Chael Sonnen is a well-known asshole, less a person than the remnant of a figure crossed out of a bad novel’s first draft for being too obviously representative. At 36, he’s a convicted money launderer, state-chastised steroid user, failed Republican candidate for the Oregon House of Representatives, and shouting-head sports pundit; only involvement in a low-grade religious scam could make him a truer embodiment of American decline.
Even better, Sonnen is also a middling professional fighter who has won his way into a sequence of increasingly high-profile bouts simply by mounting an extended public relations campaign consisting in the main of vaguely deniable race-baiting. And even better than that, it, like the money laundering and the failed political run and the rest of it, is so obviously absurd, a joke Sonnen is so obviously in on, that it essentially negates itself. There is no Chael Sonnen outside of inverted commas.
On April 27, the ongoing spectacle will reach its inevitable end when Sonnen challenges Jon Jones for the UFC’s 205-pound title in Newark, N.J. Given the nature of the contest—Sonnen is a slow, awkward 185-pounder who was thoroughly beaten in his last bout, while the undefeated Jones is, at 25, already the best ever in his weight class, and exceptionally violent even by the standards of a violent sport—even the promoters aren’t pretending that Sonnen is a credible contender. The aim of the public relations campaign is the campaign’s continuance; the selling point of the fight is that there is a selling point.
And given the nature of the fighters—the challenger nestled inside his inverted commas, the champion faced with a public as resentful of him as it tends to be of any athlete who’s young, gifted, black, and not very good at pretending not to be immensely pleased with himself—there is only one possible form that selling point can take, and of course it’s already taken it. Sonnen has called Jones "boy," and talked him down as an "entitled bratty kid" (the cognate you’re looking for is "uppity"). The hype machine hasn’t really even been turned on yet, and Sonnen has already nearly exhausted the euphemisms for that one word he’ll hint at, tease, and never quite say. It’s been depressing to watch.
The whole appeal of fighting, though, is that it’s the pure, concentrated distillate of sport and sport culture, for worse as well as better. So it isn’t a surprise that the UFC has its own Skip Bayless, or that they’re actually running him out there against their own LeBron James. What is a surprise is just how toxic the rhetoric has become, and just how little anyone seems to care. Maybe the problem is that this show has been running so long that no one is really paying attention anymore.
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Three years ago, Sonnen, then on his second stint in the UFC, was nothing more than one among the hundreds of nondescript white guys who fill out the cards. A veteran of dozens of fights in obscure circuits with names like Gladiator Challenge and Danger Zone, he was perhaps most notable for his affiliation with the ornery old wrestlers of Team Quest and for a habit of giving up submissions in big fights. Running off three wins in a row, though, with two coming against real contenders, set him up as the latest solution to a perpetual problem.
The Brazilian middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the greatest fighter in the short history of his sport, is an unrivaled knockout artist and a genius in the area of spatial awareness who at the time was going through something of a blue period; bored by comically outmatched opponents, he was just wandering around disdainfully during his fights. The UFC matched him with artless banger Forrest Griffin, a former light-heavyweight champion, in hopes of getting an action bout; Silva, doing little but shrugging and throwing half-assed jabs, actually ran him out of the cage. He spent most of his next fight taunting his opponent in Portuguese while the poor guy scurried away and UFC figurehead Dana White buried his head in his hands.
Silva having long since run through the viable and semi-viable contenders, Sonnen was slated as the next victim, with the hype presumably to center on how the one relative flaw in Silva’s game is his defensive wrestling and Sonnen was an alternate on the 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman team, and so on. No one really cares about title fights promoted that way, though, and so the challenger, to his credit, took control. Rather than Chael Sonnen, lay-and-pray specialist, the masses would be introduced to "Chael Sonnen," Situationist.
In its early iteration, Sonnen’s experiment in the spectacle was pretty funny, consisting as it did largely of trolling the fanboy press, which, why not? He spent the better part of a preposterous correspondence (you’ll want to read it) with an inept writer lecturing him on the falsity of contrived narratives and the reality-altering nature of digital media. He wrote an open letter to fans. He went on an obscure online radio show, said that Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer by doing drugs, then denied it when asked about it on Jim Rome’s show.
"Jim, that doesn’t sound anything like me," he said after having the clip played back to him. "Sounds like a guy with a Hispanic accent."
The Andy Kaufman bit made good sense, since any attention is good attention for a pillow-fisted, one-dimensional journeyman getting his only shot at fame and money. The issue was the other half of his routine, which involved sounding like a drivetime caller to Beefer and the Squelch bitching about the basketball players with the baggy pants, the hitters styling around after home runs, and the gays, who just want to shove their sex lives in everyone’s faces.
"He’s a grown man with earrings," he said of Silva. "He’s a grown man with saggy pants, pink t-shirts and crooked hats. Go join a gang."
Another time, he scoffed at how Silva "prances and dances, and does his little jigs."
