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20 MMA thoughts, including how Chael Sonnen became 'The Bad Guy'

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Sonnen retires after loss to Machida (0:55)

Chael Sonnen announces his retirement from MMA and leaves his gloves in the cage after losing to Lyoto Machida at Bellator 222. (0:55)

It's Monday, time for another edition of Ariel Helwani's MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the entire show via the ESPN podcast center.


Another week, another retirement. And another emotional one, too. (Though I suppose retirements are usually emotional.)

This time it was Chael Sonnen, who also happens to be my co-host on the ESPN+ mega-hit Ariel & The Bad Guy, on Friday night. Obviously, this one hit a little closer to home.

Truth be told, Chael's announcement didn't shock me. He is 42 years old and has taken some big shots lately. This also was the last fight on his current Bellator contract. And when I saw that he brought his wife and kids to this event, which is something he doesn't usually do, I had a feeling something might be up.

I'm happy he was able to walk out on his own terms, even though he did so in a loss. Yes, Chael has retired before, but this one feels a whole more official. More on "The American Gangster" in a moment.

After an off week, the UFC is back this weekend with its debut in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday night. In addition, there's the season premiere of Dana White's Contender Series, Bellator in London and more.

Before we get to all that, as well as today's Helwani Show lineup, here are some thoughts on the week that was and to come in MMA:

1. I'll never forget the first time I met Chael. (And before you ask, yes, I know I am referring to him by his first name in this, which goes against every journalism rule out there. It's just too weird to refer to him as Sonnen when I call him Chael on the show every week. Please forgive me.)

We were at the Affliction: Banned prefight news conference in July 2008 and he was there in support of his longtime friend Matt Lindland, who was competing on the card. I asked Chael, who was rumored to be facing WEC middleweight champion Paulo Filho later that year, for an interview. I remember that interview vividly because in it, Chael, in his typical nonchalant way, casually said he didn't think Filho would actually sign the bout agreement to fight him. I remember being shocked by this statement because no one spoke about bout agreements like that back then, at least not to me. Today that sort of talk is common, but certainly not back then. I couldn't believe how he spoke so matter-of-factly about the business of the sport. Breaking kayfabe, if you will. It really stuck with me.

Coincidentally, Chael almost called it because Filho missed weight by four pounds and the fight was close to getting canceled. In the end, he beat Filho at WEC 36 but technically didn't win the title because once Filho didn't make weight the bout became a non-title affair. I think about that a lot. The record books might not indicate it, but if you ask me, Chael is a former WEC light heavyweight champion.

Eleven months later, Chael was a guest on my show. He was getting set to fight Yushin Okami at UFC 104. Okami, at the time, was a top-five middleweight contender, but no one was talking about this fight.

In fact, it wasn't even going to be televised. That's right, back then half the card didn't air anywhere. Crazy, right? So Chael's on my show and he starts talking about how he's trying to promote the fight but since Okami doesn't speak English he feels like he's doing all the work on his own, and he is frustrated. He blamed Okami's lack of promoting skills on their placement on the card. Again, no one talked like this back then. If you ask me, that's when "The Bad Guy" persona was born. I have told him this many times before, and he never really refuted it, so I'm sticking with it.

Chael went on to beat Okami, and then he was really rolling. Next was Nate Marquardt. No one, and I mean no one, picked Chael to beat Marquardt at UFC 109. We all suspected Marquardt would be next for then-champion Anderson Silva. But Chael did it, and for the first time during Silva's reign we had a guy who wasn't afraid to poke him. It was a revelation. Chael came to Vegas in February 2010 armed with a series of insults and quips about Silva. He stole the show and became one of the most talked about fighters in the sport.

Now, you know how the rest of this story goes. He was less than two minutes away from pulling off one of the greatest upsets in UFC history later that year, got suspended for PED use, came back, lost to Anderson again, later suspended again ... and on and on it went. But I maintain that 2010 version of Chael was unlike anything we had ever seen in MMA. His mic skills were unmatched and his material was hilarious. (Remember when he claimed his Twitter account wasn't really his? This was fun stuff.) It was a joy to cover.

2. I was asked recently what Chael's legacy will be, and I firmly believe it's impossible to provide just one answer to that question.

