Coming off his first-round loss at the hands (and knees and elbows) of Jon Jones last weekend at UFC 159, no one was sure what Chael Sonnen was going to do next.
In the cage after the bout, the bruised and battered challenger sounded like a man ready to ride off into the sunset. He echoed those sentiments at the post-fight press conference as well, suggesting that his championship opportunities may have passed, and he didn’t want to be another guy just hanging around taking random fights.
Three days later on UFC Tonight, Sonnen said he was sticking around and staying at light heavyweight and started angling for a match-up with Wanderlei Silva. Apparently, “The American Gangster” only needed 72 hours to lick his wounds and get back in the game.
With his intentions to remain active made clear, the next question that comes attached to Sonnen is whether or not the three-time title challenger can remain a relevant draw in the UFC going forward?
It’s a tricky question to answer.
On one hand, Sonnen is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable fighters in the UFC. His battles with Anderson Silva and his way with words in front of the camera has elevated his profile a great deal over the last three years, turning Sonnen into the type of fighter everyone tunes in to see, even if they’re watching to see him suffer another loss.
On the other hand, Sonnen’s professional wrestling-inspired tactics for selling his fights are starting to grow tiresome even to his most ardent supporters, especially given that he’s come up short in each of his three championship opportunities, and one of his two victories since adopted this approach was a narrow decision win over Michael Bisping that many feel should have gone the other way.
The hard sell and trash talk probably isn’t going to cut it going forward; he’s become “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” when it comes to the myriad promises he’s made about handing out beatings and capturing championships. Sonnen went to his “Beat me, if you can” line early and often in the promotion of his unnecessary showdown with Jones last Saturday, and the light-heavyweight champion did just that.
As Jones put it after the bout, he “Chael Sonnen’ed” Chael Sonnen. When you get beaten at your own game after all that bluster, it makes taking you seriously in the future even harder.
Here’s the thing: Sonnen doesn’t need to be the guy making over-the-top promises anymore.
He’s already talked his way into a prime position in the UFC hierarchy, and established himself as a star, but now that he’s not taking on champions who are head-and-shoulders better than him in most facets of the sport, Sonnen can back off the hard sell, and maybe get back to doing what helped him earn that first opportunity to fight for the middleweight title way back when – shutting down opponents and stacking up wins.
Targeting “The Axe Murderer” as his next potential opponent is a smart choice.
First and foremost, Silva is an icon in this sport, and a bout between the two would undoubtedly draw interest.
Secondly, the rivalry between the two already exists. They’ve exchanged heated words in the past, and you have to know that the passionate and proud Brazilian legend didn’t take too kindly to the numerous shots Sonnen has taken at his countryman in the past.
Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – Sonnen has the potential to actually earn a victory against the former Pride standout. Unlike Brian Stann, Sonnen isn’t going to get caught up in wanting to strike with Silva; he’ll storm across the cage, plant his forehead in his Silva’s chest, and put him on the mat.
At least, that’s how the best-case scenario goes for Sonnen, and doing everything in his power to make sure the fight goes accordingly should be his sole focus.
The problem is that fighting is no longer Sonnen’s sole focus. It may not even be his primary focus.
His role as a host and analyst may have already overtaken “professional cage fighter” when Sonnen starts rattling off the list of things he does for a living. It’s understandable; he’s phenomenal in his position on UFC Tonight and a tremendous analyst when tabbed to join the FX and FOX broadcasts.
But if he’s going to keep fighting, he needs to get a win next time out.
Losing to two of the best fighters in the sport is one thing. Like Frankie Edgar’s recent struggles in championship bouts, losses to Silva and Jones don’t diminish Sonnen’s standing that much, but adding a third consecutive loss to his resume makes continuing to give him a heavy push nearly impossible.
There are opportunities out there for Sonnen, which shouldn’t be surprising when you think about it – he’s talked a lot of trash, and made a lot of enemies in the process, so finding opponents for him wouldn’t be too hard. You could even line up a rematch with Bisping potentially, seeing as their bout was ultra-close, and “The Count” is kind of in limbo in the middleweight division at the present time.
Bisping-Sonnen II at Wembley Arena in London would be a great headlining act, but that fight and every other potential opportunity for “The American Gangster” hinges on him getting a win in his next fight.
Chael Sonnen is one of the most recognizable fighters in the entire UFC, and a fighter with his profile doesn’t just disappear into the ether overnight. Whether he’s fighting or not, the charismatic and entertaining veteran is always going to be a prominent figure in the UFC, but his relevance as a fighter rests on the outcome of his next fight.