Chael Sonnen had one of the fastest and most visible rises to stardom in the UFC. He talked his way to a title shot and backed up the fights he’s hyped except for his title matches. He became MMA’s new heel, a guy who didn’t care who the UFC put in front of him, and didn’t change his game plan for anyone.
Whether Sonnen mentally breaks in the big fights or whether the talent gap is really that big, Sonnen is now at a crossroads. He has failed to capture the middleweight title on two occasions and just lost the light heavyweight championship title fight to Jon Jones. He was taken down quite a few times before the end of the first round, and ended the round curled up on his side as Jones battered him to a TKO victory.
So what makes this title fight loss different than his past ones? Chael is no longer in a strong position to make the case for a rematch. After his first loss to Anderson, he made the case that he was handily beating the champion for four rounds. After a couple of wins over Brian Stann and Michael Bisping, Sonnen was once again lined up for a title shot. However, he would once again lose, this time by a very convincing TKO. He then had the opportunity to move up in weight and fight Jon Jones for the title after coaching the Ultimate Fighter. This brought even more publicity for Sonnen, who now had the show as a venue through which to taunt Jones and hype the fight.
It is unclear whether Chael wants to, or can, hang with the top light heavyweights in the UFC. Jones’ reach was too much for Chael, and one wonders if Chael is too small for light heavyweight and if he can handle the pressure of the fighters in the 205 pound division. He can no longer claim that he “beat the champ for four and a half rounds” or claim that Jones is unproven and untested. Even if he wins against other light heavyweights, his talk will have less weight behind it because of his performance at UFC 159. At age 36, Sonnen said to Joe Rogan in his post-fight speech that “I’m not going to be one of those guys who hangs around if he doesn’t have a road to the title. I believe that was my lost opportunity.”
If Chael chooses to retire, he still has many opportunities working with the UFC. He already serves as a commentator for UFC Tonight and Dana may give him other opportunities to work for the UFC. While I doubt Chael would want to go back to a “9-5” job, he does have a college degree, experience as a politician, and has worked in real estate (although not without complications and controversy). After his stint on the Ultimate Fighter, Chael could easily be a successful coach and either start his own team or become a coach at an existing one.
So what should Chael do? That’s up to him and the UFC. Chael could continue on at light heavyweight, but does he risk tainting his legacy if he starts losing to those in the division? Or does Sonnen want to retire right now with a strong legacy in place, not for his MMA record, but for his brash personality and constant pressure in the cage. I think we would all hate to see an aging Chael get battered by up-and-coming young guns in the light heavyweight division, but at the same time, many are aching to see if the 36 year old from West Linn, Oregon can prove that he can hang with light heavyweights as well as he did with middleweights.
No matter what Chael chooses, he will be remembered as one of MMA’s most colorful “bad guys” who left people angry, amused, and excited, sometimes all at the same time. I imagine Chael will spend the next few weeks pondering the next chapter, possibly coming up with a new tagline for his path to the title.