So, you’re familiar with that VH-1 show “Best Week Ever”? Yeah well, Chael Sonnen is having like, the exact opposite of that.
The already embattled UFC middleweight contender began the week by pleading guilty to a federal money laundering charge stemming from a 2006 real estate deal in his home state of Oregon. Though it appears Sonnen will avoid jail time in exchange for cooperating with the government against his co-conspirators, the following day he was suspended by the UFC and his fight contract “frozen” until further notice.
"Chael Sonnen has gone through a lot in the last few months and we think it’s important for him to focus on getting his personal life together before focusing on his career in the UFC," company president Dana White explained. "I spoke with Chael and he agrees that setting priorities in his life is the best thing for him right now. I sincerely hope Chael is able to straighten out his personal life."
This news came just a few days after it was rumored that the UFC was positioning Sonnen for an obvious “get back” fight against Yoshihiro Akiyama in March. That fight is now believed off, or at least postponed. The move is also a 180-degree about-face from how the UFC typically deals with its fighters’ legal problems, which is to ignore them. In the past, White himself has personally commented that the UFC is powerless to interfere in matters where “the government” is involved (particularly when “the government” is a state athletic commission providing questionable drug testing) and was last seen cracking jokes about Chris Leben’s second DUI at the UFC 125 postfight press conference.
When Sonnen was initially suspended after testing positive for high levels of testosterone after UFC 116, White bristled at the idea that his company should enforce tougher drug testing on its own fighters, or at least slap them on the wrist when they pop positive for PEDs. “The government comes in and takes away your ability to make a living for a whole year …,” an exasperated White said at the time. “What more could you do to a guy?”
That quote is particularly interesting in hindsight, since the one of the conditions of Sonnen’s new plea agreement is that he’ll lose his realtor’s license. From where I’m sitting, that sure looks like “the government taking away his ability to make a living.” So why does the UFC suddenly step in to censure Sonnen now?
Well, the short answer is the company is probably pissed at him. The fact that Sonnen had to cut a deal with US attorneys to keep himself out of federal prison came as a bit of a surprise this week. Previous to this he’d made a few vague public references to “a 2006 legal matter that required his attention” but had never specifically addressed the details. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that even White didn’t understand the kind of serious trouble Sonnen was in back home.
Secondly, Sonnen has obviously established a pattern of questionable behavior over the last year or so. He spent much of the lead-up to his bout with Anderson Silva at UFC 116 acting like a crazy person, then had to straight-facedly explain to the California athletic commission that his urine sample looked so funky because he’d been taking testosterone replacement therapy for a medical condition involving his malfunctioning testicles. When a guilty plea in federal court follows so quickly on the heels of all the other insanity a guy has made out of his life, well, it doesn’t look good.
Call the UFC “freezing” Sonnen’s contract part PR move, part punishment. Luckily for him, he’s managed to craft himself into one of the sport’s most compelling and marketable characters during this same stretch of time. You can bet that once the heat dies down and the conditions of his two-year probation allow it, he’ll be back in the Octagon and back on PPV earning money for the boss.
Chad Dundas writes about MMA for CraveOnline, CagePotato.com and Versus.com. He lives in Missoula, MT.