As a walking contradiction, Chael Sonnen can't get out of his own way

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting


It was still easy to gawk in fiendish wonder at Chael Sonnen at UFC 134. Somehow, as Anderson Silva got set to face Yushin Okami in the UFC’s long-awaited return to Brazil, people were talking about him as if he were one of the attractions. He wasn’t. He’d helped train the Japanese challenger, and that was just enough of an orbit to kick up some drama for the thing at hand. Nevertheless, people kept wondering if Sonnen -- who came close to upsetting Silva in Oakland at UFC 117 and had long since captivated our imagination with American bravado and little sonnets -- would show up in Rio. And if he did, what would happen to him?

That’s the kind of transcendence Sonnen had. We missed him when he wasn’t there.

At that point in time, in the halcyon days of Sonnen, it was a happy marvel that he had an ability to overshadow events. It was that sort of thing that went into his "genius" as a self-aggrandizing seller of fights. Sonnen reminded people that audacity, when used measuredly and from greater platforms, was next to godliness in the fight game.

And yet when he overshadowed Saturday night’s fight card in San Antonio, it just felt a little too familiar, and more than a little pathetic. This time it comes during a public tailspin that is straining every chord in his politician’s mind to fix.

It broke Saturday night, right as the Fight Night 44 main card got rolling, that in a second random drug test Sonnen added human growth hormone (HGH) and recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO) to the compilation of banned substances coursing through his system during his training for UFC 175. These join the previous agents, anastrozole and human chorionic gonadotropin, banned substances that Sonnen went on television to dance around with fancy footwork (sterility…health…didn’t know they were banned…knew they were banned but sterility…health).

The truth is, all those banned substances, no matter how they're rationalized, spell out C-H-E-A-T-I-N-G...and it’s not just the cheating, it’s the almost comical hypocrisy that has turned a once compelling figure into a karmic punch line of Afterschool Special proportions.

These random tests happened back when he was an active fighter, still on pace to fight at UFC 175, back when he was trying to come off of the recently banned TRT, before he retired on air for getting caught. In other words, a couple of weeks ago. These tests came after he used his UFC Tonight pulpit on FOX Sports 1 to throw Wanderlei Silva under the bus for cheating in Japan and running from a drug test. It was long after he tested for elevated testosterone at UFC 117, served out a suspension, got his therapeutic use exemption (TUE), and said that Lance Armstrong, the man who put HGH and EPO on the map in an epic fall from grace, gave himself cancer.

Remember that? That was also ahead of UFC 117, too, which will go down simultaneously as the high water mark of Sonnen’s career as well as everything that went wrong with it.

"When you screw up, you have to own it," he said at the time. "That stuff really gets under my skin. Take Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong did a number of things and he gave himself cancer. He cheated, he did drugs, and he gave himself cancer. Well, instead of saying, ‘Hey listen, I cheated and gave myself cancer, don't be like me,’ he actually made himself the victim and then went out and profited something like $15 million dollars from this, ‘Hey, poor me, let's find a cure for cancer’ campaign. Instead of just coming clean and saying, ‘Look, here’s what I did, I screwed myself up, and I hope people learn from my mistakes.’ You just watch these guys and can’t help but think, God, what a fraud. You got the whole Michael Phelps being a pothead thing, too. I’m just glad I’m in the business I’m in so I can get them in the cage and kick the crap out of them."

Pick your cliché. The pot calling the kettle black…people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones…you reap what you sow…whatever you want, but how this has played out is embarrassing. Not just for Sonnen, but for the UFC, who has made a habit of sticking by him. For FOX, who provides him the platform to play out the full web of deceits publicly. To his fans, who have been converted into apologists over the years, just waiting for the good times to roll around again. 

And now that we’re here, let’s see if Sonnen takes his own advice. Let’s see if he’s accountable now that he’s the one caught cheating, now that he’s the disgraced, now that he’s the one with a reputation in disrepair. Does he come clean, and admit his mistake? Or does he do what he has for so long condemned, which is to make and perpetuate excuses?

This is what’s known as a moral dilemma. So far it’s just been excuses, and those excuses led to his retirement a couple of weeks ago. When scrutiny closed in on him, he stepped out. This was another stroke of genius, many thought, because sometime in 2015, when he was eligible to fight again, he still could return. Just like with all things Chael Sonnen, the retirement was taken with a grain of salt.

But with HGH and EPO, which is shorthand for to enhance and to recover, it’s hard to stay gullible for Sonnen. This from a guy, I confess, who has loved much of what Sonnen has done for the fight game. He cheated, and he got caught. His audacity, the thing that made him a star, now works against him. His excuses, for so long the most "refreshing" part of his disdain, are now his greatest temptation. His retirement from fighting, thought by some to be a cleverly timed ruse, just got more shadowy.

And as for his popularity, the thing that makes us talk about him through events he has nothing to do with, it’s getting complicated. While there for awhile we couldn’t get enough Sonnen, the time has come where we could use a little less.

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