During his competitive time in professional mixed martial arts (MMA), former UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen used his widely-herladed promotional abilities to raise his profile as well as those of his fights. Now retired from MMA, he's still putting those skills to use, but in a different if slightly related context.
Sonnen is officially becoming a promoter as he launches 'Submission Underground', a submission grappling event based on the superfights model. The first event is set to take place on July 17 at the Roseland Ballroom in Portland, Oregon and will air exclusively on FloCombat.com.
The UFC veteran has dabbled in a number of projects since the end of his fighting career in 2013. He hosts a podcast, does color commentary for WSOF on NBC Sports and even competed in submission grappling superfights himself. He grappled twice in Metamoris, losing once to Andre Galvao while reaching a draw with one-time MMA opponent Renato Sobral. He more recently met another one-time UFC opponent Michael Bisping in UR Fight in March of this year.
In transforming from competitor to promoter of a grappling event, Sonnen tells MMA Fighting, he wants to give to the sport something he believes it desperately lacks: enough opportunity for the surprisingly large amount of participants.
"When I left MMA, I started getting into grappling. I got to go wrestle at Metamoris. I had a great experience. I caught on pretty quick that the participants for grappling outdo MMA about 15 to 1. I go into the gym, we've got a couple hundred people there. I used to be at MMA gyms, we have six, seven, eight guys in the room. So I realized, 'Geez, we've got all these participants. These guys need somewhere to compete'," he says.
"Then I ended up in that spot. I started saying yes to every grappling opportunity I was given. I never said no. There just wasn't very many out there. That was really the genesis of it: let's just give the guys a place to compete, but we need the right partner. It's like anything else. You've got to have the right partner."
According to the terms of the deal, Sonnen and FloSports have agreed to three events together. They key for their success, Sonnen believes, is for them to be promoted in ways similar to how UFC made fans care about MMA. "We can't just put on the event and hope people come and tune in. They will come and they will tune in, but we want to make it big," he explains. "We want to do right by the athletes. We want to go to their hometowns, follow them for two or three days, build these packages, go to their opponent's do the same thing. Release this to the public, tell the storyline, tell why these matches are happening, why they got into the sport, why they want to win, why they want to participate, why they think they're the greatest submission fighter alive."
As for the rules, Submission Underground isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. With the approval of Eddie Bravo, Sonnen's events will borrow Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) rules, with one twist. Submission Underground matches will go eight minutes of submission only before heading to overtime (Sonnen says he and Bravo both want to turn EBI's rules into grappling's version of the Unified Rules of MMA).
In overtime, the winner of a coin flip can choose to start the period either on his opponent's back or in an arm bar position. If one of the combatants secures a submission, the match is over. If, however, both escape, the match continues to the next overtime period. After three such periods, the competitor whose overall times of escape are the quickest becomes the winner.
"I've done some other submission grappling matches. If somebody didn't finish the other guy, it was a draw. You could always hang your hat on that. You could always walk home and tell your friends, 'Yeah, it was a draw.' In this event, somebody is going to lose. The matches will not be stopped," he argues.
There will also be other familiar trimmings for MMA fans. The event will use a cage instead of a mat, which Sonnen believes is safer for the grapplers. UFC cage announcer Bruce Buffer will provide the introductions.
The card features a mix of today's crop of top MMA fighters, respected veterans and elite grapplers. Sonnen stresses additional matches could be added to the card, but the current lineup is as follows:
Sonnen's thinking as a promoter is an admixture of his own aesthetic, what can reasonably be determined to sell and what provides for a consumer-friendly product. Fighters either have names, rivalries, high-level ability or some combination of all three.
For example, Florian - a name known to UFC fans - is involved, but only because he and Costa are in a semi-grudge match stemming from the two previously meeting at an IBJJF tournament in New York. Florian believes he should've won their first meeting, but claims he was not properly awarded points by the referee for legitimate positions, and therefore, unfairly lost.
Rodriguez, a former UFC champ with a less-than-illustrious run-in with reality TV due to substance abuse issues, has returned to training and teaching in jiu-jitsu, a sport where he was once a decorated competitor. Now sober, Sonnen says the former heavyweight champion has been chomping at the bit to get another shot to compete. For his part, Scherner, a decorated black belt competitor, is also a UFC veteran. Contemporary names like Henderson, Shields, Lawal and more fill out the rest of the card.
As for weight classes, there are none, at least not right now. That's not the ultimate plan, but for this first show, Sonnen says they're running with it as a way of not placing too many controls on the athletes.
"That was the original plan of jiu-jitsu if you remember all the way back in '93 with Royce Gracie," he recalls. "That had this whole premise that technique beats everything, including size. Now, over time, we've learned that size matters and we have weigh-ins."
Sonnen's hopes for the event can generally be characterized as high. He argues the ingredients are there to make this a successful, sustainable venture, but he isn't unaware of the numerous hurdles professional grappling offers to those who stage events. For starters, the sport typically has a niche audience. If MMA's audience is small, professional grappling's is a fraction of that. In addition, he's putting his product behind a paywall that will require a FloCombat subscription. Many a dollar has been burned in similar efforts by other well-intentioned, even capable promoters. "Making money in grappling is a tough thing to do," he confesses. "No one's done it yet."
In the middle of an Oregon summer, however, he's going to try, anyway. He figures if he could market himself in MMA from once-forgotten roster member to championship contender, that talent could be spread elsewhere, especially in a sport like grappling that's teeming with competitors. This time, however, the most recognizable beneficiary of whatever push he can muster will be athletes other than himself.