Lefko on UFC: Rebel with his own cause

Chael Sonnen thinks highly of his opponent Jon Jones.

Barring a major upset win, it would not be entirely surprising following the main event at UFC 159 on Saturday night that Chael Sonnen announces his retirement and focuses full-time on another career, principally broadcasting.

No one has self-promoted himself better in recent UFC/mixed martial arts history than Sonnen. He has manufactured marketing for both himself and the UFC with all he did to ramp up the rematch against Anderson Silva and then creating new roles for himself after his loss to the legendary middleweight champ.

Even though he succumbed to Silva, who had his way with him after one round, Sonnen suddenly went from a title shot in one division to a title shot in another division, and he has cultivated a career as a broadcaster and TV personality in the process. Even by UFC standards that play politics over performance when it comes to deciding who fights whom, it’s been a remarkable makeover.

It’s not always about what’s fair — as Sonnen has said time and again and something Ronda Rousey proved by parachuting from the mid-level ranks of the Strikeforce featherweight division straight into a title shot in the bantamweight class — but more about business. Clearly Sonnen is smart or shrewd enough to realize that.

Watch UFC 159 preliminary fights Saturday on Sportsnet. First, three early online prelims will air on sportsnet.ca starting at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight main card on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific at 8 p.m. ET.

By all accounts, Sonnen should have faded from view following his loss to Silva because he no longer had any particular relevance in the middleweight division, and there were even some suggestions he might retire or possibly move into the light-heavyweight division. Either way it appeared he could no longer be taken seriously as a threat in the middleweight class and would need to string together a couple victories at the light-heavyweight level to earn a shot at a title. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to have been humbled by the loss to Silva with a future that looked both uncertain and far removed from the spotlight.

But when he sought a chance to fight Jones in the title fight of the UFC 151 card when Dan Henderson suffered a knee injury, suddenly Sonnen re-emerged like something out of a magic show or a character in a film or TV episode whose role had seemingly been eliminated. Even though Jones’ camp rejected the offer, claiming it did not have enough time to prepare for him, Sonnen made the champion look like the bad guy.

Think about, after all Sonnen had done to embarrass Silva by saying negative things about him, his family and his country — even if it was only a clever attempt at mind manipulation — his image had literally and metaphorically taken a brutal beating. But now it was Jones who had been cast into the role by rejecting Sonnen’s offer, which contributed to the cancellation of the pay-per-view card, something which had never happened before in UFC history.

And with that, Sonnen became extremely marketable to the UFC, to the point it pitted him against Jones as coaches of The Ultimate Fighter Season 17, leading up to their fight Saturday night. Sonnen became a regular presence on TUF for several weeks and also did some TV commentary for the UFC and its broadcast partner FOX. As an analyst, Sonnen does a decent job when it doesn’t involve anything to do with talking about Silva and their fights. He is entertaining and insightful, much less wooden than some others who have done commentating and aren’t comfortable, either because they are worried about saying something improper or they simply can’t communicate that well.

There needs to be consistency in terms of the broadcast crew, similar to what FOX does with the National Football League and NASCAR. It helps the overall production and creates stars. If Sonnen were to truly make the break from fighting, he appears to have the makings of becoming what Terry Bradshaw is to the NFL broadcasts on FOX and what Darrell Waltrip is to FOX’s NASCAR broadcasts. They are colour commentators, but more than anything they are characters.

Sonnen said during a UFC conference call this week ahead of Saturday’s card that he is a big fan of the sport and spoke glowingly about Jones. Either he was trying to kill Jones with kindness or merely employing a different psychological strategy from the trash-talking that he did leading up to the second fight against Silva. At this point, he has no history in the cage with Jones, and the relationship they had on TUF came across as syrupy. Maybe he truly does believe in Jones’ greatness and doesn’t want to belittle or begrudge him the way he did with Silva.

In fact, he’s been doing quite the opposite.

“I hear people that insult (Jon) a lot, but this guy is a world champion,” Sonnen said. “He’s achieved what everybody else has dreamed of.”

Sonnen also made it a point on the conference call to promote the co-main event between Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher.

“It’s very hard to focus on Jon because I’m dying to see Bisping fight Belcher. I want to see the Bisping that beat the hell out of me for three rounds take on the Belcher that beat the hell out of Rousimar Palhares for three rounds. If the right two guys show up, this fight is going to be awesome.”

The last quote may have been a little over the top, almost like Chael Sonnen has become Shill Sonnen.

But it really does seem like the “Gangster from West Linn, Oregan” has been sewing the seeds for a career beyond the cage. The aspirations he had for entering politics ended when he pled guilty in January 2011 to a charge of money laundering in his role as a realtor. Sonnen made it clear in his autobiography that he was a victim because he was new to the job and taken advantage of by people he trusted. Only a pardon from the U.S. president will expunge that conviction, but that has no immediate chance of happening because the titular head of the country happens to be a Democrat and Sonnen is a proud and outspoken Republican.

When you consider all that has happened to him since his admission of guilt, Sonnen has not done too badly. Even if Saturday is the end of his career as a fighter, he looks to have a new role ready and waiting because he has marketed himself better than anyone without a championship title currently in professional MMA.

In that respect, he deserves some kind of belt for championing his own cause.

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