Following his loss to Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida at Bellator 222 on Friday, Chael Sonnen retired. Sure it’s for the second time, and MMA retirements never seem to stick, but if that’s it for Chael P. Sonnen, it’s been a fun ride.
Chael Sonnen (31–17–1) has long been one of MMA’s most entertaining figures. What his style lacked in excitement, he made up for with shameless self-promotion. Early on, you wondered if the trash talk was legit. He’d even tell you it was. But as Sonnen continued to follow the example of wrestling “heels” (read: bad guys), the fighter who stylized himself “The Bad Guy” became a guilty pleasure to many MMA fans.
You knew he was amping up his personality. And at moments, a different Chael, more genuine, shone through (particularly while coaching on The Ultimate Fighter opposite Jon Jones).
He also had some legitimate dazzling moments in the cage. For the better part of five rounds, up until he was caught in a late submission, he dominated Anderson Silva at UFC 117 in 2010. While a drug test failure took the shine off the performance, he battled his way back to a rematch at UFC 148 two years later. By then, Sonnen’s shtick was in full swing, and that included strutting around with a fake UFC belt.
The rematch didn’t go well for Chael, as he dominated for a round, then threw the most poorly thought-out spinning back fist in MMA history, and wound up finished by ‘The Spider.’ However, he’d wind up in a title fight with Jon Jones (talking himself into that and The Ultimate Fighter gig).
The wheels came off, however, following multiple positive drug tests in 2014. Sonnen retired after the first announcement. Lost analyst gigs with the UFC and FOX Sports. He was banned from the sport for two years.
He would eventually return, after serving his penance, and admitting that yes, he had cheated. Only, not to the UFC. Once a considerable draw for the company, Sonnen returned to Scott Coker’s Bellator over three years out from his final UFC fight. He went 2-3 with Bellator in the end, finishing out his five fight deal with the loss to Machida Friday at Bellator 222.
He didn’t go into the fight thinking it would be his last. That’s just how it turned out. “No, I didn’t have that planned. 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,” Sonnen said at Friday’s post-fight press conference, where Cageside Press was in attendance.
He expressed no regrets, however. “It was a number one contender’s match, and I thought it was a big opportunity. And it was.”
Now, “it’s somebody else’s turn.”
Asked specifically why, if it wasn’t his plan heading in, that he chose to walk away, Sonnen said that in MMA, “you gotta be tough. You gotta be tough in this sport, and I feel like I used all my toughness up. There was some positions in there that before in my career, I would have walked right through them.”
“I didn’t mind losing to [Machida] in his spots, like some of the stuff on our feet, those jumping knees and what not,” he said. However, “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 could have got up.”
“I used to be tougher. I used to want it, I used to have more grit,” he confessed. “I just felt like maybe I’d fired my last bullet. I didn’t have that same grit, and it’s time to move on.”
As for the knee he ate in round one against ‘The Dragon,’ “that was a hard knee.” He’d eat another in the second. “It’s funny what you tell yourself in those situations, but I thought there was a major opportunity going into the second round. I thought that he was fading, that he really went for everything, for the finish in the first round.”
“I thought ‘I can come out, I can win these next two rounds.’ Then I took another one of those knees,” Sonnen continued, “and I’m underneath again. It was just a bad spot, it kind of went from bad to worse. He’s very hard to deal with on his feet. It was just one of those matches, it was very tough.”
“The referee said to me when the fight was over, he said ‘Chael I was trying to help.’ I said ‘what took you so long?'” Sonnen quipped. “He said ‘are you going to retire?’ I said ‘I retired three minutes ago! I don’t even know why we went to the second round here!’ I think when you feel like that, even if it’s for a moment, you’ve got to go.”
Sonnen once said if he walked away from the sport, he wasn’t retiring, he was quitting. Asked to reflect on that, he owned up to those words. “I’m quitting. I’m quitting the sport. I tried to win the world championship, I worked really hard for a really long time, and it didn’t come for me.”
Once upon a time, it might have. Aside from the first Silva fight, his bout with Jon Jones saw Jones break his toe, badly, in the opening round. It’s likely the fight would have been stopped — but Jones finished Chael before the buzzer. Back in the WEC in 2008, a title fight with Paulo Filho was changed to a non-title fight when Filho missed weight. These days, Sonnen would likely still be eligible to win the belt. However, that wasn’t the trend at the time. Sonnen won, but had little to show for it.
Still, “I have no regrets,” Sonnen said of the end to his career. “Even tonight, if I knew what was going to happen, I’d still walk out there and do it. I didn’t have any regrets, it was one of those days, kind of like middle school, you had good days and bad, but I only remember the good. I only remember the good days.”
Loss or not, Sonnen also got to go out on a high note, career wise, rather than on the heels of a doping suspension. “I had a great experience here. Scott Coker gave me an opportunity when I really needed an opportunity. I had all sorts of deals with Scott Coker, and some of them we never even wrote down. And he honored his word to the end, and I owed him one more fight, and that was tonight.”
We could say something here along the lines of, “the sport won’t be the same without him.” But let’s be honest, Chael Sonnen isn’t going anywhere. He’s a podcast host, analyst, even an author. Who knows, maybe he’ll turn up in pro wrestling. But you can expect him to remain in his EPSN gig, and at the Bellator desk. And whatever you think of his career, and whether he’s really retiring as the “undefeated, undisputed” champ, that’s not a bad thing.