In Search of the Real Chael Sonnen on the Mean Streets of West Linn, Oregon

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Inside the Team Quest gym in Tualatin, Ore. where Chael Sonnen trains, there’s an article printed out from MMA Junkie, laminated, and tacked to the wall. "New coach validated by Sonnen's submission win, NSAC mum on licensing prospects," the headline reads.

If you get up close enough to look through it, you’ll read all about Team Quest coach Scott McQuary, about how he helped tighten up Sonnen’s submission game ahead of his bout with Brian Stann in October, about how pleased he was to see Sonnen win that fight via an arm-triangle choke. Then the article abruptly cuts off. Nothing about those "licensing prospects" mentioned in the headline. Nothing about the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Nothing else at all.

On the internet, the article goes on to cover all the things MMA fans already know about Sonnen. From his unsanctioned use of testosterone-replacement therapy in California two years ago, to allegations that he perjured himself during his appeal, to his felony conviction for money laundering -- it’s all in the online version. It’s just not on the wall in Tualatin. Here, in Sonnen’s sanctuary, it’s as if those unpleasant facts cease to exist. A quick pass with a pair of scissors, a collective, unspoken agreement not to mention the stuff that ended up in the trash can, and -- poof -- a brand new reality takes shape. And who says Sonnen can’t craft his own version of the truth? He’s been doing it for the past couple years, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. Except for when it hasn’t.

I went to Oregon in early May to profile Sonnen for Sports Illustrated, and I went with a few simple questions in mind. While it seemed pretty obvious what Sonnen was doing with this WWE persona and why he was doing it, weren’t there times when even he had to wonder if he hadn’t struck a difficult bargain? When he had to stand in front of a judge or an athletic commission, or even his own friends and family, and try to convince them that his words actually meant something, didn’t he wish that he had used them a little gentlier at times?

But you can’t put real questions to Sonnen and expect real answers in return. He doesn’t allow it. His gimmick insists that he resolutely maintain the illusion that there is no gimmick, no act, nothing up his sleeve. Does he actually expect people to believe it? Unclear. But you get the sense that he’s smart enough to know that breaking character would serve only to undo all the hard work he’s put in to crafting this persona.

That’s why, when I meet up with him at the pizza parlor he co-owns just up the street from his home in the Portland suburb of West Linn, he is hard at work on the task of being Chael Sonnen. From a distance, it doesn’t look like much of an effort. Just a tall, broad-shouldered guy in his mid-thirties with a politician’s smile and a lifelong wrestler’s flattened face, sitting at a table against the wall and slugging away at some liquid concoction given to him by his nutritionist, Mike Dolce. It’s not much on taste, he admits, but the worst part is what it does to his bladder.

"Normally you get up, what, once a night to go to the bathroom?" he says. "With this I’m getting up four or five times. I hardly get any sleep."

It doesn’t help that he got up early to film a spot for the local morning news promoting Mean Street Pizza, a hip little pizza-by-the-slice operation in a sprawling strip mall parking lot. By noon he has the washed out eyes of a man who is already missing his bed, and still he has to put on the public face -- not only for me, but also for his fans. Not long into our interview, a baby boomer biker-type couple drops by to tell him that they already have their tickets for the Silva rematch in Vegas. Even sleep-deprived, Sonnen is gracious and polite almost to a fault. He doesn’t even seem to mind when they bring up his heartbreaking loss in the first Silva fight.

"I thought you had him," says the man with the long gray ponytail and the leather POW-MIA vest.

"See the thing is, I misunderstood the rules," Sonnen deadpans. "I thought if you tapped out, you lost the round. Come to find out, you actually lose the fight."

The couple smiles right along. This, after all, is the Sonnen they came to see, the one they know from TV. Then the woman, for reasons known only to her, asks for his autograph on her dead friend’s medical marijuana card. Nate Quarry signed it right there, she points out as she hands it across the table.

"Okay," Sonnen agrees. "But don’t tell anyone. I’m a Republican."

