Chael Sonnen breezed back into our lives this month, with all the subtlety of a brick sailing through the front window.
His indefinite suspension in California now over, federal mortgage fraud charges duly plead out and the company that made him a star still standing firmly in his corner, the middleweight everyone loves to hate is finally on the verge of returning to active duty in the UFC. Already booked for a return fight against Brian Stann in October, Sonnen re-announced his presence 10 days ago with a couple of instant-classic interviews where he jettisoned all the one-liners about his various enemies -- the UFC’s Brazilian roster, mostly -- he’s clearly been saving up for the past few months.
Admit it: you missed him, didn’t you? Just a little bit?
Nobody could blame MMA fans for having complicated feelings about Sonnen, a complicated guy who now faces a complicated comeback that could pose significant challenges for both himself and the UFC.
In nearly every measurable way -- buy rates, ticket sales -- Sonnen’s re-emergence should be a boon for the company. For better and worse, nobody promotes a fight like he does and his calculated decision to declare verbal war on nearly every Portuguese-speaking fighter on the roster means he has no shortage of marketable fights left in the Octagon. Fans either despise him for the crazy things that tumble out of his mouth or appreciate his pro-wrestling-style shtick and the disarming self-awareness he shows at times when he’s not in character. Either way, it makes him one of the UFC’s most viable personalities.
So far, the former Oregon wrestler gives every indication he intends to pick up exactly where he left off 11 months ago, when -- after more than a decade as a mid-level fighter -- he suddenly built himself into a main event talent and the sport’s consummate villain with three straight UFC victories and his fight-of-the-year candidate against Anderson Silva at UFC 117.
Then of course, all those other things happened: The testosterone and the federal indictments and the uncomfortable meetings with various athletic commissions.
It’s all that stuff outside the cage that really gives us pause. Sonnen’s last commission appearance in California left us believing he can’t/won’t compete in MMA without the controversial testosterone replacement therapy that caused his levels to be elevated in the wake of his title bout against Silva. That he’s still employed at all ostensibly means the UFC believes him about that claim and the fact that his return is set to be administered by the notoriously permissive Texas commission at UFC 136 means the licensing bar is set pretty low for his return.
However, we don’t know what obstacles still exist for Sonnen’s long-term fighting future. The folks in California didn’t sound terribly impressed with his defense last time out and a few statements he made during the proceedings got him in hot water in Nevada, too. If he can get re-licensed in places like California and Las Vegas, it’ll do a lot to make his medical claims looks more legitimate.
On the flip side, if he has to spend the rest of his career fighting in out-of-the-way places controlled by more lenient authorities, the opposite could be true.
Handling that situation moving forward could be tricky for both fighter and promoter. Sonnen will have to answer more probing questions about his personal life and eventually provide some kind of proof that his medical condition is the one thing he’s been straight with us about. The UFC itself will have to straddle a delicate line between doing its job (which is continuing to make money, in case you were wondering) while assuming the mantle of keeping the sport as free as possible of drug cheats, a responsibility it never wanted but inherited simply by virtue of being MMA’s dominant brand.
And yet, the biggest question of all about Sonnen’s future might be based less on enhancement and more on flat-out performance. His surprising ascension and bizarre fall undoubtedly made him the biggest MMA story of 2010 and it’s the questions about whether he’ll be able to catch lightning in a bottle a second time that make him so compelling now.
Will he beat Stann? Fight Silva again? Overcome the Achilles heel of his lax submission defense and take the UFC title back to those mean streets of West Linn, Ore. that he’s always talking about? Or have fans waited out these last awkward months only to ultimately be disappointed when Sonnen reverts to the form of the early part of his career?
Impossible to say. The only thing we just know for sure is, we’ll be watching.