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The Underdog Heel: How Chael Sonnen Became a Sports Entertainment Superstar

(They say Chael is still out there somewhere, working as a real estate agent and speaking with a Hispanic accent. / Photo via Getty)

By Seth Falvo

We know that the UFC is a sports entertainment company, but few fighters have ever embraced sports entertainment as fully as the recently retired Chael Sonnen had. “The Gangster from West Linn” understood the importance of drawing attention outside the cage, and shamelessly promoted himself as one of the most outlandish heels on the planet. But now that his fighting days are behind him, how will the fans remember Sonnen? There’s little doubt that Sonnen was one of MMA’s most infamous personalities, but was Sonnen a truly great sports entertainer?

Before we begin analyzing Sonnen’s smack-talking, fake championship belt wielding antics however, let’s not forget the overwhelming majority of his career: the thirty-plus professional fights (including his initial 1-2 run in the UFC) he had between 1997 and 2008. During this time, Chael Sonnen was a name that only the most hardcore fans had known of. He was a skilled, albeit smothering (and submission-prone) wrestler who could dish out one-liners and give thoughtful interviews, but was mostly known for his part in the unmitigated disaster that was Filho vs. Sonnen II.

If that seemed like a half-assed recap of twelve years of fighting, that’s exactly the point. Despite the best attempts of MMA fans to pretend that they’re above valuing personality over talent, the relative obscurity of Sonnen’s “pre-heel” career proved otherwise. If it weren’t for his ability to give a memorable interview, it isn’t entirely unreasonable to wonder if he would have even been invited back to the promotion when the WEC did away with the middleweight division. It’s even more likely that he would have been cut after getting choked out in the first round by Demian Maia during his Octagon return at UFC 95. The bottom line is, one doesn’t need to be entertained by Sonnen’s attempts to stand out in order to acknowledge their importance; Sonnen pretty much told Thomas Gerbasi just that back in 2010:

“You listen to some of these guys and it’s like hitting ‘play’ on a tape recorder. Whether these guys just aren’t free thinkers or just scared, I truthfully don’t know, but it is pretty annoying. Every now and then you get a guy that appears that he’s read a book or watched a news program and has an autonomous thought, and those are the kind of guys that I would visit with, but it’s pretty hard to find them in a UFC locker room.”

When Sonnen fully began to embrace the self-promoting heel antics he’s known for, he immediately took the spotlight. What he lacked in innovation — his brash overconfidence, the heat he would generate by insulting Brazil and his willingness to call out other fighters by name are all textbook heel tactics — he made up for in sheer wit and charisma. Any halfwit could have said “Silva sucks and I will beat him.” Sonnen made it interesting and fun. Whether fans tuned in because they believed in Chael’s hype or they tuned in because they believed he’d eat his words, what’s undeniable is that they tuned in when heel Sonnen was fighting.

While certain aspects of his schtick were by the numbers, what was unique about Sonnen was that he managed to be both a heel and an underdog throughout his second stint in the UFC. Heels are almost always dominant to the point where it’s hardly fair to allow them to compete; that’s why the New York Yankees and the Miami Heat have so many haters. Even in professional wrestling, the heel is rarely portrayed as the underdog while leading up to the payoff match. Yet even as an underdog, Sonnen always managed to generate heat from the crowds.

Of course, by now I likely have dozens of readers screaming “BUT MMA IS REAL!” while reading this article. Usually, such a non-observation wouldn’t be worth responding to, but in this case, real life events helped keep Chael Sonnen grounded as a heel to most fans — even while they were laughing their ways through “I am a gangster from America.” There was the (first) failed drug test. There was the UFC middleweight championship replica belt that he’d carry around. There were the money laundering charges. There was his eyeroll-worthy post-fight interview at UFC on Fox 2 where he ripped off a classic “Superstar” Billy Graham promo — which wouldn’t be the last time he’d swagger-jack a pro wrestling legend — and there were more than a few critics who were uncomfortable with Sonnen’s race-baiting antics. In other words, Sonnen wasn’t just a heel because he said outlandish things, Sonnen was a fighter who fans could truly despise if they wanted to.

Though Sonnen would briefly win over the fans by offering to fight Jon Jones on short notice to save UFC 151, the callout can in retrospect be viewed as the “We want the wind!” of his career. Despite his best attempts to hype their eventual fight at UFC 159, no amount of smacktalk could convince fans that Sonnen was any threat to Jones. The fight itself was predictably unspectacular, the pay-per-view numbers were less than impressive, and when all was said and done, Sonnen had lost too many high-profile bouts to be taken seriously as a contender again. He’d stick around for two more fights, but he was far more reserved than he had been during his second UFC run, and fans began to lose interest.

Unfortunately, things weren’t quite over yet for Sonnen. He was booked as a coach for TUF: Brazil 3 alongside his rival, Wanderlei Silva. After years of heated confrontations and a seemingly neverending supply of callouts from both fighters, the payoff ended up being a hilariously awful brawl on the TUF set and Wanderlei Silva literally running from a drug test. This wasn’t just an instance of a feud crumbling under the weight of its own hype — this was a fight years in the making falling apart at the last second in the ugliest manner possible.

So where exactly does this leave Sonnen in the grand scheme of things? He was hardly the most original heel in sports entertainment during the past five years, he was certainly not the first heel in the history of MMA, and possibly wasn’t even the most popular heel in MMA. Yet you could make the argument that Sonnen was the most notorious heel in sports entertainment to have never worked for Vince McMahon. He wasn’t a product of the WWE’s booking and the crossover appeal he had to casual fans — he was an MMA fighter who managed to become a household name through his own self-promotion. When determining the greatest heels in sports entertainment, that has to be worth something.

Interestingly, there’s a rumor going around Twitter that Chael Sonnen was offered the Bellator President position that Scott Coker recently filled. That such a rumor could gain traction is proof of the charisma that Sonnen possesses, and just how eager the fans are to see him promoting fights again. Sonnen did what any great heel should do: He put some butts in the seats. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

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