Seeing him like this -- polite to his elders, genuinely appreciative of those who would fly to Las Vegas just to see him work -- it’s hard to reconcile with the images of him disparaging the entire nation of Brazil as a bunch of ignorant savages. It makes me wonder how he reconciles the two in his own mind. Not that there is any hope of getting him to talk about it.

"I do not agree that there is any persona whatsoever," he says when I bring it up, then wryly and unconvincingly insists he’s "surprised" that I would even suggest such a notion. Shortly afterward, Sonnen will claim he has "never lied about or misrepresented anything." This seems like as good a time as any to bring up his fake championship belt.

Shortly before embarking on this little road trip, I was discussing Sonnen’s antics with a friend of mine who admitted that he had enjoyed the whole Sonnen schtick right up until the belt. It was one thing to make an argument that he’d kind of, sort of won the fight with Silva. That wasn’t technically true, but at least it almost felt true. When Sonnen showed up with that belt and refused to admit that it was a fake, claiming instead to have taken it from Silva "like a gangster in the night," here my friend felt compelled to draw a line. "Chael Sonnen is a liar!" he said, as if coming to the realization all at once.

So I put it to Sonnen. Surely, he knows it’s not the real belt. He knows that we know it. When he says otherwise, he is clearly lying, is he not?

"No," Sonnen says. "Absolutely not."

Before I can utter a word in response, he’s halfway into a story about Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Mark Schultz.

"One of the baddest dudes on earth," Sonnen says. "Mark Schultz trained with [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt] Pedro Sauer. He could tap out everyone in the gym, and Pedro would not give him a black belt. Just wouldn’t do it. He could destroy Pedro, and he still wouldn’t give him one. So Mark Schultz went down to Meier & Frank and bought himself a black belt and entered a bunch of tournaments as a black belt and won every one of them. He told me, ‘When you’re tough enough to wear the belt, you’ve earned it. Not when someone else has decided to give it to you.’ I am tough enough to wear that belt. That’s why I wear it."

Of course, that still doesn’t make it true when Sonnen says that his belt is the one and only UFC middleweight championship title. There are many black belts in the world, but only one UFC middleweight title, and Sonnen is not its owner. Presumably, he knows this, even if he won’t admit it to a reporter. But when you listen to him make the argument, it seems almost as if he believes it. As if any idea can become true if expressed with enough force, and with an unwavering refusal to admit to the faults in the reasoning. And if Sonnen could talk himself into that, what other self-serving fictions might be masquerading as truths inside his mind?

*****

Before our sitdown at his pizza parlor, I’d read Sonnen’s take on his money laundering case and testosterone trouble in his book, The Voice of Reason: A VIP Pass to Enlightenment. The book, which Sonnen said he dictated into a recorder and sent off to the publisher, is part schtick and part genuine autobiography, which gets confusing in a hurry. He spends whole chapters ranting about fighter entrance music and rating classic rock guitarists, but devotes other chapters to startlingly personal stories about his family and his childhood. He describes his conviction on federal money laundering charges as a political prosecution based on an obscure technicality of real estate law and designed expressly to end his run for the Oregon State Senate (a claim that Assistant U.S. Attorney Michell Kerin found literally laughable when I spoke to her about the case).

When it comes to testosterone, Sonnen claims in the book that he disclosed his use of TRT to the California commission in several different ways and at several different times (another claim refuted by CSAC executive director George Dodd, who told me, "He never stated it anywhere, except for the day of the [pre-fight drug] test. That’s when he told us"). In the span of a couple paragraphs, Sonnen insists that: a) he never actually tested over the legal limit, b) the legal limit is so loose as to be effectively non-existent, and c) if his testosterone levels had been as high as reported, he’d be dead. Again, Dodd refutes all these claims.

Among many things the book does well is capturing Sonnen’s tone. Reading it, I could almost hear his voice in my head. I also found myself constantly wondering, is this true? Is it even intended to be true? When he tells touching stories about his childhood wrestling coach -- Coach Pittman -- is that just typical Sonnen exaggeration, or does he expect me to believe it?