Perhaps fearing that this just wasn’t getting the point across, he described Portuguese as "half a step up from pig Latin," which was at least an advance on previous claims that Silva only wanted to "se habla Español" when it was time to talk to the press. He (or at least the guy who fight people say writes his material) even suggested on Twitter that Silva’s manager Ed Soares should "pray to whatever Demon effigy you prance and dance in front of with your piglet tribe of savages that I decide not to CRUCIFY you."
The absurd thing about all of this was that before long, his interviews were the main subject of his interviews, with Sonnen knowingly discoursing on the art of fight promotion to admiring reporters. Essentially, by saying racist things and then discussing the mechanics of how saying racist things made people want to pay money to see him fight, he was able to distance himself from what he was actually saying, and position anyone who might be genuinely put off as not in on the joke. While the greater part of the fight audience was baited into either wanting to see him get his ass kicked or (more likely) wanting to see him kick the ass of the mincing, saggy-pantsed foreigner, the savvy insiders cooed over his ability to build the fight.
Sonnen, in other words, was recapitulating the basic dynamic of mass democracy, with hardcore fight fans as an army of meathead David Gergens, jizzing their pants over his ability to manipulate them and dismissing the substance of what he was saying as inherently beside the point. It was the worst thing ever.
Almost incidentally, the fight itself turned out to be a classic. In the first round, Sonnen came out, dropped Silva with a big left hand, and spent the next 23 minutes beating the fuck out of him. Just as he’d said he would, he put his head on Silva’s chest, planted him on his back, and rained elbows on him, and then he did it again and again. You could take the measure of both the beating and how stunning it was by a single statistic: In 11 previous fights in the UFC, Silva’s opponents had landed a total of 94 significant strikes; Sonnen landed 89.
In the end, though, Sonnen failed, deliciously. Two minutes from a certain win on the judges’ cards, with Silva caught beneath him, he let the champion slip his left leg up and around his right shoulder, trapping his head and left arm in a triangle. Sonnen shifted his weight, and then inexplicably gave Silva his arm. The man who’d spent months disparaging the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu—"I’m not laying underneath a grown man with my legs spread on worldwide TV… I’m a Republican,” he once explained—became just the third fighter ever to be finished in the final round of a title fight. He’d literally choked.
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As you’d expect, neither a humiliating loss nor even an uninspiring performance at the gate—for all the delusional talk about how he was revolutionizing promotion, the bout did perfectly ordinary business—chastened Sonnen at all. Nor, really, did the news that he’d failed a fight night drug screen with elevated testosterone levels. At a hearing where he was appealing a one-year suspension the California State Athletic Commission laid on him for the dirty results, he showed up with a quack from the Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, claimed his manager had cleared his steroid use ahead of time, and further claimed that he’d personally talked about his doping with Keith Kizer, the head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
"I’ve never spoken to Chael about anything," said Kizer. "That was surreal."
Imaginary conversations with the most powerful regulator in the fight game are different from imaginary Hispanic impostors. Rather than getting an immediate rematch, Sonnen served out a suspension, going more than a year between fights.
During his enforced vacation, which lasted until October 2011, Sonnen found plenty of time to work on his ugly American act, taking to Twitter to talk about the Brazilian fighter Wanderlei Silva "thrashing around the jungle w/a blowgun trying’ [sic] to catch breakfast" and "sellin’ barbecued monkey on the street in Manaus." He also pleaded guilty to federal money laundering charges. When working in real estate in 2006, it turned out, he’d submitted false documents to a subprime lender, which then paid a plumbing company owned by Sonnen’s mother $69,000 for repairs that were never done, with the money ending up in the hands of a homebuyer as, essentially, a kickback. No longer a con in the colloquial sense, he was now government certified.
Predictably, Sonnen’s status as a felon, cheat, and choker did little to harm his career, and once he got his license back in late 2011, the UFC quickly booked him into bouts against marginal contenders, made with the aim of allowing him to work toward a second fight with Silva. Strangely enough, he didn’t have much bad to say about square-jawed Silver Star recipient Brian Stann ("I think Stann’s an awesome guy") or even widely loathed chav Michael Bisping ("I’m a Bisping supporter"), and his vaunted hype work was restricted mainly to cosplaying corny 1970s pro wrestling promos. Two fairly listless wins, though, were enough to get him his rematch. And as he built the fight over the spring and summer of 2012, Sonnen went rancid. Whatever ingenuity there’d ever been in his routine was gone. He was like a crackhead chasing his first, pure high, to diminishing returns; it was perhaps best summed up by a line he tossed out at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro.
"When I was a little kid, I’d go outside with my friends and we’d talk about the latest technology, in medicine, gaming and American ingenuity," he said. "Anderson and the Brazilian kids are sitting outside playing in the mud."
Silva simply noted Sonnen’s criminal past and promised to break all his teeth.
When the fight came off, it was utterly anticlimactic. Sonnen scored a quick takedown and landed tight shots as Silva tried to wrap him up, but by the second round, he was worn out, with Silva slipping around everything he threw, and when the finish came, it was at least as humiliating as what happened in the first bout. Sonnen, a workmanlike fighter at best, for some reason threw a spinning backfist, missed and took a pratfall against the cage, landing under Silva, who kneed and then methodically pounded his face from various angles until the referee pulled him off. After it was over, he invited Sonnen to a barbecue at his house. In all, it seemed like the best possible thing to do.
