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With his second retirement from MMA, Chael Sonnen leaves behind a legacy of success despite failure

Chael Sonnen
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Friday night, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the illustrious career of Chael Sonnen came to an end, when Lyoto Machida finished him with a flying knee and punches at Bellator 222. Before the fight, Sonnen made it clear he would consider himself a failure if he never won a title, but after the loss, Sonnen spoke briefly with Big John McCarthy, cracking wise about losing the first round - a round in which Machida nearly KOed him with a flying knee and then battered him senseless for two minutes - before thanking the fans for the memories and laying his gloves down in the center of the cage, retiring from the sport.

It was a fitting end for a man who has always fallen short on the biggest stage.

Sonnen is perhaps the best example of a good-but-not great fighter, someone who could never get over the hump to hoist gold. Alexander Gustafsson, who retired two weeks ago after a loss to Anthony Smith, is another that comes to mind. But while Gustafsson’s career will be defined by his inability to win the title, Sonnen, who came as close as any man ever to winning the belt only to fail, will not suffer the same indignity. Through sheer force of will, Sonnen took control of the narrative of his career, leaving behind a legacy of success despite the failures.

Take his rivalry with Anderson Silva. By all accounts, it never should have happened in the first place. Silva was the greatest fighter of his generation, the Greatest of All Time. Sonnen was a wrestler with a 23-10 record who had just gotten lateral dropped and submitted by Demian Maia. But Sonnen was not content to let that be. Sonnen started talking trash about “The Spider”. He attacked Anderson personally, he attacked Brazil, he insulted Silva constantly, all in an effort to pick a fight. He talked so much that people started to think he actually could beat Anderson. And then, when he finally got his chance at UFC 117, Sonnen improbably did.

For four and a half rounds, Sonnen put the wood to Anderson Silva. It was shocking. Watching it live, you could only marvel at what was happening. Had Sonnen been sandbagging his entire career for this moment or had he talked so much about beating Silva that he had talked himself into believing it too? And he wasn’t just out-wrestling Silva, he was boxing up the greatest striker in MMA too. But then it all came crashing down. A Hail Mary triangle-armbar attempt from Silva - the greatest submission in MMA history - was locked on, forcing Sonnen to tap out.

A moment like that would’ve broken many fighters, but not Sonnen. “The American Gangster” took his lumps that evening, dusted himself off and then doubled down on the trash talking. He got himself another shot at Silva and when that failed he talked himself into an even bigger fight, a title shot against Jon Jones. And that is the legacy of Chael Sonnen. Even when he stumbled, which was frequently, he always found a way to rebound.

Sonnen’s career is a case study for young fighters in self-promotion. By adopting a pro-wrestling heel style of aggressive trash talk and a well-placed rivalry, Sonnen turned himself into one of the biggest stars in the sport. It’s a blueprint a number of young fighters have attempted to emulate (here’s looking at you Colby Covington), but few have been able to pull it off with the same panache. In part that’s because whatever Sonnen said, you got the feeling that it was all done tongue-in-cheek, that he never really believed any of it, even the parts about being the best in the world.

Chael Sonnen was always one of the most self-aware fighters in the game. It’s why after losses he was always able to be so unflinchingly honest, at least until it came time to pick the schtick back up again. It’s why Sonnen was able to come back after failing a drug test and avoid the usual scrutiny levied against fighters for that discrepancy. He was a character who knew full well what he was and leaned into it. He just also happened to be a damn good fighter.

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