August 2010 is perhaps the second-best testament to his singular abilities.

The best is that Sonnen ever became a star at all.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Through roughly his first 30 fights, he was regarded as a talented athlete who produced altogether middling results. He could beat most of the other lifers on the independent circuit but let down against big league opponents like Forrest Griffin, Jeremy Horn and Babalu Sobral. His first run through the UFC in 2005-06 lasted just three fights (he went 1-2).

This was not a man anyone had ticketed for the top. By the time Sonnen battled back into the Zuffa-owned WEC in late 2007, he was 30 years old, and it felt like his career was likely on its downswing.

Turned out, it hadn’t even started yet.

Sonnen managed to use a bizarre feud with Paulo Filho to position himself as the WEC’s de facto middleweight champion when the UFC absorbed that portion of the smaller company in December 2008. Had he not arrived on the scene at the exact moment of Filho’s complete career meltdown, Sonnen might never have gotten back to the Octagon at all.

When he did, he made more of it than anyone ever dreamed. In the process of going 3-1 and becoming the No. 1 contender for Silva’s title, he reimagined himself into the character we know today—the one that’s half loudmouthed matinee villain, half openhearted small-town kid.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Like all things Sonnen did, it was a carefully calculated move. He taunted the champion on all fronts—in person, in the media, on Twitter—leading up to their initial meeting in Oakland, California, and was so good at playing the role it took our industry a long time to catch on to what he was doing.

We’d never seen a guy as slick, articulate and wonderfully wicked as this before. Regardless of the controversy that came later, Sonnen was a transformative figure in how we think of fight promotion. In the future, other fighters will likely try to follow his lead, but it’s hard to believe any of them will ever be his equal.

Like any great artist, he stole from the greats. He lifted lines from professional wrestling promos of the past and cultivated friendships with modern-day hucksters like CM Punk and Paul Heyman. There was a lot of his own stuff in there too, and he proved as nimble on his feet as any carny or scheming politician.

We loved him. We hated him. He made accomplices out of us all.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

His gift of gab likely would’ve been the stuff of legend even if he hadn’t almost defeated the seemingly unbeatable Silva when they finally met in the cage, but he did that too.

Sonnen cemented his place in the history books by pounding Silva pillar to post for nearly five full rounds. He did it the same way he won nearly every other fight in his career—with takedowns, top control and a chipping ground-and-pound offense. He lost it the way he lost nearly every fight as well—by submission, allowing the champion to hook him in a triangle choke with less than two minutes left in the fight.

Right then, Sonnen probably should’ve disappeared. He’d lost the bout but was still a hero to underdogs everywhere. If his life were a movie, the credits would’ve rolled. Instead, he fought on for nearly four more years, though most of what happened after felt like an epilogue.

He failed his first drug test in the wake of UFC 117. We learned that his entire second run through the middleweight ranks had been fueled by testosterone replacement therapy. It took a lot of the wind out of our sails. Suddenly his madcap rise to the top wasn’t so much fun anymore.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

He’d go on to become a poster boy for the controversial medical treatment, alongside other high-profile users like Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Sonnen offered the most audacious defense of TRT when he appeared in front of the California State Athletic Commission in December 2010.

He said he’d been diagnosed with hypogonadism and that as a youth he was teased for not going through puberty. He brought his personal physician in to testify that Sonnen’s body wouldn’t be able to stand up to the rigors of MMA training without TRT. At one point, he even cited the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In response, the CSAC cut his punishment from a one-year suspension to six months.

"I don't have an option,” the fighter later told Fighters Only Magazine. “I either take this medicine or die."

While out serving that CSAC suspension, Sonnen encountered more trouble. He dropped a bid for the Oregon state legislature and pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of money laundering. It was about this time we all started to wonder if the made-up “Gangster from Oregon” and Sonnen the human being weren’t that far apart, after all.

David Becker/Associated Press

When he returned to the UFC, he made another run at Silva, and this time lost in far less distinguished fashion. He also lost big-money, high-profile fights to Jones and Evans. He scattered wins over Brian Stann, Michael Bisping and Shogun Rua in there too, but more and more you could see Sonnen segueing into his role as an on-air analyst for Fox.

By the time the UFC slung him into a grudge match with Wanderlei Silva this year, it felt like the end was near. That the whole bout blew up over drug testing after a full season of reality television and one allegedly staged gym brawl was pitiful, but at least it produced more headlines than Sonnen’s certain beatdown of Silva ever could have.

When news of his positive test for anastrozole and clomiphene broke on Wednesday, the powers that be rushed to get him on Fox Sports 1. He was the sport’s wiliest orator, after all, and maybe all parties believed he could talk himself out of this problem too. Instead, he only made things worse.

He spent nearly 15 minutes chatting live with Fox’s Mike Hill and with each passing minute, the hole got deeper. He was defiant, railing against the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s fluctuating rules and vowing to appeal the results of his failed test.

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

For the first time, it felt like Sonnen’s stage persona had grown beyond his control. Some of the things he said were verifiably untrue and the rest? Well, it was hard to tell which Chael Sonnen was speaking to us.

A bit more than 24 hours later, he went back on UFC TV and announced he’d changed his mind. He said he was retiring to preserve his health on behalf of his family, and because he couldn’t stand the idea of competing outside the rules. He thanked his coaches, his bosses at the UFC and Anderson Silva for being such a good dance partner.

“I appreciate you being candid with us and being in this uncomfortable situation,” said broadcast partner Kenny Florian when he'd finished. “But after being a part of this sport for 17 years, we will miss you…and we will remember that rivalry with Anderson Silva.”

“I appreciate that too,” Sonnen said. “We worked hard on that one.”

It was a nice gesture and, with that, his MMA career was over.

Then—we can only assume—somebody decided the original version wasn’t good enough.

So they filmed it again, this time with an alternate ending that didn’t include Silva.

With Chael Sonnen, did we expect any less?