What Chael Sonnen has accomplished in his professional mixed martial arts career is nothing short of remarkable. Sonnen's skill set is stifling with a clever retrofitting of his wrestling base, but lacking most finishing components. Still, he's compiled wins over some of MMA's best fighters in two weight classes. Sonnen was something of a journeyman until a late resurgence occurred due to both an unexpected boost in his capabilities and ability to self-promote. Perhaps most impressively, he achieved this stunning reversal of fortune in his thirties. For all of Sonnen's shortcomings, part of his career story is never say die, never quitting when given ample opportunity to do so.
Yet, as a consequence of either self-doubt or absent-minded if reflexive decisions, Sonnen has come up short in contests when they've mattered most and when he arguably should never have lost. That pattern isn't entirely consistent, but there appears to be a semi-consistent theme in the way he loses. That is: he often suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself in defeat after dominating contests early against opponents who can't handle the best his skills have to offer.
Let's look at the record.
1. UFC 148 vs. Anderson Silva - while there is some criticism of Sonnen's lack of punishment in the first round of the fight, I find those criticisms hollow. Silva landed not a single punch in the first round while Sonnen poured on 76 of 86 strikes, secured one takedown (and the only one needed) while passing to mount. It was complete and total domination and he seemed to poised to repeat his UFC 117 efforts, but without the submission at the end.
In the second round, however, Silva stuffed three of Sonnen's takedown attempts. While we'll never know for sure, this appeared to rattle Sonnen, prompting him to throw a low-percentage spinning backfist that badly missed and planted him on the mat. Sonnen was then stopped with strikes at 1:55 in the second.
2. UFC 117 vs. Anderson Silva - the story on this one is all too familiar. Sonnen controlled the complexion of the fight from pillar to post with takedowns and landed 323 of 430 strikes over four-plus rounds. Despite total domination of Silva in virtually every dimension of the fight, he was submitted at 3:10 of the fifth via triangle.
3. WEC 31 vs. Paulo Filho - the first round of this fight was such a beating, some observers nearly scored it 10-8 for Sonnen. Sonnen landed 42 strikes out of 80 throw in the first frame, landed two takedowns and was credited with both a submission attempt and two guard passes.
In the second round, Sonnen was submitted via armbar at 4:55, but not before he was turning in another strong round. Sonnen scored on his only takedown effort and landed 46 of 67 attempted strikes.
4. UFC 60 vs. Jeremy Horn - Sonnen thrashed Horn early with two takedown attempts and 28 of 45 strikes thrown. Horn landed a meager 4 of 5 punches attempted, but is credited with one submission attempt. Sonnen was then submitted in just 1:17 in the second round by a Horn armbar from the guard.
5. UFC 55 vs. Renato Sobral - this fight is somewhat different than his other losses in that he arguably lost the first round. However, Sonnen still turned in an offensive striking effort commensurate with other strong performances and far over what Sobral offered him: Sonnen scored on 50 of 58 strikes thrown to Sobral's 13 of 18 (Sobral, however, did earn two takedowns). Sonnen was then submitted at 1:20 via triangle in the second round.
There are fairly notable exceptions to the tenor of these defeats. Sonnen went the distance in 2004 against Keiichi Yamamiya, and some have suggested he should've won that contest. He experienced a physical issue from the outset that forced his corner to throw in the towel against Terry Martin. He's also lost light heavyweight fights early in his career to Forrest Griffin, Trevor Prangley and Horn in fights where he hadn't really established dominance before losing. It's also of note that Horn, Filho, Sobral and Silva all submitted Sonnen from guard, meaning the particular strengths of those opponents keyed in on particular weaknesses of Sonnen.
What should be noted, though, is examining how Sonnen loses to see if there's a pattern isn't the full story. Examining how he wins is just as important to the aforementioned story.
Outside of totally over matched opposition in BodogFIGHT from from 2006 to 2007, Sonnen has never been much of a finisher in any portion of his career that mattered. In fact, out of 8 fights under the Zuffa banner dating back to his rematch with Prangley at UFC Fight Night 4 in 2006, Sonnen has only finished one opponent: Brian Stann at UFC 136 in October of 2011. All of Sonnen's other 7 Zuffa-affiliated wins are unanimous decisions.
What does all this mean? Generally speaking and in the modern era of his career, Sonnen doesn't really come from behind to win. Either he starts strong and finishes the same way, or he doesn't. He's never had to (or been able to, depending your perspective) rally after being down two rounds heading into the third. It's true he's dropped a round or two here or there, but those are few and far between. That isn't to say he hasn't had tough fights. He most certainly has and he's the only fighter in the UFC other than Rich Franklin to earn a rematch with Anderson Silva.
Sonnen is a fighter with a very finite if very effective skill set. The notable problem with it is disruption - particularly although not exclusively by guard players - can be achieved quickly and without application of violence. Sonnen has historically succeeded as a takedown, top control fighter, but that's also precisely where he's had the most trouble. One need not 'soften up' Sonnen to bring down his metaphorical guard. A loss can materialize almost out of nowhere even when he is hurting and controlling opposition with extreme prejudice. That kind of precariousness can speak to his issues wrestling with self-doubt: where he's supposed to be strong and often is, he is also most vulnerable.
Let me be clear: I've not come to bury Sonnen. His career accomplishments are extraordinary and deserving of high praise. But the story of his loses are as relevant as the story of his wins. Most fighters don't often lose in a particular way over time and when they do it's a consequence of a biological issue (skin that cuts easily, weak chin, etc.). Mental fortitude has played a role in Sonnen's athletic achievement, but even Sonnen has admitted mental lapses have played a determinative role in his defeats. They've also done so in a way that is neither rare nor coincidental.
Sonnen's story is strange. His quiet entry into the sport ultimately gave way to a roaring surge. There are few commonalities that exist in the various chapters of his career. How he won and lost are two of them. Unlike a weak chin or literal thin skin, Sonnen's highest highs and lowest lows speak to his identity as a person. When Sonnen competes, we learn something about him. He may try to camouflage it all with verbal bluster, but there he is for all his good and bad.
That isn't to say we know who Sonnen is, but we do know something. The only way to learn more is if he keeps competing. Here's to hoping he gets back on the horse. I'd like to see how this incredible story ends.