Why we shouldn't forget Chael Sonnen's racist legacy

INGLEWOOD, CA - JANUARY 20:  Referee Mike Beltran raises the arm of Chael Sonnen (blue gloves) as he defeated Quinton Jackson (not pictured) in their Heavyweight World Title fight at Bellator 192 at The Forum on January 20, 2018 in Inglewood, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Chael Sonnen retired from mixed martial arts on Saturday after a loss to Lyoto Machida (not pictured) at Bellator 222. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

After announcing his retirement in the ring immediately following his loss to Lyoto Machida on Friday in New York, Chael Sonnen was thanked by former referee and now interviewer John McCarthy.

“Thank you for the way you’ve handled yourself,” McCarthy said.

Given Sonnen’s legacy of bigotry, slander, felonious behavior, pathological lying and repeated performance-enhancing drug use, gratitude for his professional conduct seems entirely misplaced. Sadly, sycophancy is common in the days following Sonnen’s retirement announcement.

At best, lickspittles confuse their own presumably positive interpersonal interactions with Sonnen for being the totality of his professional life, as if what a public figure does and says when the most ears and eyes are on them is not significant. At worst, the obsequious refuse to care about Sonnen’s sometimes coded but often quite explicit hate speech.

While taking a look back at some of Sonnen’s racist lowlights, let’s intentionally leave out the often classy and respectful manner in which he spoke of white opponents like Michael Bisping and Brian Stann. Sonnen usually had little bad to say about such opponents and instead focused his ugly rhetoric on either black athletes and/or those hailing from the Global South, leaning on stereotypes and tropes of supposed intelligence, criminality and sophistication.

Sonnen called Jon Jones “boy.” Sonnen called Portuguese – the language of Luís de Camões, Clarice Lispector, and José Saramago – a “half-step up from pig Latin,” while taunting Brazilian opponents.

Sonnen, who himself would go on to be convicted of felony money laundering and avoided jail time by snitching on others, told Brazilian opponent Anderson Silva – who is black – to “go join a gang,” because he wears baggy pants.

Sonnen mocked Silva for doing “little jigs,” and through Twitter told Silva’s manager Ed Soares, who is also Brazilian, to "pray to whatever Demon effigy you prance and dance in front of with your piglet tribe of savages that I decide not to CRUCIFY you."

After Sonnen said that cyclist Lance Armstrong had given himself cancer by using performance-enhancing drugs, the fighter went on Jim Rome’s show, denied having made the baseless allegation, and then blamed it on a fictitious Latino person that he created in his mind.

“Jim, that doesn’t sound anything like me,” he said after hearing the recorded clip of his Armstrong allegation.

“It sounds like a guy with a Hispanic accent.”

Creating a positive myth about his own intellectual pursuits and childhood while concocting a dehumanizing one for Silva, Sonnen said, "When I was a little kid, I'd go outside with my friends and we'd talk about the latest technology, in medicine, gaming and American ingenuity.

"Anderson and the Brazilian kids were sitting outside playing in the mud."

Sonnen said of fighting in Brazil, “Those guys and their blow darts don’t scare me.”

My colleague Kevin Iole has reminded the world of Sonnen’s prolific and unapologetic performance-enhancing drug use. Sonnen has also used his roles as a broadcaster to make fun of domestic violence and female victims of domestic violence, as well as used the airwaves to lie about his drug use.

He has lied about his drug use at state athletic commission hearings and claimed he’d received at least implicit permission to use banned drugs and treatments from other state regulators, namely former Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer, to excuse some of his positive test results. Kizer subsequently said he’d never had such conversations with Sonnen or any conversations with Sonnen at all.

What sticks with me the most, still, is Sonnen’s unapologetic racism, his lying, and the sporting world’s effective indifference to all of it. He never received widespread criticism for any of it when it happened, repeatedly, and now that he’s retiring again most fans and media members seem intent on further disappearing his sins with a lack of memory.

If one chooses, one can be sentimental and characterize Sonnen’s legacy as one of benign “entertainment.” One can remember him as a “classy” guy, and laud “the way he handled himself,” and one can even create a myth that he did not, in fact, often attempt to discredit opponents who had beaten him, deny “tapping out” even when he was caught on live television doing so, and blame others for his losses to the point of impugning their professional integrity (like referees).

To remember Sonnen’s public character positively, however, requires an erasure of his racism. Anyone who might insist on amnesia in this regard and look back on Sonnen’s career without mentioning his racist slurs — or does not realize that they were racial slurs, or excuses them as merely “promotion” — is doing so from a privileged position.

Anyone who thinks Sonnen’s racist statements were not racist has likely not had those types of insults hurled at them while fearing for their safety. Anyone who excuses such insults because it was merely for “promotion” is simply saying that he or she thinks it is acceptable to make a profit off hate speech.

Reflecting on Sonnen’s career without reflecting on his overt racism is not a privilege everyone has. It is a luxury mixed martial arts, and the world, can’t afford right now.

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