Chael Sonnen decides to retire, but will he return?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The retirement of Chael Sonnen, after testing positive for a pair of banned substances, is hard to take seriously due to the sudden nature of it. But the wheels in motion of what happened came from knee-jerk reactions without considering all aspects of a very serious issue.

Usually when a top fighter retires from the sport, the reaction is to fondly look back at their successes, and talk of their failures as either character building, or if at the end of their careers, part of the inevitable circle of fighter life.

But as much as Chael Sonnen was a major figure in the MMA world from the night he took over the press conference after his upset win over Nate Marquardt more than four years ago, which led him to challenging Anderson Silva for the middleweight title in one of the sport's most memorable fights in history, it doesn't feel like the time or place to do that.

I keep having this lingering thought in my head.  One year from now, when UFC is running its 50-plus events a year with nowhere near enough drawing cards to fill the headline positions in the first place. A phone call or text is going to be made.

It'll either be Dana White calling West Linn, Ore., after a main event injury to a light heavyweight or middleweight in a main event slot, or there's a major show and an open slot with nobody healthy with a name. Or, more likely, an injury will take place, Sonnen will see the opportunity, and volunteer, as he's done so many times to step in. There's the interview about not going out on his own terms the way he wanted to. And he's clearly going to remain in the public eye as a television presence for the company.

He may even believe today that he is retired. Or he may already be waiting for the problems to blow over. Sonnen may even remember the perfect interview from his childhood in the mid-80s cut by Stan "The Man" Stasiak, a former area pro wrestling headliner, and at the time, a pretty much retired television announcer for Portland Wrestling, the show Sonnen grew up watching on Saturday nights. It's something along the lines of having one good night left.

It is possible, for health reasons, that Sonnen may be best served retiring. But the way it happened, while in the middle of training for a big fight on the year's biggest show, and then suddenly he retires a day after testing positive for two banned substances, makes me feel this is hardly a thought-out decision, and more a temporary changing of the narrative.

Sonnen was likely to be suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commission anyway, so he wasn't going to be fighting for several months. The majority of fighters when they say they are retiring, mean it at the moment they say it. But when reality sets in, if there's a big money fight that can have their name attached to it, the profession doesn't seem so bad. And in Sonnen's case, he's not leaving because he took a physical beating that made him question if it was worth it.

I keep coming back to a radio show I did with Sonnen several months ago when the subject of fighting while no longer on testosterone replacement therapy was brought up. Sonnen said that he was working with doctors on ways to boost his natural testosterone production so he would be able to function well, and continue his career.  He said that so far, he was feeling good. He also said he would reserve the right to contradict that statement a few weeks or months down the road. He specifically brought up that if this didn't work, he may have to retire.

Translated from vague references, I took that to mean he's on HCG to try and hopefully produce enough testosterone that he could train hard enough and live a normal life without using testosterone. He never said it. I just figured it. HCG is a banned substance in most drug tested sports, including this one.

Unlike most in the media who celebrated the Nevada commission, and the UFC in general, banning TRT outright in late February, my response was more measured. Yes, I wish it had never been approved in the first place. I was very skeptical of the real need by some of the fighters on it. And of those who I felt probably did need it, I assumed the legitimate medical reasons to need it was because they had damaged their endocrine system through years of anabolic steroids. In other words, cheating, so if the damage from cheating weakens your body, c'est la vie. But there were also exceptions, most notably Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. Where Sonnen fell on that ledger, I can't responsibly speculate on. Many will likely offer their opinion based on things like if they find him entertaining, or hated his act, or just hate all drug use to where everyone on TRT was a cheater and love the idea that they got a big fish.

The idea that nobody in this sport would be approved for TRT was fine with me. Because of the ability to abuse the system on TRT, it probably should be banned. The rare case of someone who needs it, I can accept as being akin to the 5-foot-6 super talented high school basketball player who wants to play Division I. Life isn't fair, sports aren't fair, and sometimes your physical limitations don't allow you to progress to the major leagues.

