After beating Brian Stann at UFC 136, Chael Sonnen took to the microphone to tell a ringside Anderson Silva – in front of the 16,000 people in attendance – “You absolutely suck!”
Sonnen publicly called him out for a rematch and on certain terms – the loser of the match had to walk away from their place in the sport. Anderson was to leave the division if he lost, but Sonnen promised to quit the sport “forever” should Anderson be the victor.
Fast-forward to today and we have the result, but no answer as to what Sonnen’s next move will be. His second-round TKO loss stoppage to Anderson might be a precursor to retirement, it might not. Sonnen was non-committal at the post-event press conference.
His grappling coach Neil Melanson was more forthright when he appeared on an MMA radio show shortly after the fight. He said that based on his time around Sonnen in the training camp and in general, he thinks the middleweight challenger could be ready to hang the gloves up.
“I don't know what Chael's plans are, but I got a feeling he's done fighting. I don't know. I've just got a feeling he's done. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he was serious when he said, 'If you beat me, I will leave forever,' and there's a very good chance of that,” he said.
"I never met anyone that had a scenario where it's like, 'If I don't win this then I'm done,' it never worked out positive for them because, just in my experience, you have to love the grind and if you love the grind, eventually you'll get what you want because you give up what you need to give up. Apparently Chael had his limit like, 'This is it, I've had enough. If I don't win this then it's all not worth it.' Having lost that, yeah, there's a very good chance he could pursue other things.
“He's a very smart guy, very well spoken. I know, whether he'll admit to it or not, he has a lot of passion to be a broadcaster of sorts. He seems to excel in any type of speaking arrangement. He loves doing interviews. He loves hyping fights and I'm sure he loves training. He's a good fighter. He's a great fighter and he's an awesome athlete but he can't fight forever and maybe he's at a point he'd like to do something else. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong.”
Like Melanson, other people who train with Sonnen or have a longstanding professional relationship with him invariably say that he is genuinely driven to be the best in his division, and that he is a hugely competitive athlete who does not take second place well.
Sonnen’s own rhetoric bears that out – despite being ‘in character’ for many of his public appearances, he always seems serious when the subject turns to competition and titles. And if you’re a member of a site like FloWrestling – the internet’s leading wrestling resource – then you’ll see interviews with Sonnen on there which are completely free from his usual shtick and which give genuine insights into his drive and personality.
So will he stick to his professed pledge of retiring now that he was unsuccessful against Anderson? It’s a difficult question. Competitive instinct and personal honor may demand it, but pragmatism may win out. He hasn’t taken gold from Silva but he has built himself into a hugely marketable name who is able to draw a crowd and – more importantly from the UFC’s point of view – sell pay-per-view.
There is plenty of money to be banked if he keeps on fighting - the question is, how does he market himself now that he is 0-2 against Silva and was finished in both fights?
Sonnen’s rise to prominence was exclusively as Silva’s nemesis – had he won on Saturday night it would have had their air of prophecy being fulfilled, such was the volume and frequency of Sonnen assuring us of victory in the time since their first fight. The wins that earned him the rematch were almost ancillary; January’s fight with Michael Bisping was overshadowed by the implications of a Sonnen victory; all focus was on Sonnen vs Silva II.
That’s not to discredit Michael Bisping, merely to underline how much desire there was to see this rematch. Even the UFC executives, who hold PPV revenue dear to their hearts, were genuinely excited about the rematch as fight fans as well as businessmen. It took on the enormity of Tito Ortiz vs Chuck Liddell. But whereas both of those names were singular brand entities regardless of each other, Sonnen has defined himself as Silva’s opposite and as a title contender, and eventually champion.
So if he wants to continue fighting he will have to redefine himself somewhat – does he move divisions, take on the contender-eliminator role at middleweight or become a marquee fighter with catchweight battles against the likes of Rich Franklin and Wanderlei Silva.
No doubt there are some great matches for him at 205lbs and my guess is that Sonnen isn’t someone who would be happy fighting catchweight matches that had no point besides generating revenue. He’s financially comfortable and he is a driven man – he wants his enterprises to have a point and I think for him, training for a fight that didn’t bump him up the ladder would seem monumentally pointless.
Likewise at middleweight, I’d say he won’t be offered another title shot until at least this time next year. He built this weekend’s fight into a huge money-maker but the PR became so heavy that burnout was approaching for the listener. As entertaining as his rhetoric was, it did get ubiquitous on the MMA newspages and there are plenty of fans who will be glad of a break from it now that the rematch is over.
There’s no point in him talking about Silva any more, at least for a while, and so does he return to the middleweight ranks and start clawing his way back up or does he switch divisions and start a new journey at light-heavyweight? He has competed at light-heavyweight before and he was about 220lbs when he walked into the octagon to face Anderson on Saturday night.
Of course, light-heavyweights walk into the Octagon at as much as 240lbs so he might still suffer some weight – and height – disadvantage but Sonnen is cut from the Team Quest cloth and like Dan Henderson, he is more than capable of getting the job done.
He has mentioned Jon Jones once or twice; nothing serious but he did elicit a response in December of last year when he said that if the Anderson rematch didn’t happen he would prefer to fight Georges St. Pierre or Jones. Shortly after he made the statement on Canadian television, Jones responded via Twitter: “Someone tell Chael he knows where I will be waiting.” Well, Henderson is going to find him first – at UFC 151 – but if he falls short then maybe Sonnen would like to take that step up?
Nobody has ever gone after Jones in the media the way that Sonnen went after Anderson and in fact there are parallels between Anderson and Jones that make for an interesting coincidence. They are both champions but not massively popular, albeit for different reasons, and neither is a massive pay-per-view seller on their own.
This weekend’s fight was a big seller thanks to Sonnen’s building of the rivalry and nobody has yet done that with Jones – maybe the UFC fancies Sonnen for the job. Certainly there is a rich vein of material to be mined, particularly the dichotomy between his attempts to project a squeaky-clean image and his driving of cars into street poles at 5am after enjoying some alcohol.
Could Sonnen transition from ‘nemesis of Anderson’ to ‘nemesis of champions nobody is in a hurry to antagonise’ by moving up to 205lbs? Its an interesting option, and if Jones got into it even slightly – which he is surely media-savvy enough to do – then it could make for another massive pay-per-view seller and a hefty cut for both men.
As for the fight itself, that’s a different question. Jones is a big lad with a solid wrestling base of his own. I wouldn’t expect Sonnen to do the business but I would expect some gritty and entertaining violence while it lasted. And nobody yet has really walked Jones down and got in his face the way Sonnen does, so maybe we would see something unexpected there.