Chael's career was just way too complex. He was a guy who exceeded our expectations, redefined the trash-talking game, came heartbreakingly close on numerous occasions to wearing gold and failed multiple drug tests. Yes, the drug tests must be mentioned. That's all part of the story. It has to be. And guess what? Chael would be the first to tell you that's part of his story. That's part of his charm. Always bringing up what others shied away from, just like he did when I first met him 11 years ago.

3. Chael will forever go down as one of my favorite interviews because he always kept you on your toes. I think my favorite one with him was the black-and-white one we did before UFC 132. It was his first interview in almost a year, because he disappeared for a bit following the suspension, and he delivered in a big way. That's the one where he talked about the Nogueira brothers feeding a carrot to a bus and PRIDE fights being fixed. I'll always remember his "it's good to be seen" line when I told him at the beginning that it was nice to see him. It was.

4. Coincidentally, later this week (Thursday, to be exact), marks the one-year anniversary of Ariel & The Bad Guy. As mentioned above, I've been interviewing Chael for over a decade, so it has been nice to work on the show together. He's had to miss a couple of events for fight prep, and I can honestly say I miss his presence when he's not there with me. I told him last year that I want us to be MMA's version of Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, Canadian sports television legends. We obviously have a very long way to go before entering their stratosphere, but that's the goal.

5. By the way, Chael's performance in the UFC 117 prefight news conference is one of the all-time great pieces of fight promotion theater I've ever witnessed. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. He was outstanding that day. I think Thiago Alves, who was sitting next to him, is still laughing.

6. Despite Chael's retirement and the emotion involved, I left Madison Square Garden on Friday night feeling relieved because of how Rory MacDonald looked in his win over Neiman Gracie, not to mention how he sounded afterward. As I outlined a few weeks ago, I was genuinely concerned for MacDonald following his draw against Jon Fitch in late August, and I was worried he was making a big mistake returning just six weeks later. Well, what a difference six weeks can make because I thought he looked very good against Gracie. Plus, he seemed at peace and content in his postfight interviews. I don't know how he gained that clarity so soon, but I was happy to see him in that state.

Now I hope Bellator listens to him and gives him the time off he's asking for.

7. I loved the fact that Bellator put Dillon Danis and Aaron Pico on the same card because it highlighted the hypocrisy the MMA community often has regarding how to properly build a prospect, especially when it comes to Scott Coker. On the one hand, you have Pico, who lost again, dropping his record to a pedestrian 4-3. After the loss, Twitter exploded with claims that Bellator and Coker ruined Pico for consistently giving him opponents who are tough. They failed to pad his record, Twitter said. And then, two hours later, there's Twitter losing its figurative mind again, but this time because Danis just beat another subpar opponent and needs to be tested pronto because Bellator is protecting him and giving him cans (I'm paraphrasing).

Mind you, this was Danis' second professional fight (no amateurs), but to hell with that, they said, he must be tested now. Thing is, it makes no sense to blame Bellator for being too tough on Pico in one breath and then also blame them for protecting Danis. It doesn't work that way.

For the record, I certainly don't blame Pico for what has happened to him. Considering fighters are usually going to want to fight the best, they need to be protected from themselves. That's where management should come in. Why does his management keep pushing to put him in there with tough, experienced fighters? I was surprised they accepted Adam Borics as their next opponent because of how good he is and because of how Pico lost in his last fight. What was the point of that? They should have given him a local fighter to build himself back up, not a prospect who was 12-0 going into the fight. And I don't blame Bellator. Coker has been accused in the past of booking too many mismatches, so now that he throws Pico into the fire he gets blamed?

Doesn't work like that. Pico's management, which it is worth noting he has changed in the midst of his career, has failed him consistently. Plain and simple. Now, is it time for Bellator to step in and try to right this ship? Absolutely. But no one forced Pico to take these fights, and the word is his team campaigned for the tough fights. This is on them. Pico is young. He's only 22. A lot of great fighters have stumbled out of the gate. Luckily, he now has Greg Jackson, one of the all-time great coaches, by his side, so I'm still hopeful he'll be OK in the end.

8. As for Danis, I have no issues with the way he is being built up. Again, the guy is only 2-0. Give him 10 cans, for all I care. Why is it OK for boxers to pad their records early on but in MMA we must test our prospects right away? I thought Danis looked better than he did in his debut, which is all you can really ask of him. Here's hoping his knee isn't too injured and he gets to fight again soon. He certainly isn't lacking in the charisma department, but he is very much in need of more experience. In any event, the next time you blame Bellator for protecting Danis, remember Aaron Pico.

