Let me take you back. The venue was the Oracle Arena, the date was Aug. 7, 2010, and the event was UFC 117. After months of trash talking an invincible champion, to the point that MMA media had serious arguments over whether or not he was playing a character or just plain delusional, Chael Sonnen was about to fight Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title.
Watching Chael walk to the octagon, it was hard not to remember the months leading up to the fight. It was hard not to study his face, trying to catch some hint, some read, that might tell us if he really believed the crazy things he had been saying. Did he really believe, for instance, that he was going to beat Silva into retirement? If he did, I assure you, he was the only one. The UFC has never seen a champion as dominant as Silva, so the idea that a man only a year or so removed from being a fringe contender would beat him seemed, bluntly, insane.
While Bruce Buffer announced his name, and to the tune of one of the most mixed crowd reactions I've ever heard, we all got a good look at Sonnen's face. Did he look delusional? Not really, but who can tell what delusional looks like? Did he look like a liar? Can't say. But he looked focused. Then again, so do most of Silva's opponents, right before Silva obliterates them.
When the fight began, Chael seemed game enough. He looked anything but scared. He pushed the pace on Silva, which was obviously going to get him demolished in the same fashion as Silva's previous opponents. Wasn't it? At any moment, Silva was going to unleash some unGodly attack and see Sonnen to his terrible fate, and Sonnen's constant pressure was going to make it all the more devastating. Any moment now...
And then forty-seven seconds into the fight Chael landed a straight left hand; Silva wobbled, stumbled, and in that moment the collective MMA world held its breath.
But wait. Lets go way back.
Few people remember that Chael Sonnen's first stint in the UFC was a failed one. He made his UFC debut all the way back at UFC 55, where Renato Sobral submitted him with a triangle choke. After defeating Trevor Prangley in his second fight, he lost via armbar to Jeremy Horn in his third, and was out of the UFC.
Submission losses would be a common theme in Sonnen's fights. On a recent episode of Joe Rogan's podcast, Sonnen claimed to have never lost a round of MMA fighting until his last bout against Michael Bisping (This flies in the face of the fact that he has one majority decision loss on his record, but it was in Pride FC, which scored fights differently, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt). At first, it sounds like Chael being Chael, until you think about his fight style and the way he tends to lose fights. Sonnen is a dominating wrestler with a relentless work ethic inside his opponent's guard, with a long-known weakness for being submitted in that same position. It is entirely plausible, and even likely, that Chael is telling the truth.
But whether he was winning rounds or not, he was losing fights. For years, Chael seemed like a fringe contender. Even during his best WEC days, he was thought to be a guy who might make some waves in the UFC, but few, if any, thought he could realistically be a serious contender, let alone champion.
Sonnen told Joe Rogan how his career began to change when he looked up his own record online and saw how often he was losing by submission.
"I'm staring at these numbers like a CEO would his spreadsheet," Sonnen said on the podcast. "And I'm saying, there's something going on here, and it's not physical. There's something going on that I can dominate eight minutes of a fight, seven minutes of a fight, nine minutes of a fight, and find a way out. Time after time after time, in the same round, with the same move. And so I went and got help. I went and got professional help."
Sonnen began to see a sports psychologist.
"I hate talking about this because this was a real secret. This was a real turning point when I went in, worked on sports psychology, got hypnotized. I was never the same." Sionnen told Rogan.
He went on to claim he had been finding a way to lose as opposed to finding a way to win.
Leading up to his title shot against Silva, Sonnen won three straight fights. It had not been uncommon for Sonnen to win multiple fights in a row previously, but this time, he was beating some of the top middleweights in the world, and doing it in impressive fashion. He secured his title shot by beating Nate Marquardt in an eye-opening performance.
None of this is unusual. It is the norm for a fighter to come up against the champion on a winning streak. So why were we, the UFC audience, supposed to buy that Sonnen would fare any better than Silva's previous seven challengers? Not long before, the UFC had been trying to convince us that Dan Hardy was a serious threat to Georges St-Pierre's welterweight title. Few believed it, and those that were fooled weren't about to be fooled again. Sonnen looked like the latest beneficiary of the ZUFFA marketing machine. It was unlikely the PPV would be a success. That's when Chael Sonnen took matters into his own hands.
I don't know if Sonnen's sports psychologist turned him into a champion-in-waiting, but I can tell you this, it sure did make him interesting. Sonnen had been known to trash talk his opponents in the past, so it wasn't exactly unexpected he would do the same to Silva, but we had no idea the lengths he was going to take it to.