"I don’t kid about Coach Pittman," Sonnen tells me when I ask. Which, of course, implies that he does kid about other subjects. But the money laundering stuff, the testosterone? Even though he’d written about it in the book, he shuts down as soon as I mention it in our interview. If I’ve read the book, he says, that should tell me everything I need to know. I reply that it doesn’t. Not quite. I’ve read what the character Chael Sonnen has to say about things like money laundering. I want to know what the person thinks. When he turns and fixes me with his icy blue eyes -- think Siberian Husky, but not quite as friendly -- I see I’ve made a critical error.

What follows is a screed about media misrepresentation, athletic commission incompetence, "hack journalism," and what Sonnen regards as the infuriating refusal on the part of people like me to let the past stay in the past.

"It’s like a guy goes to jail, does his time, and then when he gets out you say, ‘Hey, let’s go down there and throw rocks at him,’" he says. "That’s how I feel."

In other words, he’s pled guilty, taken his punishment, and that should be the end of it. It’s the same with testosterone, which he describes as a "life-enhancer" that he really and truly needs. It’s legal, it’s fair, and he has legitimate medical documentation to prove that he’s not abusing anything, he says, so he doesn’t understand why people won’t get off his back about it. His frustration seems authentic, as does his claim that there’s nothing at all untoward about his use of a controversial hormone-replacement therapy. I want to believe him. He’s smart and articulate and, look at him, hasn’t he been through so much already? But then, fifteen minutes ago he was just as passionate about the fake belt. How am I supposed to believe him now, on a serious topic, when I’ve already seen how seriously he can treat a ridiculous one?

*****

After the pizza parlor we head home, where Sonnen plans to do a little decompressing before tonight’s training session. I get in my car and he gets in his oversized truck and I follow him down the street to his house, winding along perfectly manicured tree-lined streets where neighborhood kids literally drop what they’re doing to run to the curb and wave at Sonnen as he drives by. As we walk up the steps to his house, past a front porch cluttered with shoes and various unloved MMA gear, Sonnen warns me that his dog is going to jump all over me the moment we walk in and there is absolutely no way around this. Fortunately, the dog, whose hair has recently been dyed and clipped for reasons that vary depending on who you talk to, is currently locked in the backyard. We walk in to a tranquil emptiness. The only sound echoing across the hardwood floors is a ‘Real Housewives’ episode blaring from the flatscreen in the living room. This, Sonnen notes, must be the work of one Vinny Magalhaes, his live-in jiu-jitsu coach. At that very moment, Magalhaes himself comes in from doing his laundry in Sonnen’s garage to deny any and all knowledge of how the Housewives have ended up on the TV. A great mystery, indeed.

In Sonnen’s kitchen, drawings from the neighborhood kids depicting him as "MMA Champ" adorn his refrigerator. Many copies of his book rest in stacks nearby. He’s eager to show me his garage, the concrete floor of which is almost entirely covered by a high-quality mat he says he salvaged from a friend’s flooded basement. He had to use a hairdryer on it to keep the mold away at first, but it’s worth it to have his own personal grappling space.

"Vinny and I got some training in here this morning," he says. Magalhaes, who has parked himself on the couch with his laptop and is keeping a constant eye on the M-1 Global championship belt that he has recently put up for sale on Ebay, nods absently.

Sonnen’s girlfriend -- a stunning, statuesque blonde dressed like someone’s fantasy of a sexy, yet classy businesswoman -- materializes and is quickly sent out for coffee, which Sonnen rarely likes to be without. He loves him some Starbucks, and makes a concerted effort to sell me on a slice of their lemon cake, promising, "It’s a little slice of heaven, is what it is." I assure him I know all about it, but I’m not in the market just now.

