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.