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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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