In the months leading up to the fight, we saw Chael Sonnen turn into a cartoon version of himself. He compared getting a brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt from the Nogueira brothers, which Anderson has, to getting a free toy with a Happy Meal. He made multiple claims that he would retire Silva. He insulted Brazil at every opportunity. Everything Silva was about, Sonnen stood against.
And it got even more outlandish when Sonnen's attention was drawn away from MMA. Perhaps the most famous of his statements was made on Pro MMA Radio. "Take Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong did a number of things, and he gave himself cancer. Lance Armstrong cheated, he gave himself drugs, and he gave himself cancer." Sonnen said.
When confronted about the comments, on Jim Rome's show, Sonnen denied ever making them. So Rome played him the audio. After listening to himself make the comments he'd just denied making, Sonnen said, 'Jim, that doesn't sound anything like me ... Sounds like a guy with a hispanic accent to me.'
At about this time, opinions on Sonnen varied. Many thought Sonnen was playing a character and it was good for the sport, others thought he wasn't playing a character and was crazy. And chief among the ridiculous claims Sonnen made was that he would become the middleweight champion of the world at UFC 117. About the only thing everyone could agree on was, regardless of what he was saying, Sonnen had no chance against Anderson Silva.
So imagine our surprise when forty-seven seconds into the first round, Sonnen staggered the champion. Imagine how our surprise deepened when Sonnen's follow up punches landed and Silva covered up, looking dazed. Soon, Sonnen took Silva to the mat and held him there. The round ended with Silva on his back, arguably having absorbed more punishment in that single five minute span than he had in his entire UFC career to that point.
It had the curious effect of making us feel like we'd been pulled inside of Sonnen's delusion, like this thing we had just witnessed was so impossible that we all become part of Sonnen's world rather than him becoming part of ours. It felt surreal. And it didn't stop.
Sonnen dominated Silva for twenty-three minutes and ten seconds. That window of time was probably your best bet to make me believe in Santa Claus. Sonnen took Silva down repeatedly, where he busily landed punches and elbows. When the fight was standing, Silva's favorite violent playground, Sonnen got the better of the exchanges. The world became a place where absurdities could no longer be logically dismissed.
Of course, there's a big difference between 23 minutes and ten seconds, and 25 minutes. Whether or not Sonnen was finding a way to lose again when he bumbled into Silva's Hail Mary triangle choke is hard to say. I believe he simply lost the ability to keep Silva from finding a way to win. Great fighters find a way.
When it was over, reading Sonnen's face was a lot easier than when he'd been walking to the octagon. He looked devastated.
"I had no idea what was happening in that fight," Sonnen told Rogan. "When the fight was over, I was devastated." He went on to say that he believed, after the fight, that he and Silva had put on a horrible show for the crowd, and that his UFC Fight of the Night check had been given to him out of pity.
What had actually happened was the birth of one of MMA's biggest stars. The fight is one of the most memorable of all time, largely because of its context. Sonnen managed to achieve, by losing, more than he had ever achieved by winning.
Sonnen has embraced his new fame, just as he continues to embrace his role as MMA's most eccentric villain. Since the Silva fight, Sonnen has not only served a suspension for failing to attain an exemption to use Testosterone Replacement Therapy, but also been arrested and convicted of money laundering in connection with mortgage fraud (on which, Sonnen said, multiple times, 'I actually held public office, and I left the only way anyone should -- in handcuffs.').
On the Silva fight, Sonnen is currently pulling up shades of his Lance Armstrong bit, claiming he didn't actually lose. Among the witty twists he puts on the fight, his favorite seems to be, "In what parallel universe can you punch a man three hundred times, he wraps his l
egs around your head for eight seconds and they declare him the winner?"
Whether or not Sonnen will go down in history as a great fighter largely depends on how his rematch with Silva goes this Saturday. But he might well wind up being remembered as the most interesting. Whether losing, or winning, or being interviewed, or being suspended, or being arrested, Sonnen's defining quality is that he is interesting. Even those that find his antics uninteresting tend to find them so uninteresting that it angers them that the rest of us are so interested, which makes them want to see him lose, which makes them emotionally invest in his fights, which makes them interested in the outcome.
In the time between Sonnen's two fights with Silva, we have pretty much figured out what of Chael's persona is schtick, and how much is real. And thinking of that, I am reminded of the look I saw on Sonnen's face in the moments before the first fight. He looked focused. Does Chael Sonnen believe half of what he says about Brazil, or that he didn't actually lose at UFC 117, or that he is the real middleweight champion of the world? Probably not. But does he believe, right down to his core, that he can defeat the invincible Anderson Silva? Absolutely.