While we wait for her to return, we lounge around his living room watching FOX News and discussing everything from politics (Sonnen thinks Brian Stann should run for the U.S. Senate, if not president), to his book (he wanted to include a chapter about how he’d come to learn the true identity of the infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper, but the publisher turned it down), to strategies for meeting women (Sonnen met his current girlfriend by pretending that his phone was dead and asking to borrow hers, at which point he called his own phone to get her number, then immediately took his phone out of his pocket and texted her a warning against loaning her phone to strangers -- somehow, this worked).

But theirs is a relationship that had to jump a few hurdles, Sonnen explains. For one thing, her brother is a fighter, which meant he could think of no shortage of reasons to keep his sister away from fighters in general, and Sonnen in particular. For another, after they’d been dating a few months, her parents insisted on meeting him. It just so happened that this was after his guilty plea to money laundering charges, and after the UFC had decided to temporarily "freeze" his contract. Add in the testosterone stuff in California, and you have yourself a Google nightmare. To make things even worse, they live in Washington. So when they asked their daughter to bring her new boyfriend across state lines so they could size him up in person, Sonnen -- who was then functionally unemployed and on probation -- had to explain why he needed to request permission first. Inauspicious beginnings, but here they are.

Still, if we pause for a moment to look deeper, there is a lesson. It’s a lesson about the person that even the character cannot obscure. Because, see, what Sonnen just admitted, whether he realizes it yet or not, is that he was embarrassed. Embarrassed by things he’d done, or maybe just been accused of doing. Embarrassed at the possibility of being perceived negatively by his girlfriend’s parents. And sure, who wouldn’t be? It’s one thing to brag in public about what a hardcore gangster you are, about how it took nothing less than a federal freaking investigation to halt your political career. But when you have to go shake hands with your girlfriend’s father, you don’t want him thinking you’re a bad guy. And you’re not, are you? You might play one on TV. You might have had some unfortunate instances in your past, but it doesn’t mean you want people to think of you as a jerk. It doesn’t mean you think of yourself that way any more than Christian Bale thinks of himself as Batman.

But according to family and friends, the Sonnen we see in interviews isn’t so much a character as it is his real personality with the volume cranked up. He’s always had that biting, sarcastic wit, they say. A sense of humor that’s at times dark, verging on mean. He gets it from his father, a strict disciplinarian who, when he was fed up with his teenage son, would often accuse him of being on drugs. In reality, Sonnen didn’t do much besides go to school, then wrestling practice, then home. As Sonnen puts it, growing up in a semi-rural part of Oregon he "didn’t have any friends, but I didn’t know I didn’t have any friends." He didn’t go to parties, didn’t drink, but not necessarily because he was ethically opposed to it, according to his mother, Claudia, a 65-year-old retired high school teacher.

"I think he just wanted to be contrary," she says. "If the other kids were partying and drinking, then Chael wouldn’t do it, just because he always had to be different."

After high school, Sonnen followed his passion for wrestling to Brigham Young University. He went not because he was interested in Mormonism ("I’m a Catholic, and not because I just happened to wake up as a Catholic," he says. "I’m not going to be persuaded on any topic, especially not that,"), but because Utah was where one of the nation’s few Gracie Jiu-Jitsu schools was located at the time.

"I wanted to go to the UFC," he says. "I wanted to go right then, right out of high school."

When he heard that BYU was thinking about cutting its wrestling program, he came back home and enrolled at the University of Oregon, about two hours south of West Linn on I-5. Despite some collegiate wrestling success, he never gave up on his hope of getting to the UFC. When pay-per-view events rolled around, Sonnen and his wrestling buddies convened at his parents’ house, where his mom would provide the snacks. Her favorite was always Vitor Belfort, Sonnen says, which is a little weird now, "since I have to go out and poke my finger in Vitor’s chest."

His mother’s still a serious fight fan, even though she doesn’t exactly fit the demographic. She watched a recent UFC pay-per-view by herself at a Buffalo Wild Wings, where she got plenty of curious looks from young men who seemed to be wondering if she was in the right bar.

"I didn’t want to tell anyone I was Chael’s mom, because not everyone likes him," she says.

