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Outside the Octagon: There Will Only Be One Chael Sonnen

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.  

Chael Sonnen had me from the first time we spoke back in May of 2006. The topic? The fighting life and the idea that being a pro mixed martial artist was a full-time job.

“It’s not too hard,” said the Oregon native, who at the time was juggling his MMA career with work as a Realtor and political ambitions in his home state. “Fighting takes up about as much time as anyone else’s hobby.  Guys that play golf probably spend more time a day playing golf than I do on fighting.  

"As far as athletically, it takes about 45 minutes to work out in the morning and about an hour and 30 minutes in the afternoon, and that’s it," Sonnen continued. "Then you’ve got drive time, but other than that, you’re inside less than three hours a day, so you can fit it in as a hobby.  I don’t have time for any other hobbies, but I certainly have time for plenty of other things.”

At the time, I referred to him as MMA’s last honest man, a description he disputed when we spoke for a UFC magazine feature in 2010.

“I happen to think I’m the first honest man,” he corrected. “You listen to some of these guys and it’s like hitting ‘play’ on a tape recorder. Whether these guys just aren't free thinkers or just scared, I truthfully don’t know, but it is pretty annoying. Every now and then you get a guy that appears that he’s read a book or watched a news program and has an autonomous thought, and those are the kind of guys that I would visit with, but it’s pretty hard to find them in a UFC locker room.”

That’s the type of gold that came from the mouth of Sonnen, and while the world would eventually catch on, those days were far away in 2006. He would go on to lose that May fight to Jeremy Horn at UFC 60 in Los Angeles, the third time the veteran Miletich Fighting Systems standout would beat him, and it marked the end of Sonnen’s first stint in the Octagon, an unimpressive 1-2 run.

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Most forgot about him as he went about his fight career, fighting in the now-defunct Bodog promotion, only to remember him when he was brought to the Zuffa-owned WEC in 2007. Again, Sonnen would spit out truths and one-liners with the timing of a Richard Pryor or George Carlin, making him the one fighter I made sure I kept all to myself when interview assignments were being made.

Now I don’t want to say I discovered the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn,” but I probably wrote more pre-Anderson Silva words on Sonnen than anyone, and most of them were his. 

But enough about me.

Sonnen went on to two memorable (some would say bizarre) fights with Paulo Filho in the WEC, and then he returned to the UFC in 2009, where he promptly lost to Demian Maia. At this point, Sonnen was unforgettable in interviews, but less than that on fight night, relegated to journeyman status.

He was good, but not good enough.

Yet slowly, but surely, he began to make headway in the UFC. First it was Dan Miller, then Yushin Okami, and finally Nate Marquardt. Just like that, Sonnen had a three-fight winning streak, an audience, and the wit and wisdom to know what to do with both.

He called out then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva. A lot. He dropped dimes on his peers and almost went into character when the cameras were on him.

But behind the scenes, he was still just Chael. He was the guy who told it like it was, who was always accessible, and who listened as much as he talked, if not more. But now he had an audience, and he was not about to let it go.

His win streak and his talking got him a title shot against Silva in August of 2010, and it was a pretty uneventful time in the middle of nowhere in Oakland. At least until fight night and Sonnen shocked the world with a performance for the ages. For more than four rounds, he beat the unbeatable Silva, stunning fans and press row, not just with the fact that he was winning, but that he was dominating. Of course we all know how this one ended, with Silva’s miraculous comeback win at 3:10 of the fifth round.

> Watch Chael talk about overcoming obstacles

It was a crushing defeat for Sonnen, whose one and only goal was winning a world championship. Yet the fight was a career-maker for him. For all the talking he did, he backed it up when it counted, and people respected that. And from there, the Sonnen train kept a rollin’ at breakneck speed.  

Sure, there was the suspension by the California State Athletic Commission following the Silva fight for having elevated levels of testosterone (a result explained by his being diagnosed with hypogonadism, a condition which requires synthetic testosterone injections), and a plea bargain in a mortgage fraud case, but to his fans (and to the majority of the media) he still could do no wrong, mainly because when it was time to fight, he fought. Even when it wasn't time to fight, he would be the first on the phone to UFC President Dana White offering his services to replace an injured opponent, most famously when he offered to battle Jon Jones on the eventually-canceled UFC 151 event.

He didn’t get that fight, but eventually Jones and Sonnen would meet, with Jones winning via first round TKO. Sonnen also lost the Silva rematch in 2012 and a UFC 167 bout to Rashad Evans. But in between, victories over Brian Stann, Michael Bisping, and “Shogun” Rua proved that he wasn’t just a talker, but a fighter, and that for a guy who saw MMA as a hobby, he was damn good at it. 

Chael Sonnen retired last week at the age of 37, the day after it was revealed that he failed a random drug test for substances on the WADA and NSAC banned list. Taking those drugs to help wean him off TRT while also aiding in the quest for him and his wife to conceive a child, Sonnen was in the headlines again for a reason he never wanted to be in them for. But when faced with the choice of living his life the way he wanted to or postponing family life in order to compete under commission guidelines, he chose his family’s future. 

Of course there will be critics who will continue to sling arrows at Sonnen for the circumstances surrounding his retirement, and even question how long it will last. I’m not going that route.

Chael Sonnen was always one of the game’s good guys to me, and I won’t be the only one to say that. At the same time, he had flaws like the rest of us and he’ll be the first to admit that he’s made some bad choices over the years. But perfection isn’t in the cards for any of us, so when you see someone bare himself to the world in an eight-sided cage wearing nothing but gloves and short pants, you can’t help but admire it. To do that outside the Octagon as well is even more telling. And that was the person Chael P. Sonnen was.

One day, someone will ask me what it was like to be there for the rise of this unique figure in mixed martial arts history, and if I was going to narrow it down to one quote, it would have to be this one: “I will take on whoever, and a lot of guys say that because it’s got a nice ring to it, and then behind the scenes, when Joe Silva calls, all of a sudden their arm hurts, their knee hurts, or their shoulder’s sore. They need to get their tonsils removed or they need to play in a movie when they really don’t know how to act,” he said. “Guys come up with a lot of reasons not to get in there, and I have a lot of reasons too. I’ve never felt good when it comes to fight. Not one time have I walked in the ring feeling good. But when that music comes on, I will make that walk every single time, regardless of the opponent. I never think about who’s across from me.”

He might not have been the greatest, but there will never be another one like him.