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With the Silva issue settled, Sonnen seemed set to slowly fade into retirement. Working as a pundit on UFC Tonight, a weekly hype program under the Fox Sports umbrella, he showed a real knack for the fake bonhomie and glib takes expected of a jock broadcaster, and even at times came through with fascinating explanations of the fine technical points of the sport. By booking him into a bout with Forrest Griffin in the 205-pound weight class, the UFC more or less acknowledged that he was on his way to the seniors circuit, along with the shot but still popular likes of Wanderlei Silva and Rich Franklin, and that seemed about right.
From a certain angle, positioning him as one of the faces of the company made no sense: His fights with Stann and Bisping did poor business, and while the Silva rematch was hugely successful, that probably had more to do with Sonnen having been the only UFC fighter ever to lay a hand on the champion than anything else. The workings of sports broadcasting are mysterious, though, and Fox loves him. "Nobody argues that when Chael Sonnen opens his mouth that it’s not entertaining, that it doesn’t make you want to watch the fight," Eric Shanks, the head of Fox Sports, once told me when I asked him what the deal was. "Fighting is fighting, but it’s also entertainment."
All of this changed last August when, a week before he was due to challenge Jones for the light-heavyweight title, Dan Henderson informed the UFC brass that he would have to pull out due to an injury. Quite reasonably, no other contender wanted anything at all to do with Jones on short notice, and in a desperate bid to save the show, the promotion asked Sonnen to step in, which he was happy to do, this being definitionally a no-lose situation.
Jones, presented with this, made it clear that he wasn’t going to defend his title against anyone on what amounted to three days’ notice, and especially not someone who hadn’t even fought in the 205-pound weight class in years and for whom he had no respect. "That guy is a joke," he said, before the prospect of fighting Sonnen had even come up. "The Brazilian thing, I lost a lot of respect for him. What he said was racist."
From the UFC’s perspective this was ridiculous; as they saw it, Jones was turning down an essentially guaranteed win. At any rate, without a main event, they had to cancel the card, which drove Dana White into a frothing public fit, saying that what his champion had done was "selfish, disgusting," and later calling him "a little diva" after Jones complained that he’d been put in an impossible position. Sonnen, as you’d expect, got nothing but praise for being willing to jump just as high as the boss wanted.
"A guy that other guys won’t fight on short notice, Chael Sonnen says I’ll fight him tonight," said White. "He’s that kind of a person."
To a cynic, it might look as if White was trying to shift the heat off his company, which had so badly botched the construction of a card that it had to be canceled because of one injury, and onto a champion who, however brilliant he is, isn’t especially popular. Whatever the case, Sonnen was of course perfectly willing to play into the narrative.
"You’ve got a little entitled bratty kid in New Mexico that’s damaged the entire industry," he said. "To be attacked from within, to be attacked by one of our own? If this was a military operation, this would be considered treason. Jon Jones isn’t going to fight me next Saturday? What else does he have to do? Is there like some wine tasting at a racetrack or something that he’s gotta be at?"
A close reading of an interview that a man who fights in a cage for money gave to TMZ is problematic, of course, but still, Sonnen was able to pack a really surprising amount of bile into less than 100 words here. You have the black champion unwilling to do his boss’s bidding written off as not just an entitled brat but politically suspect and inherently alien; you have Sonnen implicitly aligning himself with the troops; with the reference to wine tasting, you have an allusion to effete, cosmopolitan tastes, and all of it is just deniable enough to pass as nothing more than ordinary trash talk. One wonders why the man wasn’t so inspired when fighting Michael Bisping.
In any event, Jones eventually fought Vitor Belfort, who had no credibility himself, and then agreed to defend against Sonnen and coach against him on the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, about which nothing need ever be said. From the perspective of Jones’s camp, there was no reason not to take the fight: If the UFC was insistent on matching him up with someone who poses no threat whatsoever, fair enough.
"Chael definitely doesn’t deserve to fight me, and everybody sees that," Jones said. "But at the same time, a lot of people have said, ‘Why not be the guy to shut him up once and for all?’"
So the great hype grows. Jones, who in a span of 13 months beat four former light heavyweight champions, all of them real contenders, and did so in a way that secured a place for him as one of the two or three transcendent fighters in his sport, is positioned as the uppity negro. Sonnen, who has had one really big fight in his career and was being packed off to the glue factory a few months ago, has fight writers comparing him to Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis when not outright tossing his salad.
The beautiful thing about fighting, though, is its decisive nature. A fight can function as the logical outcome of a sports culture that degrades LeBron James while elevating Tim Tebow, or as an illustration of the category error a corrupted media makes when it treats race-baiting as the successful application of pro wrestling tactics to legitimate sport, or as a parallax view on the mechanics of democracy. It ends, though, with you paying to see two men given five rounds to back up what they’ve said. In the end, the con works.
Tim Marchman has written about fights for the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, Slate, and The Classical; despite this, you’re right, he has no idea what he’s on about. Feel free to tell him @timmarchman.