Sonnen’s father died of cancer in 2002. Before he did, Sonnen sat at his bedside and laid out some life goals, mostly just to let his father know what he was going to be up to. One of those goals included beating light heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz for the UFC title. That raised the old man’s eyebrows, Sonnen says, because "my dad was a Tito fan."

His dad also shared his dark humor, right until the end. Even when he was shot through with cancer and waiting to die in a hospital bed, one day he got a great idea for a gag when he looked out the window and saw his son pulling into the hospital parking lot. He quickly turned to his wife and his sister and told them to pull the sheet over his head, then pretend to cry as Chael walked into the room.

"I said absolutely not, I wouldn’t do that," Sonnen’s mother says. "He was adamant about it. That was just his sense of humor."

According to Sonnen’s brother-in-law, Clifton Molatore, it’s a tradition that Sonnen has continued. When his father died, it was Sonnen who lightened the mood by poking his aunt and telling her, you know, you’re probably next. Even now, at family gatherings around Christmas, Sonnen likes to propose a toast to his aunt, reminding family members that it’s probably going to be her last Christmas.

"And he does it every year," says Molatore. To the family, that’s funny. That’s just Chael, and they know exactly how to take him. They also know how to take it when they see him on TV, ranting about Brazilians or the media. They’re used to it, because they’ve seen it, just on a smaller scale. According to Molatore, sometimes Sonnen will break into one of bits at the dinner table, completely out of the blue. "Then he’ll look around and say, ‘So what’d you think?’"

*****

Team Quest Tualatin sits in a business park on a dead-end street. A big garage door faces west, and on pleasant spring evenings like this one they open it up to let the air get in. Tonight, Sonnen is among the last to arrive for practice, showing up on what one teammate affectionately refers to as "Chael time." His girlfriend also comes to watch practice, though she openly admits that she’s no fan of the tights he wears to train in. As Sonnen hits pads, his aunt shoots video of it with her iPad. She does it not because he particularly wants her to, or because he even intends to look at it later, but more because that’s just what she does. His mom is also here, because his mom never misses a practice. She’s always there to work his water between rounds, to put up with his cranky days and his slightly less cranky days, to tolerate him at his worst, when no one else will. For this training camp she thought about sitting some practices out, she says, but Sonnen told her: "Mom, we’ve got a championship to win." So here she is.

Sonnen spends a lot of time working with Magalhaes and McQuary on his jiu-jitsu. They try out different transitions and positions, then slow things down to talk about what’s working and what isn’t.

"Do you feel like he could get you from there, Vinny?" asks McQuary, a grizzled combat sports veteran of multiple disciplines who looks like the kind of person central casting would send you if you asked for a hard S.O.B. with a well-traveled face.

Magalhaes pauses to consider the choke that Sonnen is attempting, then gives a non-committal shrug that seems to suggest, hey, maybe not me, but it might work on that Silva guy. And, at least from what I see over the course of two days in the gym, Sonnen and company seem awfully concerned about the submissions aspect of the upcoming fight with that Silva guy. It’s not so surprising, when you think about how the first fight ended. Sonnen had no problem taking Silva down, but it was the triangle choke he didn’t react to in time that proved to be his undoing. Is it me, I ask McQuary, or are they focusing an inordinate amount of time on submissions before a fight with one of MMA’s most successful strikers?

"I don’t know, I think that’s just what you’ve just happened to see," McQuary says. Sure, they’re working on submissions, he points out, but applying them as well as avoiding them. After all, with Sonnen’s ability to get people to the mat, why not improve his chances of finishing them there? That’s what they did for the Stann fight, and look what happened there.

If you ask McQuary, he’ll tell you that Sonnen’s one of the best, most disciplined, and hardest working fighters he’s ever been around. He’ll also tell you that he has no problem reconciling interview Chael with gym Chael.

"The way he explained to me was, before, no one really paid attention to him," McQuary says.

