The MMA world saw one of its most exuberant and enduring personalities walk away on Friday night.
Moments after a second-round TKO loss to Lyoto Machida in the co-main event of Bellator 222 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Chael Sonnen announced that he would be retiring from competition. It was the 49th bout of Sonnen’s career.
Sonnen, 42, made no excuses for his loss, nor did he appear to want to romanticize the end of his journey. By his own account, he simply could not fight the way he used to and that was reason enough to call it a day.
“You’ve got to be tough in this sport. And I feel like I used all my toughness up,” Sonnen said at the evening’s post-fight press conference. “There were some positions in there that before in my career I would have walked right through them. I didn’t mind losing to him in his spots, like some of the stuff on our feet, those jumping knees and whatnot, but I did mind losing to him in my spots. He was on top of me, I didn’t think he’d be on top of me, I thought I could have scrambled, I got up.
“I used to be tougher. I used to want it more. I used to have more grit. And I just felt like maybe I fired my last bullet, I didn’t have that same grit and it’s time to move on.”
This wasn’t the first sign that Sonnen was in decline, but win or lose, he’d turned his five-fight Bellator stint into an MMA fantasy camp of sorts, in which he got to strike off of his list every name that he’d ever dreamed of competing against. Before Machida, he headlined four consecutive Bellator shows against the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, and Tito Ortiz. And all of that was after a UFC run that saw him fight Anderson Silva twice, Jon Jones, Michael Bisping, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rashad Evans, and Demian Maia.
For many martial artists, competing against even one of those names would be a career highlight. With his ability to sell a fight, Sonnen was able to line them all up.
Machida was just the next marquee name in Sonnen’s way and an opponent that Sonnen approached with the intention of beating him and possibly setting up a title shot against light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader. Instead, the result convinced him to retire.
“No, I didn’t have that planned,” Sonnen said. “I thought I was going to win this fight, I was going to call out Ryan Bader. Everything was going my way until it wasn’t. But I don’t regret it. It was a No. 1 contender’s match, I thought it was a big opportunity, and it was. And it’s somebody else’s turn.”
The beginning of the end for Sonnen came in the second round when Machida clipped him with a flying knee. Machida had actually landed that technique in round one as well and Sonnen joked that he shouldn’t have even been around to take another.
“The referee said to me when the fight was over, ‘Chael, I was trying to help.’
“I said, ‘What took you so long?’
“He said, ‘Are you going to retire?’
“I said, ‘Retire? I retired three minutes ago. I don’t even know why we went to the second round here!’
“So I think when you feel like that, even if it’s for a moment, you’ve got to go.”
Sonnen had high praise for Bellator president Scott Coker, explaining that there were times when the two worked together solely on a verbal agreement and that Coker always honored his word. He said the Machida fight was the last one that he owed Coker.
Now he plans to find ways to keep busy (“I hate days off,” Sonnen said) and whether that means spending more time as a chauffeur for his children or continuing his various broadcasting duties, it’s unlikely that MMA fans have seen the last of “The Bad Guy.”
Aside from his gritty performances, it’s Sonnen’s verbosity that made him one of the sport’s biggest stars and he both acknowledged and lamented his part in it moving away from the pure competition aspect that was embodied by his old Team Quest training partners Randy Couture and Dan Henderson.
“I think that maybe I helped us get over to the entertainment era that we’re in right now for better or worse, but I think I had a hand in that,” Sonnen said. “I don’t know about a mark necessarily. I think maybe if I was to be remembered, I was very proud of the way my career started and the guys that I had to look up to. They were true tough guys, they were legitimate tough guys, but I had my sixth fight before I even saw a scale. We didn’t worry about who you were fighting, you didn’t need a bunch of money or attention or anything else. You just wanted to compete.
“I really like the competitors that we have in the sport, but I think they’re a little few and far between. If there was something that I could pass to the locker rooms it would be to go back to that competitive era. Guys that want to do it and they enjoy the sport and they just want to see who’s the best.”
But Sonnen didn’t apologize for any of his antics. He never did in the prime of his career, even after several high-profile drug test failures, so why would he start now?
The only regret he seemed to have was failing to capture a major MMA title, despite having his opportunities in the UFC and almost putting himself into position to compete for one in Bellator. He’d once promised his father that he would keep fighting until he won a world championship, a goal that eluded him by the end of his 22-year career.
Sonnen was asked what he would say to his father if he were here and he became emotional before offering a succinct answer.
“I’d just tell him I tried.”