MMA fans have seen Chael Sonnen adopt three distinct personalities throughout his career.

From the time he began his MMA career in earnest in 2002 until early 2011, he was known as a wrestling-based journeyman who won more than he lost, but was probably not championship-caliber material. He fought both as a middleweight and light heavyweight, mostly in smaller promotions (with a brief 1-2 UFC stint in 2005-6), before fighting his way to the top of the WEC’s 185-pound division in 2008.

When WEC’s middleweights became the UFC’s middleweights late that year, Sonnen found immediate success against some of the promotion’s better fighters, notching decision wins over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt. The win over Marquardt was the most significant of the three, not only because Marquardt was the favorite and in the midst of a three-fight winning streak, but also because the victory catapulted Sonnen into title contention. And that’s when the second personality decided to make itself known.

UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva had, by the time Sonnen was chosen as the top 185-pound contender, defended his belt three times against some of the division’s all-time greats (Marquardt, former champion Rich Franklin and ex-Pride FC titlist Dan Henderson). He had dispatched of Travis Lutter in a non-title contest and even jumped up to light heavyweight for a fight with James Irvin that lasted all of 61 seconds. Having dispatched of most of the middleweight division’s presumptive title contenders with ease, the champion then found himself matched up with opponents whose selection likely had more to do with the fact that they had never before faced Silva than with how they might actually match up against him.

After fights of questionable competitiveness against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites had fans looking sideways at the world’s best mixed martial artist, Silva again fought at 205 pounds, this time against former divisional champion Forrest Griffin. The challenge match was certainly more exciting than Silva’s previous two fights, but ended inside of the first round after Silva put on what could only be described as a jaw-dropping striking display. Any goodwill the champion built from his fight with Griffin was soon dashed, however, when his next fight (against Demian Maia) proved to be his most bizarre yet. Silva repeatedly waved Maia in, but Maia refused, preferring instead to try to take the fight to the mat. What resulted was a lot of staring and not so much actual combat, and the match deteriorated to the point where fans were actively cheering for Maia just to show their disgust for Silva’s performance. Silva still won the fight, but lost a lot of credibility in the process.

It was during the period between Silva’s fight with Maia in April 2010 and his next fight with Sonnen in August that Sonnen really came alive. Adopting a persona more akin to a pro-wrestling heel like Ric Flair, Sonnen waged a rhetorical battle with Silva for months leading up to their bout, talking non-stop trash and insisting that he would retire the sport’s pound-for-pound king. Sonnen put his money where his mouth was when the two stepped in the Octagon, besting Silva for four and a half rounds until Silva locked up one of the most famous triangle chokes in MMA history to coax the tap from his boisterous challenger.

If fans thought Sonnen’s defeat would silence him, they were sorely mistaken. His war of words continued even after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended. Becoming one of the sport’s poster-boys for PED use certainly did not help Sonnen improve his less-likeable image, and things did not get any better when he pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in 2011.

Nevertheless, Sonnen continued to insist that he had been winning the majority of his first fight with Silva and, if given a rematch, would finish what he started. Post-suspension victories over Brian Stann and Michael Bisping put Sonnen right back in the championship picture, and his continued provocations toward Silva only made the fight look more appealing. For his part, Silva had dispatched two more challengers in Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami with relative ease to set up the rematch with the guy who put him in greater danger of losing than any of his previous opponents.

So there they were—the revered champion and reviled challenger—primed to meet in the Octagon and settle things once and for all. The first round of the rematch played out in much the same way as the previous fight, with Sonnen taking Silva to the mat and expertly controlling his position from the top. Silva didn’t take as long to do away with Sonnen this time around, however, and took advantage of a tactical error by his opponent to secure a TKO finish in the second round.

After Sonnen’s second loss to Silva, and his classy comments about the champion in its wake, many of Sonnen’s perceived negatives seemed to disappear. Even prior to his rematch with Silva, though, another, nicer version of Sonnen began to make himself known. Sonnen was amiable and entertaining when he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast in May 2012, chatting with the UFC’s number-one color commentator for nearly three hours of enthralling conversation, and that’s the version of Sonnen fans briefly saw in the immediate aftermath of his second loss to Silva. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the MMA community, and the sports community generally speaking, thanks to his prominent role as an analyst during the UFC’s Fox events and other TV appearances. The softening of his image manifested itself in an obvious way when Sonnen’s trash talk toward UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones elicited as many laughs as serious reactions. Sonnen’s apparent willingness to step in on extremely short notice to fight Jones at UFC 151 also won him a lot of new fans, and it was this act that helped propel Sonnen to an eventual title shot at 205 and a coaching gig on The Ultimate Fighter opposite Jones.

Sonnen’s previously demonstrated ability to hype what is, on paper, a lopsided match-up surely factored into the UFC’s decision to include him on this season of TUF, and so far we’ve seen a little bit of the Chael Sonnen heel character we’ve grown to love in the last year. Sonnen could already expect cheers from the crowd before his April battle with Jones just due to his schtick alone, but it’s because of his phenomenal performance as a coach this season that most fans will be on their feet. Much like Tito Ortiz during the show’s third season, Sonnen has abandoned the “evil” character in favor of a dedicated, encouraging head coach. His commitment to making every member of Team Sonnen a better fighter has shown through on every episode.

Take this past Tuesday’s show, for instance. Before Tor Troeng’s fight with Josh Samman, Sonnen told Troeng that, win or lose, he was proud of him. After Troeng was defeated in rather violent fashion, Sonnen was just as supportive if not more so. We have never once seen Sonnen talk to his team (or any of the season’s contestants, for that matter) the way he’s talked to Anderson Silva or Jon Jones when in fight-hype mode. In fact, we’ve seen several instances of him actively engaging Jones in conversation about a host of topics during this season, always appearing sincere in the process. Any semblance of the heel character he cultivated over the last few years has vanished. Put in professional wrestling terms, Sonnen has made a face turn.

Now, Sonnen’s recently revealed niceness—and the fans he has made since the revelation—will likely not prevent him from launching the sorts of verbal missiles we’ve heard from him in the past. In the two weeks between the TUF Finale on April 13 and Sonnen’s fight with Jones on April 27, expect nothing but trash talk from Sonnen. That’s his thing now, and that’s what fans have come to expect. This time around, however, his barbs will be met with laughter and applause, and one will likely be hard-pressed to find anyone booing the challenger in UFC 159’s main event.

Chael Sonnen will always be Chael Sonnen, and not everyone is going to like his style. But the more sides of himself he’s revealed, the more popular he’s become, and that trend will likely continue.

Photo: Chael Sonnen (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.

  • I have to say I’m one of those people impressed with Sonnen’s performance on TUF. It’s definitely about the fighters first. I’m still not sure how pure his motives are and how legitimate “nice chael” is, but it definitely feels like the real deal.