And that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? Whatever problems Sonnen may have caused for himself by becoming a larger-than-life loudmouth, one problem he doesn’t have anymore is invisibility. He followed the pro wrestling playbook all the way to the top of this sport. The problem is, pro wrestlers get to do it under stage names. Sonnen doesn’t. He has to maintain that he really means all this stuff, which means he also has to be accountable for it. Part of his appeal is his willingness to say almost anything, but that creates problems for him on other issues where he could use a little credibility. And lately, there have been a few such issues.

*****

On my last morning in Oregon I arrive at Team Quest Tualatin as Sonnen is finishing up a photo shoot before training. In the midst of leaning up against a heavy bag and staring off into the middle distance -- the effect of which is to make him out to be the super jock version of James Dean -- he spots me out of the corner of his eye and tells me he’s glad to see me, since he’s been thinking about yesterday’s conversation at the pizza parlor.

"I was talking to you in my head last night," he says. Does this mean I’m in for another screed about the media and the athletic commissions? I’ll have to wait until after the photo shoot to find out. In the meantime, he has to hit the full checklist of tough guy fighter poses. Pensively hitting a heavy bag? Check. Pretending to wrap his own hands? Check. Standing alone in the gym, silhouetted by the morning sunshine, considering the immensity of his past and his future? Check, check, check.

At one point the photographer -- a waifish hipster type who seems permanently uncomfortable, especially when shouting over the mid-90s country music radio station to give Sonnen instructions -- asks him to relax and strike a normal pose for some quick video. Just do what you’d normally do, he tells Sonnen, and Sonnen flashes him a mischievous glance before raising a flexed bicep and launching into a rhyming couplet that’s part Muhammad Ali, part Davy Crockett. It gets an embarrassed smile from the photographer, and you can almost believe, if only for a second, that maybe this is what Sonnen would normally do.

Once the shoot’s over and he’s supposed to be changing for practice, then it’s my turn.

"You said something yesterday that stuck with me," Sonnen says. "You said I was accused of mortgage fraud, which I wasn’t."

It’s true. At one point I did make that mistake, but the distinction between mortgage fraud and money laundering seems almost like a difference of semantics, doesn’t it? Not to Sonnen, it turns out.

"Everybody knows what fraud means," he says. "It means you lied. But what’s money laundering? Can anyone even explain what that is?"

I can. And, as I will find out with one simple phone call the following week, so can Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerin -- quite easily, in fact. But it doesn’t matter, because Sonnen is already off on his tangent, telling me how many laws there are related to real estate, how if they want to bust you, they can always find something. Then he comes as close as he dares to an apology.

"It was the third deal I ever made," he explains. Both parties involved in the sale wanted to do it a certain way, his bosses told him to push it through, so he did. It wasn’t until almost five years later that his phone started ringing with questions about it.

If he really were a proud "gangster from Oregon," however, would he even care whether people called it money laundering or mortgage fraud? Would he care if they brought it up at all, as he so clearly does? Probably not. He insists that he truly didn’t mean to do anything wrong, and even the U.S. Attorney’s office says that he merely played "a small role in a much larger criminal conspiracy." Beyond his commission for the sale, he didn’t profit from the deal. That’s part of why he got off with merely a fine and probation. It just so happens that the guilty plea coincided with his heel turn in the world of MMA, which meant apologizing and throwing himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion wasn’t an option. Sonnen is the bad guy, and the bad guy doesn’t get to explain. He doesn’t get to offer apologies or ask for sympathy. All he can do is turn up the heat, which is exactly what he did.

It’s the same with his views on testosterone, he says. Of course he pulls the whole ‘must have caught me on a low day,’ routine. What else is he supposed to do? And when he asks that question, his voice going uncharacteristically soft, I’m reminded of what happened a day earlier, when he launched into a speech about how readily he’d stomp Silva, and how he genuinely was the superior fighter. By the time it was over, I found myself believing that he meant every word. Then I stopped and wondered who else you even had to say that about. Who else made it seem like a noteworthy accomplishment when he uttered something that wasn’t a flagrant lie? And sure, maybe now he had to occasionally ask himself how people will remember him. But even if you're not sure what the answer will be, isn't how still a better question than if?

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