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Chael Sonnen, one of the worst drug cheats of his era, retires from MMA

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Chael Sonnen is introduced before his fight against Lyoto Machida (not pictured) during Bellator 222 at Madison Square Garden. Machida won the fight. (USA Today Sports)

Anderson Silva was around halfway into his 17-fight winning streak when UFC president Dana White began referring to him as the greatest fighter in MMA history. Not many had given that much of a thought until White made “Silva is the greatest,” a near-constant refrain because anyone who paid even the least bit of attention to MMA understood at that point that Fedor Emelianenko was the greatest.

As Silva began to rack up the victories — there was the jab while backing up that KO’d Forrest Griffin, the choke of Dan Henderson, the brutal knee to Rich Franklin — that White’s words didn’t seem so much like hyperbole coming from a promoter with a vested interest but something that was based in reality.

It took Chael Sonnen, the MMA equivalent of legendary pro wrestling superstar Billy Graham, to finally put Silva over, however.

It was an August night in 2010 and for six months, Sonnen had unleashed a verbal assault on Silva the likes of which hadn’t been seen before in MMA.

Fans were gleeful when fight night finally arrived at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, because they were certain Silva would make Sonnen pay for those words.

But for four rounds and nearly half of the fifth round, Sonnen dominated Silva physically as much as he had in the pre-fight trash talk. Sonnen was two minutes from the greatest upset in UFC history when Silva scored the most improbable finish to that point in UFC history, catching Sonnen in a triangle choke to win the bout and retain his title.

The dramatic victory turned Silva into an unquestioned legend, and White’s contention that he was the greatest fighter in the sport’s history no longer seemed so outrageous.

That was the impact that Sonnen had on his sport.

He announced his retirement on Friday after being stopped by Lyoto Machida in the second round of a light heavyweight at Madison Square Garden on the main card of Bellator 222.

Sonnen leaves the sport as an active fighter with a mixed legacy. He fought virtually anyone of substance in his era that it was possible for him to fight, some of them such as Silva more than once.

He was an elite wrestler who turned into an elite grappler who managed to win nearly twice as many as he lost. He finished with a 31-17-1 record, but never won a championship of significance.

He understood that the best way to make money in MMA was to face elite opposition and sell hard. Of his final 12 fights, 10 of his opponents held UFC titles at some point in their careers. One of those who didn’t was Emelianenko, who all these years later still has some people who insist he is the greatest of all time. The other was Brian Stann, who held a WEC belt.

But Sonnen was one of the worst drug cheats of his era and it turned out he was juiced to the gills on the night that he nearly ended Silva’s reign. Imagine the chaos that would have ensued had Sonnen gone on to win that fight only to have the drug test results come out later.

It’s not easy to forgive him for those repeated PED test failures. I’ve covered seven fights — all boxing — in which a fighter has died. Combat sports are inherently dangerous, but fighters accept that risk. By cheating, Sonnen added to the risk and put his opponents in peril.

Lyoto Machida (above) punches Chael Sonnen at Bellator 222 in New York. Machida stopped Sonnen in the second round. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

He fought in an era which was infested with PED abuse. At one point, PRIDE fighters were contractually banned from using recreational drugs, but there was no such prohibition against performance-enhancing drugs.

Sonnen, though, was the face of the PED era and was often a hypocrite about it. In 2010, he once blasted Lance Armstrong, an even-worse PED cheat than he was, and said Armstrong had given himself cancer and then profited from it.

At the time, the PED allegations against Armstrong were unproven and he was highly respected. Jim Rome had Sonnen on his radio show and played a clip of Sonnen making the accusations against Armstrong.

Sonnen denied he had made the remarks, and said he found out about them the day prior when he said Armstrong had called him. Rome played the clip and then told Sonnen it sounded a lot like him.

Sonnen disagreed.

“It sounded like a guy with a Hispanic accent,” Sonnen said. “Maybe I had a bad connection.”

He was, though, about more than PEDs. He was a brilliant, game-changing television analyst, but lost his job on Fox when news of another drug-test failure emerged.

He created a popular podcast and then got back into the game when ESPN hired him. He set the standard for a fighter-turned-analyst and contributed greatly to a deeper fan understanding of the sport.

With his trash talk and quick wit, he took promotion and showmanship to the next level and laid a blueprint for future fighters to follow. He was accessible and cordial to the media, which also helped grow the sport.

He was a good, not great, fighter who was fearless and gave everything he had once the door locked and the bell sounded. It may not have been nearly enough to win, but you got whatever Sonnen had on a given night.

He shouldn’t be romanticized in retirement as something he was not as an active fighter, but he did a lot more with a lot less than other fighters.

There are plenty of skeletons in his closet, to be sure, but he’s a guy in which the positives overall outweigh the negatives.

He was fun, he was competitive and, yeah, for as much as I hated his cheating, he’ll be missed.

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