Chael Sonnen (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

American Gangster: How Chael Sonnen Remains Relevant in MMA

It seems like only yesterday Chael Sonnen was one of the UFC’s brightest stars. His brash and unorthodox verbal attacks caught the attention of even the least interested fan who wanted to see what would happen next. Sonnen’s talking awarded him a total of three UFC title bouts, with no real merit behind them. Yet, they are bouts fans continue to talk about to this day.

Sonnen made his UFC debut in 2006 at UFC 55 against Renato “Babalu” Sobral. The fight showcased how scary Babalu still was and even catapulted him into a title shot just a couple fights after his impressive performance over Sonnen. Sonnen alternated wins and losses outside of the organization. UFC fans would not see him back inside the Octagon until 2009 when he took on Demian Maia, a middleweight who would later become a welterweight standout, at UFC 95. Once again, Sonnen’s return was spoiled.

Sonnen went on to defeat Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt. During this time, he used his verbal skills versus that of his in-cage abilities. In typical Sonnen fashion, he went after the most feared champion of the UFC at that time, Anderson “The Spider” Silva. Sonnen’s trash talk was unlike anything fans had seen in a long time. It was disgraceful at times and hit close to home. Finally, at UFC 117, Sonnen was given the title shot he seemingly had talked his way into against Silva. There are very few who can honestly say they knew what was going to happen that night.


Sonnen did everything he said he was going to do against the champ. He put Silva on his back time and time again. He boxed Silva’s ears and out-wrestled the champ in every position. It was round after round of the very thing that Sonnen had said would happen. It all came crashing down with just minutes left in the fifth round and championship gold within Sonnen’s grasp. The Spider snatched it all away with one of the most beautiful combination armbar/triangle chokes that fans had ever seen. Just like that, it was all over.

It wasn’t the end of Sonnen’s time in the spotlight, though. He went on to defeat current UFC commentator Brian Stann and current UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping to secure his rematch against the seemingly invincible Silva. Their second fight was nothing like the first. Sonnen was finished by Silva after one of the strangest spinning-back-fist attempts in recent history. For many fighters, it’s hard enough to secure one title shot, let alone another. So, after two losses in title bouts, once again it seemed like championship gold was completely out of reach for Sonnen.

Fast-forward through the event that shall not be named — fine, we’ll name it: UFC 151 — and the chaos that ensued, including Sonnen offering to fight the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion at the time, Jon Jones, on less than two weeks’ notice. His request would be denied, but in another strange turn of events, Sonnen was slated to coach The Ultimate Fighter opposite none other than Jones with a looming title shot on the line.

UFC 159 became the third event in which Sonnen challenged for a UFC title. He did so after a meager 3-2 record in his last five bouts prior. Sonnen gave it all he had, but he was finished with relative ease by Jones in the first round.

The downward spiral continued for “The American Gangster.” An exciting win over former champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was followed by a lackluster affair with Rashad Evans. After countless troubles, both inside and outside of the cage, Sonnen announced his retirement.

As with most fighters, once the “R” word is thrown around, the amount of relevance that a fighter holds significantly drops. There are a few exceptions — Georges St-Pierre’s name comes to mind — but, for the most part, these fighters fall out of the spotlight. Not Sonnen.

Since leaving the UFC, Sonnen was picked up for commentary for the World Series of Fighting, and, as many know, he was recently signed to compete for Bellator MMA. Many speculated who his opponent could be, given that Sonnen isn’t getting any younger and the Bellator roster is full of up-and-comers wanting to add the legendary talker’s name to their list. Enter the original trash-talking “bad boy” of MMA, Tito Ortiz.

Ortiz reigned as the UFC middleweight/light heavyweight champion from 2000 to 2002 before dropping the belt to Randy Couture at UFC 43. His style was unlike that of anyone else. It was incredibly frustrating for his opponents, because they knew what his game plan was and there was nothing that they could do to neutralize the wrestling and ground-and-pound that would soon follow. After losing his belt, Ortiz racked up an impressive 5-1 record, losing only to his bitter rival, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell. In his next nine bouts, Ortiz produced a horrendous 1-7-1 record, with his only win coming against Ryan Bader at UFC 132.

Things would start to look up for Ortiz in 2014 when an unexpected move placed the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” on the Bellator MMA roster. Ortiz shocked the world by defeating former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko by triangle choke in the first round at Bellator 120. He went on to defeat UFC veteran Stephan Bonnar in his next bout by split decision. Even though the level of his competition had changed, Ortiz was winning fights. By some strange fortune, he challenged for the light heavyweight title against Liam McGeary. McGeary submitted Ortiz in the first round and the talk of Ortiz fighting was temporarily silenced yet again.

The year 2017 is fast approaching. In the main event of Bellator 170, Ortiz will take on none other than Sonnen. It speaks volumes for the types of fights Bellator is willing to put on and the aging talent that comes with it. These two men have something eerily in common, though. Their mouths have kept them relevant.

Sonnen continues to be booked in high-profile contests, including an ADCC grappling match with legendary Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and co-owner of American Top Team, Master Ricardo Liborio. It’s Sonnen’s mouth that has continued to provide for him. While Sonnen’s in-ring abilities have certainly deteriorated, his words continue to be his strongest weapon. Which is why, whether you call it a freak-show fight or a battle of the geriatrics, fans will watch in amazement and/or horror when Sonnen and Ortiz collide.