9. At first glance, Darrion Caldwell's second loss to Kyoji Horiguchi seems to be a major blow for Bellator, but I actually think this has been great for the organization. Now that Horiguchi won the bantamweight title, he must defend it at least once a year. That's in the contract. So it's almost like Bellator just acquired one of the best lighter-weight fighters in the world without having to negotiate with him in the free-agent market. That's a huge win. Plus, at this juncture, there is more upside for Bellator to be in the Horiguchi business than the Caldwell business. It has plans to go to Asia soon, so he'll be great to have on the roster leading the charge.

10. Speaking of Horiguchi, American Top Team founder Dan Lambert told me Friday night that he is the best fighter to ever fight out of ATT. When you consider all the legends who have called that gym home, that's an incredible statement from a man who has seen it all in MMA.

11. I'm surprised Bellator signed Fedor Emelianenko to a new long-term deal. Emelianenko is expensive and I don't think he moves the needle much for the organization these days. Maybe they're planning an event in Russia? Or maybe they're going to Japan? If so, that would make a little more sense.

12. Another highlight of my Friday night at MSG was meeting New York icon Action Bronson, who is a huge MMA fan. Funny enough, I met him during the prelims -- about four or five fights into the card -- and yet, he told me he was leaving. Why? He wanted to go get some falafel with his friends. Perfect.

13. The more I think about it, the more I like the Jessica Andrade vs. Weili Zhang booking. The potential crowning of the first-ever Chinese UFC champion in China is just too big to pass up. And yeah, I think Zhang has a very good chance in that fight.

14. I'd love to see Michelle Waterson vs. Tatiana Suarez in a true No. 1 contender fight, but I'm worried Suarez's neck might sideline her for too long. If not, how about Waterson vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk next?

15. I don't think we've seen the last of Rose Namajunas. This is good.

16. UFC was struggling mightily to find a main event for the July 20 show in San Antonio last week, and the clock was certainly ticking. It was close to going with Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche 2, but someway, somehow, it was able to convince Rafael dos Anjos to fight Leon Edwards. That's a great fight that makes a lot of sense at 170. Crisis averted.

17. If Carmouche beats Roxanne Modaferri next month, I'd like to see her get the next crack at Shevchenko. Carmouche handed Shevchenko her first pro loss back in 2010 and, as you probably remember, was a part of the first-ever female fight in UFC history against Ronda Rousey. There's a good story to be told there, if promoted correctly. She also has a win over Katlyn Chookagian.

18. TJ Dillashaw has put out the blueprint as to how to deal with a positive drug test. No excuses, no alibis -- he's owning everything. Of course, we'd rather he didn't cheat, but I respect the way he is handling this.

19. Lots to like this week as far as MMA action goes. First, we have the season premiere of Dana White's Contender Series on ESPN+. Those shows are always enjoyable, and this one will be held in the new UFC Apex venue in Las Vegas. Then it's a solid Bellator: London card, headlined by middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi vs. Rafael Lovato Jr. And finally, the UFC is back with its first show in South Carolina, which will be headlined by Renato Moicano vs. Chan Sung Jung. On that card, I'm looking forward to the long-awaited return of Matt Wiman (he still won't talk to me, by the way) vs. Luis Pena, Molly McCann vs. Ariane Lipski and the debut of Deron "Mini DC" Winn.

20. Mazal tov to Mackenzie Dern on the birth of her first child. Wonderful news.

And with that, here's Monday's Helwani Show lineup:

1 p.m. ET: John Kavanagh

The SBG Ireland head coach will join us in studio.

2 p.m.: Dustin Poirier

The UFC interim lightweight champion will talk about how his news conference with Khabib Nurmagomedov went last week.

2:15 p.m.: Dillon Danis

He will update us on his injured knee and discuss what's next for him.

2:30 p.m.: Justin Willis

Willis will talk about his recent release from the UFC.

2:45 p.m.: Macy Chiasson

Chiasson will discuss how she is doing after losing her home in a crane accident last week.

3:05 p.m.: Paige VanZant

She will talk about her recent arm surgery and her road to recovery.

3:20 p.m.: Elias Theodorou

He will discuss his recent release from the UFC and what his future holds.

3:40 p.m.: Brendan Loughnane

Loughnane will preview his Contender Series fight on Tuesday.

3:55 p.m.: Jared Cannonier

He will discuss his frustrations of late in booking his next fight.