The problem was for the few. Sonnen, Dan Henderson, Silva, Vitor Belfort and whoever else had been using it consistently for years and were still headline players. Whether their reasons for initially needing TRT were legitimate years ago when they started or not, after many years straight of taking exogenous testosterone, your body is not going to produce much testosterone on its own. The commissions allowed and approved a situation that compromised the endocrine system in these fighters even more over the long-term.

On that day when it was banned, the issue was, nobody thought of those few fighters. It was just an easy thing to do. Everyone was happy. Nobody thought that there were only a handful of fighters that this applied to, and that this was not a real substantial move to clean up the sport. But it looked like that to the public. And it was an easy response to a controversial and confusing issue.

Anything other than year-around constant unannounced drug testing of every fighter under contract is going to leave gaping loopholes for PED usage. And even that system, as cumbersome and as expensive as it would be, would have limited success in regard to the highest-profile fighters. Those with money and celebrity to get the right connections to use substances and have the best advisers will usually be one step ahead of testing.

It was appalling that nobody in power considered that there could be significant health issues from having people who relied on TRT for years to just go cold turkey. There was no discussion with any doctors of how to handle those few. From a media perspective, the idea was that they were drug cheats so it doesn't matter would hold water if the regulatory bodies had not approved of what they were doing in the first place.

When the word came out that Sonnen had failed a drug test for Anastrozole and Clomiphene, my reaction was, well, once people realize getting off years straight of testosterone and the side effects, they'll understand usage of drugs like that were kind of a given. But that didn't happen. It was more about how the drugs are on the banned substance list and Dennis Siver got suspended for testing positive for HCG, the very drug Sonnen later admitted he had been using.

The reason Anastrozole and Clomiphene are banned is the same reason masking agents and diuretics are banned. They are not anabolic agents or growth hormones. Taking a masking agent doesn't make you bigger, stronger or faster. Anastrozole isn't going to help your bench press. What it is going to do is suppress your female sex characteristics from taking over after a male hormone crash from getting off testosterone. It's there to prevent the crash that can include development of gynocomastia, essentially swollen nipples that in worst cases can create small pockets that appear to be almost like small female breasts. It's to prevent a crash that leads to depression, a lack of drive, losing muscle tone and getting a softer and more feminine aspect to the physique.

Why they are banned is because males generally are using those drugs to combat side effects of steroid use. Like with masking agents, the idea is, why would you need them unless you used steroids in the first place? So even if we didn't catch your steroid use because you are clever enough to time your cycle right or beat the system, we've got a second chance to get you by nabbing you for the drugs used after a cycle is completed.

Where this doesn't apply here is that the men on TRT are already known to have been on essentially a multi-year cycle. In other words, you're catching them for something you already know they did and they were allowed to do.

When the commission banned TRT, they should have done so with a doctor who would recommend a treatment program for these athletes to avoid the crash and help get them back to as close to normal as possible. Had they done so, those drugs, or those similar like HCG, likely would have been part of the equation.

For all the knocks on Dana White's appearance Tuesday on Fox Sports 1 in the media, he was one of the very few people talking about the subject that had a clue what he was talking about. Whether his number of five out of more than 500 was accurate depends on nitpicking. Far more than five UFC fighters have been approved for TRT in the last several years. Of those, some aren't fighting in the organization any longer, some have retired, and some have stopped using. As best I can tell, on Feb. 27, when TRT was banned, that number this applied to was either fix or six active UFC roster fighters.

That said, after all these years, it does feel like UFC and Bellator have relied too much on underfunded and often ill-informed athletic commissions on a major problem that plagues this sport, as it does any sport where speed, power and explosiveness are in demand.  

And as for Sonnen, his attempt to deflect the issue on a discussion of in-competition and out-of-competition drug testing was ill-advised. The substances he tested positive for, because they are used to catch steroid users, are banned in or out of competition. And I can't get my head around the idea that he was using them without letting the athletic commission know ahead of time. Quite frankly, the day the commission announced the ban, they should have told those few fighters that they needed to be on those drugs for their own health as a recommendation, and not buried their head in the sand and just issued a ban without discussing with doctors the physical repercussions on those they had given prior exemptions.

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