As audacious as Chael Sonnen can be, it works better when he’s a lone affiliate. If ESPN interviews him ahead of a fight, it’s almost expected that he embark on rant about his opponent, or talk about the Nogueira brothers feeding carrots to buses, or try to touch the interviewer’s curly nest of hair in ice-breaking awe.
He does that to the consequence of nobody but himself. It’s why he’s where he is; audacity has made him one of the fight game’s transcendent stars.
But when he is giving his opinion on a fight, as an employee of FOX, his audaciousness is divided by a thousand. It becomes FOX’s problem, because he’s a representative of them and their content. Sonnen is obviously smart enough to know the difference, but not to avoid the one side of himself from spilling over into the other from time to time.
On Monday night’s edition of Fox Sports Live, a roundtable discussion where opinions are opined and opinions are coveted and opinions are the axis of the whole enterprise, analyst Sonnen made a fighter Sonnen joke. It was a slash at the rapper Chris Brown, ultimately. When asked about Floyd Mayweather he said, "I’ve never seen anybody in the in the history of America get so rich and so famous off of having complete wimps throwing punches at their faces. I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, ‘Well, it’s happened before, what about Rihanna?’"
Brown, of course, was brought up on felony assault charges for an incident with Rihanna in 2009. As Gary Payton laughed, Sonnen then said, "Too soon? Too soon?"
At that point, too late, actually.
Too late to take it back. And by Tuesday night, FOX took the measure of issuing a formal apology for the "inappropriate attempt at humor." Most of Sonnen’s inappropriate attempts at humor are funny, or funny in how uneasily they stray into the inappropriate. Raw is something he does deftly well. In fact, we tend to give him the leeway of a comedian, which is a delicate space in which context is everything.
But this time Sonnen managed to give the network he hawks for a black eye in the process of talking about a rapper who is known to dole out black eyes to his girlfriends. Bad combo. The reasons are obvious: It’s a domestic violence situation that exists in a pop-culture bubble. But it’s a domestic violence situation that remains a domestic violence situation. Even if Rihanna took Brown back, and even if that situation is ripe for, and has been, a million pop-culture punch lines.
If Sonnen had rolled out the Rihanna joke in an interview in which he was promoting his own fight? That would have been Chael being Chael. The same people who hate him would continue to hate him, and the people who love him would continue to throw rose petals at his feet. But when he says it as a panelist in which he’s a paid member of the program, he falls under different scrutiny.
That’s a dynamic that Sonnen, as naturally as he fits in as a showman, a fighter and an analyst, is still sorting out. How not to make the one thing bleed too much into the other.