FLASHBACK, 5 YEARS AGO TODAY: Penick’s take on Chael Sonnen’s biggest missed opportunity at UFC 159

Chael Sonnen (artist Grant Gould © MMATorch)

5 years ago today, then UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones easily defeated Chael Sonnen at UFC 159. While Sonnen had seemingly mastered his “gimmick” after his series of fights against Anderson Silva, some were starting to see the act as transparent. At the time, former MMATorch Editor-in-Chief Jamie Penick examined what was not clicking with Sonnen.

PENICK’S TAKE: Chael Sonnen’s biggest missed opportunity at UFC 159 wasn’t in the cage

Originally published on 4/28/13

By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief

UFC 159 likely represented Chael Sonnen’s swan song as a fighter in the UFC. He was overmatched against Jon Jones, and though he gave it his all in the cage, Jones still had a relatively easy time dispatching him – despite a broken toe suffered near the end of the round.

But given the way the fight played out – which for most was exactly as expected – Sonnen missed a big opportunity to go out on a higher note into the next stage of his professional life. In the lead up to the fight, he played up the schtick and pro wrestling promo gimmick he’s cultivated over the last couple of years, but this time it fell flatter than usual for a number of reasons. On top of that, it really didn’t fit the narrative of the fight as well as it did against Anderson Silva.

Perhaps the biggest reason it fell flat was because the veil had already been lifted from the gimmick on a wide scale. Many had already seen the other side of Chael Sonnen in the past, leaking through in the rare thoughtful and introspective interview, but on The Ultimate Fighter, the facade was wiped away almost entirely.

Though he still peppered in the occasional line during the course of the show, the 12 episode season showcased the intelligent, knowledgeable, caring, human version of Sonnen. He was there to do everything he could to benefit the fighters on his team. He was there to impart what he’d learned through a long career to a new influx of fighters. And he was effective. His motivational speeches caught on film to his team were a far cry from the type of canned, rehearsed lines we would see at the UFC 159 weigh-ins and in much of the lead up before that, and it drew a line between what was real, and what was all show.

Last week, Jonathan Snowden at BleacherReport.com looked at why Sonnen’s pro wrestling gimmick wasn’t working that well this time around into UFC 159, and he made an astute point on what Sonnen could have done into the fight instead.

“It was the perfect opportunity to execute what, in the world of wrestling, promoters call a ‘face turn,'” Snowden wrote. “Sonnen, with a few carefully planned appearances, could have turned this fight with Jones on its head. He could have easily, in short, been the hero rather than the villain.”

Though not many would take him as the “hero,” they could have been much more accepting of the fight for what it was. He could have been the guy who stepped up and seized an opportunity that was available to him, the guy looking for one last shot at gold before he stepped aside. Considering he really had little chance of defeating Jones outside of a fluke injury (!), and that he seemed resigned to walk away once the fight was over, Sonnen could have instead entered the fight trying for his underdog moment.

He could have rallied support behind one last shot at glory for a longtime veteran who – outside of his goading xenophobic comments towards Brazil and their fighters – seemed to be a genuinely nice guy outside of the cage and his gimmick. That’s something a lot of fans who haven’t been on his side could have gotten behind, especially against a Champion in Jones who hasn’t inspired the greatest fan support.

And it wouldn’t have taken a ton of effort after The Ultimate Fighter. He could have tried to play it straight, to play up the opportunity he was getting – earned or not – by the UFC allowing him this fight against Jones after he stepped up last September. He could have tried to drive home how he understood the talent he was up against, but believed he had this chance to prevail in him. Some of that came out afterward, but it would have been effective beforehand.

Had he gone that route, and lost in the fashion we saw on Saturday night anyway, the story could have been that he gave it his all and took the biggest challenges possible before hanging it up. That may have gained a new segment of fans who’d have been interested in seeing him move on further to the next chapter in his career as a broadcaster for UFC and Fox. Instead, for a lot of people, the story is that Sonnen once again talked a game that couldn’t be backed up with a win.

Take this tweet from UFC lightweight Isaac Vallie-Flagg:

 Because of Sonnen’s history into the fight, the humility found in the loss won’t register to a significant segment of the fanbase, because he’s been so disingenuous in the past. And the disappointing part is it could have been different. If this fight had to happen for the UFC, there could have been a more interesting story for Sonnen into his next endeavor. Instead, for many, he’s just the loud mouth who got shut up one last time.

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