Chael Sonnen‘s abrupt retirement after failing a random drug test has people talking about his legacy and whether the “American Gangster” belongs in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Purists might argue that he does not belong there. With a record of 28-14-1, he lost one-third of his fights and never won a world championship.
But Sonnen’s contributions to MMA and the UFC stretch far beyond what he accomplished inside the cage.
While the UFC is still waiting for its Hulk Hogan, Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, Sonnen so far has come the closest to putting the UFC on the national mainstream map. Sonnen is undoubtedly the greatest talker in UFC history and sometimes an athlete’s mouth can be more influential than his body.
And that’s not to say that Sonnen was a slouch inside the cage. He nearly defeated Anderson Silva for the middleweight crown back when everyone thought Silva was unbeatable. Sonnen sketched a blueprint for other fighters to neutralize Silva long before Chris Weidman dominated Silva twice.
In ways no other fighter has, Sonnen helped chip away at the stigma that MMA and the UFC is a barbaric, bar-fighting sport. When you saw Sonnen, you witnessed a good-looking, articulate man, with a gift for comedy and timing on the microphone. He wasn’t Mike Tyson, or Brock Lesnar. He wasn’t there to scare you on live TV. He was there to educate and entertain you.
After he defeated Michael Bisping on live TV on FOX, Sonnen rolled this off his tongue during an interview with Joe Rogan:
“Joe Rogan tonight is not about questions for me. I want to know how you feel about being inches away from greatness. I want you to tell everybody how it feels. Are you not mesmerized? Do you not have chills for the first time on FOX for you to be here, holding Chael’s microphone, interviewing Chael?”
Rogan then took back the microphone and attempted to ask Sonnen another question, when Sonnen interrupted:
“While you’re thinking about that, remember this: When you’re the greatest fighter in the world today, they have a name for you. They don’t call you a great fighter, they call you Chael Sonnen. Beat me if you can.”
Sonnen broke out as a big UFC star in the build-up to his first fight with Silva. Sonnen went on a one-man crusade against Silva and Brazilian fighters. He targeted Silva and famed fighters Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and his twin brother Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
“He’s (Silva) got a black belt under the Nogueira brothers,” Sonnen said in a pre-fight press conference. “I think a black belt under the Nogueira brothers is like saying, ‘I got a free toy in my happy meal.’ I don’t really understand what the big deal is; one of them is a punching bag and the other one I just ignore. He’s really irrelevant.”
A lot of MMA fans criticize Sonnen for losing all three of his title fights, against Silva twice and Jon Jones, but what people fail to realize is that Sonnen lost to two guys probably considered the best MMA fighters of all times. Silva is certainly there and Jones is on his way with a few more wins. Sonnen fought the best and was fearless every step of the way.
Sonnen possessed a skill that very few fighters have ever had: He can communicate clearly with the masses. Sonnen knew how to sell a fight and he knew how to make people believe in him, or believe that he was going to get smashed. People wanted to watch him, and by watching him, they were exposed to dozens of other fighters over the years.
He was able to parlay the talent he did have into monstrous success inside and outside of the cage. Sonnen also serves as FOX Sports analyst, where he will continue to entertain MMA fans.
Think about how the UFC and MMA would be different if Jones or Cain Velasquez possessed the kind of microphone skills of Sonnen. MMA would then have its first Muhammad Ali to carry the sport.
How do you measure whether a fighter belongs in the UFC Hall of Fame? Contributions to the sport have to be a major part of that. Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin are in the HOF because of the incredible fight they had on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. The two waged a war that opened a lot of people’s eyes to the sport. Fortunately, for the UFC, the fight was an epic stand-up war, fans got to see an old-school, boxing-like war, not a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, lay-and-prey encounter.
In terms of bringing eyeballs to the sport, Sonnen contributed at least that much to the sport.
Sonnen obviously had problems staying competitive in the sport toward the end of his career. He tested positive twice for elevated testosterone levels and had legal troubles outside the cage stemming for real estate deals.
But Sonnen on the whole certainly deserves consideration in the UFC HOF, particularly if one of the measures is how many new people he brought to the sport. Inside the cage, he had better careers than at least two of the other fighters in the HOF.