Chael Sonnen announced his retirement from mixed martial arts on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Bellator light heavyweight and former UFC middleweight title challenger made his decision in the cage after his second-round TKO loss to Lyoto Machida at Bellator 222. After the result was shared, he laid his gloves on the mat.
"I'm walking out." he told the cheering crowd.
Sonnen, 42, and an ESPN MMA analyst, finished his career 31-17-1.
ESPN's Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim gave their take on "The American Gangster's" decision, as well as other top storylines that came out of Bellator 222.
What will you remember most from Chael Sonnen's career?
Okamoto: This should not be an easy question to answer. Sonnen's legacy is a complicated one. In many ways, he was everything we love about the sport. He was tough and as close to fearless as probably exists. He went up against the best fighters of his generation and never took a step backward. He was always willing to go out on his shield and was great at explaining why. He also cheated. And as great as it was to see him take responsibility for that, he shouldn't get a pass for it.
But that said, this is an easy question to answer. I will remember Sonnen targeting Anderson Silva around 2010, launching a one-sided war of words that changed his (and Silva's) career forever. Sonnen himself, on Friday, admitted he probably played a role in the "entertainment" era to which the sport transitioned. He changed the game in that way, but he still was old-school at heart. He talked a great game, but his motives were still as simple as being the best. I'll remember Sonnen as an athlete I was genuinely lucky to cover.
Raimondi: Sonnen could talk butts into seats better than just about anyone in MMA history, aside from Conor McGregor. Sonnen was never the best fighter in the world in his weight class, but he wasn't far off -- and he made you believe he could win. He made Anderson Silva a true pay-per-view draw by being the heel "The Spider" needed. Sonnen even talked himself into a title fight with Jon Jones in a weight class up coming off a loss. MMA is an entertainment sport, and Sonnen was one of the best entertainers to ever do it.
Wagenheim: Chael sure could talk. He poured the foundation on which Conor McGregor built Fort Knox, his piercing way with words often imitated but seldom matched. But I'll leave the poet laureate praise to others. The Sonnen that I'll always remember is the one who at once shattered the invincibility mystique of Anderson Silva and also elevated the legend of "the Spider," impossibly dominating the Brazilian champion for a good 23 minutes before succumbing to a last-ditch Silva submission. Sonnen always had more fight in him than what we might have expected; he was an excellent wrestler who was more than a wrestler, a creative talker who made himself larger than life, not just with his words but by backing them up.
Should Bellator regret the decision to promote with Rizin?
Okamoto: The obvious response here is: probably? The promotion has now, literally, lost control of its own bantamweight title. Regardless of whatever circumstances went behind that, it can't be viewed as a good thing. Belts are promotional tools. Now, Bellator is down one.
But upon closer inspection, I don't think Bellator is going to lose too much sleep over this. If we're being honest, its bantamweight championship didn't hold much value going in to Friday. Darrion Caldwell never really popped with Bellator fans, in fact, he hadn't even defended the belt since March 2018. Prior to these two fights with Kyoji Horiguchi, he had moved up to a non-title 145-pound fight. And no one really noticed (or cared) he wasn't defending his title.
This new situation is unique. And interesting. It's instantly more intriguing than Caldwell's title run, even if Horiguchi is only expected to defend once a year. Hey, Horiguchi is legitimately one of the best bantamweights in the world. And now he's a Bellator champion. Even if the relationship between fighter and promoter is a nontraditional one, it's not terrible for Bellator.
Raimondi: Not at all, and I suspect there will be more to come this year, with both companies reaping the benefits. Kyoji Horiguchi is now the Bellator and Rizin bantamweight champion. And that's kind of fun and cool. The Japanese star is required to defend the Bellator belt at least once a year. Friday wasn't a total loss for Bellator, either. Lindsey VanZandt choked out Rizin star Rena Kubota and might emerge as a diamond in the rough. Look for a Rizin fighter to be in Bellator's upcoming featherweight grand prix and a Bellator fighter to go to Japan for Rizin's lightweight tournament.
Wagenheim: What a neat plotline it would have been if the Rizin guy won in Japan, that promotion's home base, and the Bellator guy won on that company's turf in New York. But MMA doesn't play out like WWE. Sports keep it real. And what more can we ask? Well, OK, we can ask to be entertained, and Kyoji Horiguchi's second win over Darrion Caldwell wasn't exactly a thrill a minute -- there was barely a thrill, in fact, for the whole 25 minutes. But that in no way besmirches the Bellator-Rizin partnership, and here's hoping their cooperation is a sign of things to come. Who, other than Caldwell, really cares that Rizin is 2-0, Bellator 0-2? This arrangement has breathed some life into both companies.
How do you see Rory MacDonald faring against Douglas Lima in the championship?
Okamoto: I thought MacDonald looked perfectly good on Friday, but I'm not sure he looked like the Rory MacDonald. I am willing to admit I might be making that up in my head, based on all the things MacDonald said after his last fight against Jon Fitch. But I don't know if I felt the same killer instinct I've long associated with MacDonald. The result of the decision was never in doubt, but he now is on a path toward Lima again. And any lack of killer instinct can get you hurt against Lima right now. MacDonald is so good, he's gonna win more than he loses, even if his mind isn't where it needs to be. But as of right now, today, I'm picking Lima in the Grand Prix finals.
