People say a lot of things about Chael Sonnen. Ridiculous things, funny things, sometimes even halfway reasonable things.
People say these things on TV and on the Internet, before and after his fights, and in the process, they only make it harder to talk about the fighter he actually is rather than the symbol he's become. That's what people do, I guess.
And by people, I don't just mean media types like me or MMA big shots like UFC President Dana White. I also mean Sonnen himself, who closed out Saturday night's UFC Fight Night 26 event on FOX Sports 1 by dubbing himself both "the man of the hour, too sweet to be sour" as well as "the women's pick and the men's regret."
If you stuck around for the post-fight festivities on FS1 (note: stop trying to make "The One" happen as a nickname for this new channel; stop it right now), you got to see White get indignant about Sonnen's middleweight ranking, as if Sonnen hadn't clearly abandoned that division after a second failed bid for the UFC 185-pound title this past summer.
"I've been talking all week about how disrespected Chael Sonnen has been by the media in their rankings," White bellowed from cageside. "They had him ranked No. 8 or 9 at middleweight. They had him ranked under guys who he has beat already. He came out to finish (Mauricio) 'Shogun' (Rua), which does not happen, especially by submission, so hopefully now he'll get the respect he deserves."
Right, as if that's the big problem. This guy who keeps showing up in UFC main events even after he loses, I tell you, poor fella just can't get no respect.
Of course, we know why Sonnen's middleweight ranking looks screwy. So does White, even if he'd rather attribute it to that monolithic enemy known as "the media." It's because Sonnen's not a middleweight anymore. He's spent the better part of the past year trying to remake himself as a light heavyweight, which means anyone who wants to put a number next to his name has to choose between pretending he's still a factor in the division he fled or pretending he's a factor in the division where, until Saturday night's submission win over Rua, he was winless in his current UFC stint.
As long as White's going to complain about fighters not being accurately ranked in divisions where they no longer compete, he might as well flip out over the fact that Urijah Faber is nowhere to be seen on the featherweight list these days, or that Frankie Edgar is totally snubbed at lightweight. Cue the outrage, the bulging forehead vein, the whole deal.
Sonnen's a top 5 middleweight – when he is a middleweight. He's probably also a top 10 light heavyweight – if he'd only stay at light heavyweight long enough to really prove it.
We know all this just by looking at his record. We might even be able to have a rational conversation about it if we didn't keep getting drowned out by the static of his pro wrestling persona and the UFC's incessant need to hype him like he's the greatest thing to hit TV since Gabbo. If anything, that's the stuff that created the very perception problem White's so mad about.
Not that Sonnen helps himself much in that department. Most of the time, his familiar schtick ranges between mild exaggeration and straight-up lying. Once you've seen him walking around with a replica championship belt that he insists is the real thing, you kind of have to give up on the prospect of having a good-faith discussion with the man.
Sure, he says he's a great fighter who will take on anyone. But what wouldn't this guy say? And if the UFC were willing to plop him down in an unearned and totally unjustifiable title fight against 205-pound champ Jon Jones, what wouldn't it say about him?
But the backlash that this approach has created isn't always fair either. Sometimes people get so caught up in their perceptions of themselves as daring antiestablishment thinkers that they mistake cynicism for analysis. Sonnen is a good fighter. It's easy to beat up on him for his two consecutive losses in title fights, but that ignores the fact that it's been more than four years since he was defeated by anyone other than Anderson Silva or Jon Jones – two of the greatest fighters of this era. Whether you think the species of success he's enjoyed of late is deserved or not (and with the shadow of his testosterone use always hovering over him, that's a debate worth having), you can't say he sucks.
That's not a fashionable viewpoint, however, mostly because it veers too close to the UFC's self-serving one. As long as Sonnen keeps telling us how great he is, we're going to keep pulling on the loose threads in that argument rather than focusing on the parts that actually hold together. That's only natural. It's a consequence of Sonnen's decision to trade credibility for notoriety, and the UFC's decision to ride that hype train all the way to the bank.
What's lost in the murky, muddied waters after all that stomping around is the truth. Sonnen? He can fight a little bit. Whether as a middleweight or a light heavyweight, he's a top-10 fighter in the UFC. He's good, even if he's not the best in either division.
It's just that that's not exactly a sexy narrative. Not for the UFC, not for Sonnen, and not for his detractors. And between the three of them, they threaten to make too much noise for anyone else to be heard. That's what people do, I guess.