There are two Chael Sonnens. One is the Division 1 all-American wrestler and mixed martial arts journeyman who established a solid if unspectacular career in the middle years of the UFC. The other Chael Sonnen is the self-proclaimed “gangster from West Linn, Oregon,” a bombastic and periodically offensive middleweight who made his own belt and generally presents himself as a heel. One of these Chael Sonnens is fake, kind of. He’s the one who went on SportsCenter and asked to touch a black woman’s hair. That’s racist, but in the context of Sonnen’s cultivated image, is it ironic? Does that make it okay?
I was first alerted to this video by Ben al-Fowlkes, a leading scholar in the field of Chael Sonnen studies. Sonnen’s occasionally rhyming tirade at the end should give you a good sense of his schtick, which is familiar from pro wrestling but pretty much jarring and unheard-of in mixed martial arts. Sonnen’s heel turn roughly coincides with the announcement of his first middleweight fight against Anderson Silva in 2010. After weeks of attacking Silva and his home country of Brazil, Sonnen acquitted himself surprisingly well, dominating the vaunted striker right up until he got caught in a triangle choke in the fifth round.
Then he tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone. Yet Sonnen continued to declare himself the best middleweight in the world, walking around with the aforementioned fake belt and insisting, somewhat infuriatingly, that Silva’s wasn’t real. Then he got a rematch in July and was knocked out in the second. Then he was given a title shot against light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones—a matchmaking decision widely decried as the unconscionable triumph of marketability over sport, which brings us to where we are now.
Chael Sonnen can hype a fight. In the course of hyping those fights, however, he presents a caricature version of himself to a sport that prides itself on being viscerally real. It’s worth listening closely to Sage Steele between :04 and :12 of that video, both to hear the involuntary noise of disgust she makes after Sonnen asks if he can touch her hair and to appreciate the question that precedes it. “Here’s the thing,” Steele asks. “He’s a really nice guy behind the scenes. I mean, do you have to hate your opponents to win?”
That question boils down to, “is this all an act?” And that is the question Chael Sonnen cannot answer. Since early 2010 he is always in character on camera, and you cannot answer questions about your act in character. So he deflects. Metaphorically speaking, he shoots for the takedown, declining to exchange hard questions with Steele in favor of bring the interview to a place where he feels comfortable.
Unfortunately, he does that by asking if he can touch a black lady’s hair. After recovering from her scoff, Steele remarks that his question is “random,” which is pretty much the second-best r-word to describe it. Sonnen hypes for a while and then, forced to return to the question, remarks that he does not hate people, “especially women.” Then we’re back to ironic posing, once again facilitated by subtly belittling the interviewer.
In the grand scheme of chauvinist behavior, asking to touch a black person’s hair or flirting with a female sports journalist is not incredibly bad. It’s just kind of bad—inappropriate, really, in the same way that the Chael Sonnen character is relentlessly so. Compared to saying that Brazilian dentists will try to cure you by waving a bone in front of your mouth, it’s positively mild.
Still, it is some bullshit. Would Sonnen have asked to touch the hair of Stuart Scott? Would he have told Scott Van Pelt that he especially doesn’t hate women and left it at that? The problem with Sonnen’s behavior is that we know it is at least partially ironic, but we can’t pin down the percentage.
All he does, in public at least, is make obnoxious remarks. Yet his presentation is such that we understand he doesn’t really mean them, because he is clearly working so hard to be obnoxious. Strangely, when he says something racist or sexist or both, we are inclined to forgive him because he did it on purpose.
That’s an inversion of how we normally approach fault. When Dennis Johnson says “Jew me down” on the floor of Congress, we say it was a slip of the tongue that revealed his secret inner prejudice. Yet when Sonnen asks to touch Sage Steele’s hair on live TV, we say it’s a deliberate front that belies his inner decency.
I’m not sure that’s how it should work. I think the ironic Chael Sonnen, who insults his opponents and acts like a dick to journalists to hype fights, is not functionally different from the insecure Chael Sonnen who has been elevated above his ability and acts out to compensate. Maybe he doesn’t really want to touch Sage Steele’s hair. I keep asking myself, though: if he really weren’t such a nice guy deep down, how would his behavior be any different?