Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Chael-Sonnen

(PHOTO: EOB1045/VIMEO)

The Great White Hoax

• April 26, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: EOB1045/VIMEO)

How an average fighter used racially coded language to tap into some dark insecurities and rise through the ranks of the UFC.

Chael Sonnen spent most of his fighting career as a marginally above average fighter with a bombastic personality and tragicomic penchant for losing big fights in the most embarrassing fashion possible. However, thanks to a depleted pool of contenders in the UFC’s middleweight division and some well-timed wins, he earned a shot at reigning champion and pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson Silva that was scheduled for August of 2010. What followed was straight out of a certain political strategist’s playbook.

In the lead up to the fight, Sonnen claimed that Portuguese, Silva’s native language, is a “half step up from pig Latin.” He said that Silva, an Afro-Brazilian, “prances and dances, and does his little jigs,” while he, Sonnen, is here to do “the Lord’s work” and “re-baptize Silva, make him a better man.” For all this, Sonnen promised that Silva would thank him in “perfect English.” When Silva’s manager and fellow Brazilian, Ed Soares, spoke out on his client’s behalf, Sonnen moved all-in, tweeting, “Pray to whatever demon effigy you dance and prance in front of with your piglet tribe of savages that I decide not to CRUCIFY you.”

As is the nature of the prizefight, the two men then fought. To his credit, Sonnen, who entered the fight a heavy underdog, dominated nearly the entire fight. With two minutes left in the fifth and final round, Sonnen was 4-0 up on the scorecards, on his way to rewriting the story of his career. Then Silva caught Sonnen in a fight-ending triangle choke, Sonnen tapped out, and the fight was over. Silva won.

An immediate rematch was called for—and Sonnen probably deserved one; it was a great fight—only for it to be derailed when Sonnen’s post-fight drug test showed that his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio was four times the limit set by the presiding California State Athletic Commission. A 12-month suspension followed, but that did nothing to change the fan and media demand for a rematch. Nor did it change Sonnen’s fight promotion strategy.

This time he went after a different stereotype of the black athlete: the thug. “He’s a grown man with saggy pants, pink T-shirts, and crooked hat,” Sonnen said. “Go join a gang.” Perhaps concerned that his audience wasn’t getting the obvious message, Sonnen went on a bizarre pro-wrestling-style rant about kids receiving Anderson Silva dolls for Christmas: “Their parents probably thought it was Quinton Jackson [an African-American fighter signed to the UFC at the time] when they bought it for them.” Meanwhile, as Sonnen served his year-long suspension for abusing synthetic testosterone, he pled guilty to money laundering in connection with mortgage fraud.

The rematch finally came together in July of 2012 and ended with Silva ramming a knee into Sonnen’s heart that eventually forced a referee’s stoppage in the second round. That should have marked the end of Sonnen’s time in the spotlight—fighters who go 0-2 in title fights are typically left to toil on undercards until they outlive their usefulness.

LEE ATWATER WAS A gifted R&B guitarist who regularly played with the legendary B.B. King, co-founded the successful Memphis-style barbecue restaurant chain Red Hot & Blue, and served on Howard University’s Board of Trustees. No one much remembers Lee Atwater for any of that because he was also a genius political consultant whose modernized version of the infamous Southern Strategy set the table for GOP legislative victories that effectively nullified the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Southern Strategy, in shorthand, attempted to use culturally entrenched racism to its advantage. It was an appeal to Southern white voters in particular, and especially those frustrated by the changing post-Civil Rights landscape. While that might appear a politically foolish and backward strategy in a country inching toward genuine progress, Atwater didn’t seem to care. In his own words:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

Atwater was at the peak of his powers all through the ’80s, serving as the deputy director and political director of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign and then as the campaign manager of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. The campaign strategies that Atwater devised—including the game-changing Willie Horton ad—were so successful that the GOP essentially dominated American politics for the entire decade.

Racially coded speech—as literature has shown—often works. Last year, Doug Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, wrote: “Racially coded words and phrases play upon white fears about and resentment against African Americans in order to implicitly or explicitly shift public opinion on and support for various candidates, campaigns, regimes, and policy initiatives.”

He forgot about mixed martial arts title fights.

TOMORROW, SONNEN IS SCHEDULED to fight UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who at the age of 25 has become the sport’s answer to LeBron James—a physical anomaly with an ascetic dedication to his craft. And Sonnen will probably lose because Jon Jones is already one of the greatest fighters ever, while Sonnen is not. There is simply no sporting logic to this fight since Sonnen lost his last fight and is an unranked light heavyweight who hasn’t competed in the division for the title since 2005. Literally every single light heavyweight on the UFC roster has a better case for getting a shot at Jones.

So why is Sonnen here—again? For starters, Jones is black. Sonnen has called him a “little, entitled, bratty kid,” and accused him of “treason” against the UFC for refusing to fight Sonnen in a match the UFC attempted to force on him with just a few days notice. The overall message: Jones does not deserve what he has and should do as he’s told.

According to Ayesha A. Siddiqi, a writer specializing in how race and gender play out in pop culture, understanding how this brand of racial coding works “requires recognizing that such language would never be applied to white people.”

“Phrases like ‘entitled’ suggest Jones’ participation in the sport is a breach of his position,” Siddiqi said. “The position being: black American. It’s effective because America hasn’t fully evolved past the ideology of racism yet and as such still requires a vocabulary for it. Racial coding is the natural adaptation for a society that stigmatized racists but not racism.”

In Siddiqi’s view, the social climate Sonnen operates in—one in which we have a black President and the commercial and political value of minority groups is only rising—he serves as a sort of “metonymy for white anxiety about shifting power” and is “offering a sphere in which black American success can be positioned with white defeat. That’s incredibly powerful.”

The power Sonnen wields is obvious since he poses next-to-zero threat to Jones and is only in this fight because the UFC seems to genuinely believe that he’s capable of driving business. This belief relies on precious little evidence given that Sonnen’s rematch with Silva was the only fight he’s ever been in that delivered significant pay-per-view buys, and it still fell short of what the UFC expected. By tapping into the power of racial coding, Sonnen now operates outside the wins-and-losses binary that we believe dictates the terms of an athlete’s success.

Whether or not Sonnen is purposely tapping into the dark anxieties fueling his bizarre brand of athletic success doesn’t necessarily matter—he’s still tapping into them one way or the other—but to say that this is reading too far into his words misses an important point: Sonnen holds a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology from the University of Oregon. There isn’t a sociology major alive who isn’t well versed in not just how coding works, but how devilishly effective it can be. Sonnen appears to be using his academic understanding of racial coding to make it even more powerful than it already is—and now he’s got a third shot at a title. Lee Atwater would be proud.

Tomas Rios
Tomas Rios is a New York City-based freelance writer focusing on race and gender issues in combat sports culture. His work has appeared in The Classical, Deadspin, ESPN, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @TheTomasRios.

More From Tomas Rios

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.