Chael Sonnen’s mouth has justifiably gotten lots of attention for the past six or seven years. His brazen and often offensive talk helped him become a draw and make millions of dollars, and it has kept Sonnen in the headlines even as he’s left his athletic prime.
Sonnen’s mouth has given, but it has also taken away, like when he was fired from his FOX broadcast job after using the network’s platform to spread defensive lies about his latest PED bust. Now, despite time away from the cage due to a long suspension as well as a bad loss in his previous outing, Sonnen’s gift of gab has kept him relevant and is a big reason why he’s headlining against Tito Ortiz on Saturday night in Bellator.
Sonnen’s trash talking has been so impactful, in fact, that it has overshadowed the most interesting story of his long career – his incredible turnaround years based on serious skill improvement. It was Sonnen’s evolution and improvement as a fighter that gave his mouth a chance to talk its way to stardom.
Sonnen’s words sold pay per views, but his fighting improvement earned him the big fights. His turnaround seems lost these days to most fans and even professional observers, so let’s refresh.
From 2003 to 2006, Chael lost eight fights by way of stoppage. Then, a much improved version of Sonnen went on a roll, winning five straight fights, then seven out of eight, and eventually, 10 of his next 12 to become the undisputed, number one middleweight world title contender.
Sonnen was once most known for frequently losing by verbal submission as he screamed out in pain from inside submission holds from the likes of Jeremy Horn and Renato “Babalu” Sobral. The wrestler couldn’t quite put things together to make it to the top of the ranks for the first six years of his career.
Then came Sonnen’s barrage of wins over elite opponents. Back when Paulo Filho was in pound for pound consideration, and fans were demanding he take on Anderson Silva to unify the WEC and UFC belts, Sonnen managed to dominate him and avenge an earlier submission defeat. Then he beat Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami.
Suddenly, Sonnen was capably defending submissions from slick experts and was handily winning fights that few picked him to win.
Sonnen would go on to beat the heck out of Anderson Silva for four-and-a-half rounds, and get just two minutes shy of becoming the world champion at 185lbs. Chael didn’t just wrestle Silva in that fight, though.
Sonnen also repeatedly dropped the striking master with punches.
Silva, the greatest middleweight of all time, ended up coming from behind and topping Sonnen, then beat him again in their rematch. Sonnen could not ever fully reach the mountain’s top, but his incredible turnaround, based on the strength of improved skills, got him closer than anyone outside of his camp could have ever predicted.
His improvement didn’t stop with his Silva losses, either. After his first fight with the Brazilian, Sonnen beat now champion Michael Bisping, and later moved up a weight class to defeat former Pride Grand Prix and UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua…from off his back, with a guillotine choke.
Sonnen never became "the man," but he unquestionably became a vastly improved fighter, able to punch on the feet, and win from off his back, in addition to dominating with his wrestling. He also talked a big game, and that made him famous and rich.
No one can ever say Sonnen was rushed into the big fight opportunities he was given, however. He earned them all with victories, unlikely wins predicated on serious skill improvement.
Sonnen is past his prime now, yet he still fights on. It goes without saying that his ability to cut promos and speak rapidly during interviews is mostly what has afforded him another big fight at this stage of his career.
His mouth won’t save him in the cage against Tito Ortiz, but hopefully, for his own sake, Sonnen has been able to once again evolve, even just a little bit. Even if that is the case, however, we’re betting he’ll do his best to eclipse his fighting accomplishments with more gimmicky talk.
Chael Sonnen often gives himself more credit than he deserves when he spouts off. Ironically, that may be exactly why the rest of the world doesn’t give his evolved fighting skills as much credit as they deserve.