Raimondi: The only thing we really learned tonight is this: Rory MacDonald had enough to beat Neiman Gracie by unanimous decision. The Canadian fighter edged out Gracie in just about every round in a technical, workmanlike performance. MacDonald was solid, if not spectacular. He'll need more to beat a killer like Lima, especially considering his postfight comments about his draw with Jon Fitch two months ago. MacDonald would probably benefit from some time off right now but probably won't get an extended break with the grand prix final likely in the fall.
Wagenheim: MacDonald looked better on Friday night than he did in his last outing, but he still did not look like the fighter who won a unanimous decision over Lima in January 2018. He's going to have to step up his energy level to replicate that victory, especially with Lima on a mission to recapture the belt MacDonald took away from him. Does MacDonald still have it in him? It's impossible to measure a fighter's heart, but I have my doubts that the sequel will follow the same storyline.
Who is most to blame for Aaron Pico's 4-3 record?
Okamoto: This answer is very, very simple. It's Scott Coker. And I say that respectfully. There are not many figures in the history of the sport who have shown more dedication over a longer period of time than Coker. But he messed this up. And he should have known better.
Pico was one of the best 20-year-old wrestlers on the planet when he made his MMA debut. He also had flashed tremendous potential in boxing. But he had no experience in MMA. He didn't (and still kind of doesn't) know what he was doing. Yes, he wanted to face tough competition, and his management agreed. In that situation, Coker, with his level of experience in promoting combat sports, should have been the voice of reason. You expect the fighter himself, and perhaps the people in his corner, to get carried away. Coker should have tempered that. And pairing Pico, in his first fight, against a bigger, taller veteran like Zach Freeman, who had six years of experience at the time, was ill-advised.
And then, they didn't learn from it. This last one, having Pico face a dangerous, undefeated prospect like Adam Borics ... when he's coming off a brutal knockout loss less than five months ago...why? Look, I'm not asking for Pico to fight cans, but really? His record is now 4-3. His opponents' combined record is 104-23. Pico holds responsibility in what's happened too. He has made mistakes. But Bellator has mishandled his career thus far. Badly.
Raimondi: There is blame to spread around here. Bellator's matchmaking definitely deserves criticism. Maybe not for all of those three losses, but definitely this one. Pico was knocked clean out in January by Henry Corrales. Then, five months later, he gets pitted against Borics, a legitimate undefeated prospect with power. Pico is ridiculously talented and has violent, highlight-reel knockouts. But he hasn't been able to put it together against higher-caliber competition. This should have been a tune-up fight for the blue-chipper going into a possible Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix berth.
Wagenheim: Aaron Pico was placed at just about the perfect spot on the fight card: the eighth bout of the night, with 10 more to come. That's where a prospect belongs. Where he doesn't belong is standing across the cage from an undefeated opponent with a dozen fights under his belt. Pico didn't look at all overmatched against Adam Borics, though, just as he hadn't looked overmatched back in January against Henry Corrales, a veteran who came in at 16-3. Pico was leading the dance in both fights ... until the music stopped suddenly and violently. That's what happens in high-level fighting. The ebb and flow might be going your way, and if you settle for treading water, you're going to drown. Overconfidence throws caution to the wind, just as Bellator threw caution -- and its young prospect -- to the wolves. Did the promotion simply run out of patience after signing Pico way back in 2014 and holding off on putting him in the cage until three years later?
Aaron Pico KO'd with flying knee
Adam Borics knocks out Aaron Pico with a flying knee in the second round of the Bellator 222 prelims.
Multiple top Bellator prospects impressed on Friday night. Who stood out the most?
Okamoto: Adam Borics. Reason being, I believe Borics probably fought the best version of Pico on Friday. This was Pico's first camp with Greg Jackson, and it was easy to see the changes they worked on. Pico was willing to use his best attribute -- wrestling -- and had Borics been overwhelmed by it, few would have been surprised. But he rose to the occasion. A common thought was that once Pico learned to use his wrestling in an MMA fight, he would be that much harder to beat. Well, Borics had something to say about that.
Raimondi: A few months ago, I tweeted a list of possible names for the upcoming Bellator featherweight grand prix. I was promptly accosted by training partners of Adam Borics at Hard Knocks 365. How could I leave him off the potential list? They were right. Borics weathered Aaron Pico's wrestling Friday night and knocked him out with a flying knee in the second round. Incredible coming-out party. The Hungarian fighter is legit.
Wagenheim: Patrick Mix didn't put on much of a show -- in terms of its length. He needed just 66 seconds to finish Ricky Bandejas and run his record to 11-0. What an efficient performance. He was in control and threatening a finish right from the start. And the 25-year-old kept doing work even after getting the tap, calling out the talkative Irishman James Gallagher, the kind of opponent who can sell a fight and, if you beat him, look good on the resume. That's a good night's work.