Chael Sonnen On Submission Underground: We’re Proving A Point
Chael Sonnen has never been one to shy away from bending the rules. So it’s not very surprising that, amid the current coronavirus pandemic, he’s been doing all he can to keep his Submission Underground competitive grappling events alive. The debut card took place back in 2016, with Jake Shields defeating Chris Lytle in the main event. In the four years since, his promotion has played host to BJJ notables like Dillon Danis, Gilbert Burns, Gordon Ryan, Vinny Magalhaes, and many others.
In a combat sports starved world, Sonnen finds himself providing one of the only remaining live competition events for fans looking for a distraction through entertainment, and competitors looking to make a buck.
The ‘American Gangster’ is still set on steaming ahead with his event, despite recognising the dangers involved. Speaking to Bloody Elbow, Sonnen gave a little more insight into why he feels it is so important to carry on with the show.
“I’ll tell you what, as few as possible,” Sonnen said, when asked about ‘bringing people together’ in the midst of a pandemic. “But, at some point, yes those boys do put their hands on one another. I will share this with you, it was so challenging to try to—you’ve gotta understand, I’m a reactor, the same as you’re a reactor. Somebody else goes and decides, you gotta do what they decide. So, you’re taking all these opinions, but they kept changing.
“The very first thing that we had happen, in our state, was 250 people. That got cut to 100 people. That got cut to 50 people. We went from 50 to 10, and then it goes from 10 to 8. Oh my goodness, this is so hard. This is so challenging to get it all done. But they settled in on 8. I’ll tell you, you’ll think this is interesting: when they went to 8 – they’re gonna change it again – so we went to 4, on our own. We go, ‘Okay, let’s just go to 4.’
“So we literally had a show and there was nobody in the room aside from 4 people,” he continued. “Everybody else had to leave, even the athletes. The athletes, you know, they want to see the main event, they wanna watch Craig Jones. Nope. You have to leave. We literally put it in the contract. You get done with your match, you leave. Go watch it on Fight Pass. And they did it. The guys did it, the guys were cool. But, it was—man, it was hard.”
As the conversation grew, the long-time Team Quest athlete admitted, that if and when the government came knocking and ask him to shut down, he would comply.
“I can talk as tough as I want about it, but if somebody came forward and said, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to do this.’ Okay, we’re not going to. We’re not going to push back.”
Nevertheless, for the time being, most of what Sonnen has been hearing is praise, for the product still being aired, and for the measures he’s taken to make sure it can happen. Measures like not allowing no more than four people in a room and disinfecting all surfaces between matches. And in that climate, he sounds very headstrong about staying the course.
“Oh, no. No, we’re moving forward,” Sonnen said. “And it’s not really the way somebody would assume. For example, the chokeholds and the armbars, that’s really not what we’re doing here. What we’re doing here is a psychology. We’re proving a point: we never back down.
“We as a community, we’ve had to deal with discrimination, we’ve had to deal with sexism. I mean, right? Before Ronda Rousey came along, ‘Girls can’t come in this.’ We’ve had to deal with laws; we had to go hide out in places. I’m just saying, if you look at this thing as a whole—one thing is that we do not stop.
“That is one thing about this community, whatever the consequence, by the way. By the way, whatever the consequence—I don’t pretend for you that I know. But we will, on an ideal—it’s not about armlocks, it’s damn sure not about money, it’s not about championships. This is an ideal: we take on whatever challenge there is, and we go forward.”
Naturally, within this climate of a worldwide pandemic, the impending consequence is that people will inevitably fall ill. With a possibility of even dying. Combat sports have always been on the defensive with the potential dangers presented to their competitors, it is a fundamental part of the landscape. For his part, Sonnen is certain that they have taken every single possible precaution to make his events safer. But he is not going to shy away from the fact that there is still a risk involved. And if things really went wrong, well…
“You went a little deep on me there, I didn’t know you were going to ask that question, but that would not be good. Life would not be good for me. I would not be proud of myself. I can tell you that.” Sonnen confessed, when asked about the potential of facing a worst case scenario as a result of one of his events.
“And on all levels, really. Let’s say we get this damn COVID thing—the biggest coward ever, taking on women and children and won’t even show its face. Just a cowardly, cowardly thing. It’s a coward, it attacks you from the back, it’s not fair. But, I will share this with you, let’s take that out of it. When I put on mixed martial arts events, I’m aware that there’s contact. So, I’m aware of this. I’m not a prude about this. I’m also not proud of this. I know what it is. Even aside from the virus we gotta deal with, that’s a very real concern. I would never want to be a part of anything that hurt somebody.”
Sonnen said that the athletes fly in for the event the day before and leave the day after. Even if they have been asked (or told) to self-isolate afterward, there’s not much of a way to make sure they follow through on the guidelines. And getting the proper testing, sadly, is an issue all over the country—with supplies still limited, and labs seemingly hampered by the limited volume they can handle. But the problems of testing is one that the ESPN personality does not necessarily see as being of primary importance.
“Now that’s a tough one too. I’ve heard a lot of people say that same thing,” Sonnen responded when asked about the importance of testing in allowing people to exit isolation measures. “I kinda scratch my head about it. Okay, what am I missing here? You want to test somebody for something that you openly admit you don’t have a cure for. What’s the point of the test? And then the test gets funny too, because somebody will go get tested and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t have it. I’m good.’ No, no, excuse me. You didn’t have it three days ago when you submitted the test. What’s that got to do with three seconds ago? Nobody has it until they have it. I’ve even seen politicians do that. ‘No I had a test, it’s all good. I guess I got lucky here.’ What’s that got to do with right now!?”
While he does agree that it may be very necessary to convince people who aren’t taking proper steps that they will need to self-isolate and possibly that he is being a bit more careless than is sensible for those who are immunocompromised or for people who find themselves in an age group especially susceptible to the worst effects of the virus – Sonnen has also revealed that he and his family have already gone through their own bout with COVID-19.
“That’s one side of it. I come from a different side, because I had it,” Sonnen revealed. “My whole family had it. So, I come to you from a different side, which is: hey, once you get through those 14 days and you have an immunity for life? I mean, you can run and hide if you want. Or, you can go deal with it and get through those 14 days. You don’t really have a whole lot of other options.”
For the time being, Submission Underground 13 goes down this weekend. The event is set to feature a grappling bout between Craig Jones and Vinny Magalhaes. And unless things change drastically in the next two weeks, it seems very likely the event will go ahead as planned.