They call it the old switcheroo. On Monday evening, UFC world middleweight champion Anderson Silva starkly switched from mellow to malevolent in the blink of an eye, taking everybody, not least of all opponent Chael Sonnen, by surprise. Speaking on a conference call hosted by UFC President Dana White, the Brazilian striker finally snapped, following two years of being berated from the bleachers by Sonnen. We all listened, like proud parents witnessing a loved-one stand up to a bully, as Anderson, he of comically squeaky voice and meagre one-word answers, inhaled deeply and outlined his plans for July 7, the night he meets Sonnen in a Las Vegas rematch.
Silva claimed it was his plan to "break his face and break every one of the teeth in his mouth" and that what he would do inside the Octagon would "change the image of the sport". The champion also said he'd "beat his ass like he's never been beaten before" and that Sonnen would be unable to walk out of the Octagon on his own two feet.
Now, had those threats been released from the mouth of a prime Mike Tyson, most would turn a blind eye. It would be expected, part of not only the sales pitch, but also the unhinged fighter's make-up. Silva, on the other hand, while vicious inside the Octagon, is anything but away from it. In fact, it's his fighting ability and fighting ability alone that sells him as a commodity, such is his relative blandness when ungloved and sat alongside the likes of Sonnen and asked to speak.
So, when Anderson finally flipped the switch earlier this week, he sounded otherworldly, his voice even higher than usual and forming uncharacteristically long, rambling sentences, most of which contained copious amounts of venom. It was as though five minutes prior to the call somebody had drawn up a list of putdowns Sonnen had aimed at Silva through the course of the last 24 months and handed it to the typically laid-back champion. React. Do something. For the love of God.
Suddenly it was Sonnen who found solace in silence, while the rest of us hid behind phones in anticipation of the great reveal. We half-expected Ashton Kutcher to hijack the call and proclaim we'd been Punk'd, yet it never happened. Silva was real, more real than ever before, in fact. "I've promoted every Anderson Silva fight since he's been in the UFC and I've never heard him talk even remotely close to this," said Dana White, perhaps the most flabbergasted voice on the call that day.
Of course, long overdue retaliation on a conference call won't automatically win Silva the fight on July 7. Fights are fought inside the Octagon, not over the phone. Yet there can be little doubt Silva dominated Sonnen at his own game this week and left the Oregon-native stuck in mud during that memorable 30-minute call. And Sonnen can certainly talk. He's made a career of it. If he'd had something to say in response, he'd have said it, with bells on. But, chances are, Chael was, like the rest of us, stunned into silence, unable to form coherent thoughts, let alone sentences. This wasn't the same Silva he'd spent two years ribbing without retort. This was something new, something different.
Perhaps Sonnen liked what he heard. After all, many fighters jam up when they become emotionally involved in a fight, and Silva, uncharacteristically volatile, may be on course to do that on July 7. Remember, he's won fourteen UFC bouts to date by being the old Silva. Cool, calm, frustratingly placid. This new Silva, while thrilling and full of evil intent, is unpredictable. There is no past form. For all we know, Sonnen may have viewed Silva's outburst as a minor success, a sign that he's finally got the reserved champion to act out of character. That he's got him shook, unbalanced.
This interpretation of events certainly makes sense on some level, and I'm sure Sonnen fans will be riding it hard, but I tend to lean the other way. There are few sights more depressing than Anderson Silva going through the motions on fight night, uninspired, bored and lazy. Don't believe me? Go watch his fights with Thales Leites, Demian Maia and Patrick Cote, and then come tell me he's the most lethal mixed martial artist on the planet. In those fights he resembled an idle school pupil doodling on the corner of their exam paper, fed up with being tested and bossed around. He looked annoyed, but in the worst way.
On Monday evening he sounded annoyed, but in the right way. The productive way. Not annoyed by routine title defences and sub-par challengers, but annoyed by what his opponent had said about him, and annoyed that he'd have to wait two more weeks to shove those words back down his throat.
At this advanced stage in his career, it sounded like a sweet symphony. Because, with nine title defences to his name and the division pretty much on its knees begging for mercy, Silva could be forgiven for dining out on past successes in 2012. He's 37 years of age, widely considered the premier mixed martial artist in the world, and a man blessed with the ability to crush most challengers while operating in first gear. There is little else left for him to achieve in the sport. He even holds a previous win over next opponent Sonnen, the cause of so much of this drama.
Thankfully, the Silva switcheroo informed us all that the UFC middleweight champion is still hungry, still spiteful and still up for the challenge. And now this fight on July 7 carries a certain uniqueness, a fresh appeal, as it's the first time Silva has gone into a UFC bout with genuine anger and hatred towards an opponent. Moreover, it's the first time he's been asked to prove a point, to both Sonnen and the fans, many of whom warmed to the way in which his American challenger battled so gallantly in 2010. This is new territory for Silva, a man accustomed to widespread acclaim and respect. Sonnen has given him little of either in the past two years and has roped in many devotees to also sing from the same hymn sheet.
At first nonplussed by the subtle sway in popularity, it now seems abundantly clear Silva heard the jibes and has decided to come out fighting. Monday was just the start. Sonnen has evidently awoken something dormant for years.
UFC 148: SILVA vs SONNEN II will be broadcast live on Pay-Per-View July 7.
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