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In Defeat and Amid Controversy, Chael Sonnen Shows Championship Character

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In the office of his Oregon home, Chael Sonnen has a framed WEC title belt, which you may recall, he never actually won. In 2008, Sonnen was supposed to fight Paulo Filho for the middleweight championship, but Filho missed weight, robbing the bout of its title fight designation. Sonnen went on to win, and later, in a magnanimous gesture, Filho mailed the belt to Sonnen.

It was one of two heartbreaks in which Sonnen would come painfully close to winning a major championship, the other coming in 2010, when he famously dominated the indomitable Anderson Silva for four-and-a-half rounds before succumbing to a submission. After losing to Silva at last weekend's UFC 148, he may never get another crack at the big prize.

Afterward, Sonnen appeared gutted. After anticipating the rematch for nearly two years, the fight lasted all of seven minutes. One moment he was doing everything he wanted, the next he was covering up as Silva unloaded his pent-up aggression.

In truth, beating Sonnen for a second time doesn't do much for Silva's legacy. Silva had already beaten Sonnen on the day that Sonnen had produced the performance of his life, so he had more to lose than to gain this time around. But it did something for Sonnen. In defeat -- even in controversy -- he showed a championship character and grace that perhaps we didn't know he could muster.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Sonnen is some saint. Obviously, he's had his issues following the rules in his athletic career and in life. But after spending the last 22 months talking trash, bending the facts and sometimes creating his own alternate reality, he was as humble and respectful in defeat as anyone we've ever seen. Even when his supporters objected the loss, saying Silva had tried to grease himself, illegally grabbed Sonnen's trunks, and threw a borderline illegal kick, Sonnen would not take the easy way out. He wouldn't offer any excuse.

"You've got to know how to lose," he said Tuesday night on FUEL TV. "It's real easy to win, but you've got to know how to lose. Sometimes you've got to man up, swallow it, and walk out."

When his coach Scott McQuarry reportedly considered an appeal based on the knee strike in the fight's final moments, Sonnen overruled him, a decision that paralleled his comments shortly after the fight, when he said that he would defer to the referee's judgment, and anyway, he didn't care about the legality of the knee since he could see it coming,

The decision not to appeal the fight is the right one, and it's one that Sonnen should be commended for, along with the rest of his actions during fight week. In the last days leading up to the fight, it was the champion saying outrageous things, acting out at the weigh-ins, and stretching the rules up to and sometimes beyond their limit.

Sonnen though, was largely the picture of professionalism, eloquent with his words and unwavering in his acceptance of the outcome even in the face of some debate. At a time when others would be crying foul, the guy with the biggest mouth in the sport shook the champion's hand and never looked back.

"It's pass or fail," he said after the fight. "You either get it done or you don't. I was handed a lot of compliments after the first fight. I'm going, 'Geez guys, that's nice but did you see who won?' I didn't win the fight. It's pass or fail. That's it. He's just a regular guy. He's another guy. We weigh the same thing. And he finds a way to win, and I admire it."

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." In perhaps his worst professional moment, Sonnen was the biggest man in the room, and that's something that shouldn't be forgotten.

It was interesting that during the press conference, he seemed to indicate that he would at least consider retirement. At 35 years old, he is still performing well, but as UFC president Dana White indicated, he's now got to move to the back of the middleweight pack, and Sonnen has said that he could not participate in MMA if his goal was not to be the champion.

He's likely to take some time to consider his options, but a backup career awaits as an analyst, as he's already doing a strong job in the role for FUEL.

If things had just gone a little better for him on any one of three nights, he might have lived his dream of becoming a champion. As it is, he'll have to settle for that framed WEC title belt as well as the memories of five-and-a-half dominant rounds against the best fighter the UFC has ever seen.

After years of going virtually unnoticed, Sonnen needed his mouth to get himself into the spotlight, and from there on, he always seemed to know what to do with it. Most especially, he knew when it was time to shut it. Sonnen may not have earned gold, but in the toughest days of his career, he illustrated championship character.