Chael Sonnen is coming back to the cage, and he’s doing it with Bellator.
Sonnen, a former UFC fighter who announced his retirement from mixed martial arts in 2014, signed a multiyear, multi-fight deal with Bellator, the promotion company announced Thursday night.
Sonnen, 39, said he hopes to begin in November by taking on fellow UFC alumnus Tito Ortiz, but he says he’ll begin the next chapter of his career with no other preferences about opponents, fight locations or even weight classes.
“I want to fight right now, and I don’t fight in any weight division,” Sonnen told The Associated Press. “I fight at gangster weight. Wherever the competition is, I will show up. [Bellator president Scott] Coker has got guys under contract from 185 to 205. He’s signing guys at heavyweight. If he’s got guys that want to fight, then let’s fight.”
Sonnen, who serves as an MMA analyst for ESPN, has fought for the UFC middleweight and light heavyweight titles during a tumultuous MMA career, narrowly losing a memorable matchup with then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva. He also honed world-class fight promotion skills that turned him into a pay-per-view draw.
Sonnen hasn’t fought since a first-round knockout loss to Rashad Evans on Nov. 16, 2013, and received a two-year suspension in 2014 for failing a drug test.
He announced his retirement after that positive test, which wasn’t the first of his MMA career. He repeatedly denied interest in returning to the sport, instead starting a family and beginning a career in commentary and podcasting over the past two years.
When asked Thursday why he’d insisted he wouldn’t make a comeback, Sonnen said: “I’m a heel. Heels lie.”
“I want to fight right now, and I don’t fight in any weight division. I fight at gangster weight. Wherever the competition is, I will show up.”
“There might have been a blink of the eye where I thought it was time to transition behind a desk, but for the most part, I never meant it,” Sonnen said. “I was never prepared for it. I knew I was coming back, and there were more guys to beat up. … I appreciate that you all read the book, but I can see that I left a few chapters out, so it’s going to continue.”
Sonnen had been a devoted UFC fighter, with two stints and 14 fights for the promotion company since 2005. He reentered the USADA testing pool earlier this year, a required precursor to fighting in the UFC, whose anti-doping policy is administered by the USADA. Sonnen remained vocally supportive of the UFC during his suspension, but Bellator apparently made a financial offer he couldn’t resist.
When asked why he chose Bellator, Sonnen solemnly joked, “Zero apostrophe S,” referring to a large financial offer.
“Chael is an incredible athlete that has competed at the very highest levels of the sport, and I know that he is going to continue to do just that here at Bellator,” Coker said.
“He has that entertainer X factor that can’t be taught. When we were talking, Chael was adamant that he wants to compete in three divisions here. He already has unfinished business with Wanderlei Silva, but he also wants to fight Tito Ortiz, Fedor Emelianenko and even Rory MacDonald at middleweight. These are all fights that I’d be very inclined to watch, so hopefully we can put some, if not all, of these matchups together.”
Ortiz, Silva and MacDonald are former UFC stalwarts who moved to Bellator in recent years, along with former UFC champion Benson Henderson and other well-known names. Emelianenko, 39, is widely considered the best heavyweight in MMA history, but he has fought only twice since 2012.
Sonnen said he won’t ask for a specific opponent beyond Ortiz, but he intends to fight early and often with Bellator.
“I signed with Bellator a matter of minutes ago — they’ve got a card in Austin tomorrow, and I’m [mad] that I’m not on it,” Sonnen said in reference to Bellator 161, which pits Cheick Kongo against Tony Johnson in the headlining heavyweight bout.
Bellator 161 and most of the promotion’s fights largely air on Spike TV, although a Sonnen-Ortiz matchup seems to be a possible pay-per-view candidate. While the fight isn’t set, Sonnen said he would love to take on Ortiz, the fighter known as the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” who has been with Bellator since 2014.
“The Bad Boy versus the Bad Guy in November, and that’s a quote,” Sonnen said.
Sonnen said he believes he can jump back into competition quickly. He has sparred aggressively during his time off, even setting mock fight dates to prepare.
“But as far as dealing with the competition and the adversity and the pain and the things you have to go through to be successful, I haven’t done that,” Sonnen said. “My body still feels good, and I’m still having some good moments in the practice room. Everything is fine. I’ve had some personal bests. But as far as going in there and actually doing it, you’ve got to have those reps. I’m jonesing. November can’t get here quick enough.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.