Chael Sonnen once was just a fighter with a first name that gave some fans pause in trying to pronounce.
Then came the summer of 2010 and his UFC middleweight title fight against champion Anderson Silva. Then came those sound bites, the likes of which belonged more in a pro wrestling scene than in MMA. Then came those four-plus rounds where Sonnen pushed Silva in ways the world never saw before Silva pulled out a last-ditch submission win.
A star was born that night, if not a champion.
Sonnen rode that wave for the next nine years, booking fights against the biggest names in the sport. His last 12 bouts all were against current or former champions. Sonnen’s career came to an end Friday night at Bellator 222 inside Madison Square Garden. After losing a mostly one-sided fight by second-round TKO to Lyoto Machida, Sonnen retired.
“You've got to be tough in this sport, and I feel like I used all my toughness up,” Sonnen, 42, said. “There were some positions in there that before in my career, I’d have walked right through them. I didn’t mind losing to him in his spots, some of the stuff on our feet, those jumping knees and whatnot. But I did mind losing to him in my spots. He was on top of me. I didn’t think he’d be on top of me. I thought I could have scrambled, I could have got up. I used to be tougher. I used to want it more, used to have more grit. I felt like I just maybe fired my last bullet. I didn’t have that grit. It’s time to move on.”
Sonnen said he hadn’t planned on retiring going into the fight. Rather, he planned to beat Machida, then call out Ryan Bader for a shot at his light heavyweight title. That was the one thing that eluded Sonnen in his 22-year career.
“I’m quitting the sport,” Sonnen said. “I tried to win the world championship, I worked really hard for a really long time and it didn’t come for me.”
Sonnen (31-17-1) leaves behind a legacy in MMA that showed with enough physical and microphone talent and an outspoken “anyone, anytime” attitude, you can rise from nowhere to main-eventing pay-per-views, being “the Bad Guy” and “The American Gangster,” developing enough catchphrases to sell your own merchandise and hosting MMA podcasts and shows.
“I think maybe I helped us get over to the entertainment era that we’re in right now,” Sonnen said. “For better or worse, but I think I had a hand in that.”
Sonnen is the only MMA fighter to face Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Fedor Emelianenko, three legends in the sport and all part of the “greatest of all time” conversation. Sonnen lost all four of those fights. But he was able to make those fights happen. That’s how bankable of a star Sonnen built himself into over the years.
Even at the end of his news conference as Machida made his way to the dais, Sonnen still showed the ability to work a room with cameras in it.
“Lyoto, we were just discussing what a controversial decision that was,” Sonnen said. “How that was a real back and forth battle that we were in the middle of when the referee for some odd reason pulled you off of me.”
One more good line from the “Bad Guy.”
Return of the ‘Red King’
Rory MacDonald wrote a regrettable narrative two months ago when he said after his fight that he didn’t know if he had the will to continue to hurt people. He rewrote that Friday night. MacDonald (21-5-1) defended his welterweight title with a dominant performance over Neiman Gracie (9-1). MacDonald also advanced to the welterweight Grand Prix final, where he’ll face Douglas Lima for a $1 million prize later this year.
“I felt like my skills were sharp,” MacDonald said. “It was like pure competition, and I was focused and everything was good.”
LAW and order
Brooklyn’s John Beneduce and Connecticut’s Kastriot Xhema, who both train at Longo & Weidman MMA in Garden City, won their bouts. Beneduce (3-2), 38, won by unanimous decision over Queens’ Kenny Rivera for his first win in nearly 16 years. Xhema (3-3) won by TKO in the second round as he got top position and pounded out Whitney Jean Francois (2-7-1). Heather Hardy (2-2), a world champion boxer who trained for her fourth MMA bout at Longo & Weidman’s, lost by first-round stoppage to Taylor Turner.