For four-and-a-half rounds in 2010 Chael Sonnen looked the clear number one middleweight on the planet. In fact, it was beyond dispute. His nearest rival, the once seemingly invisible Anderson Silva, bowed to his aggression and brilliance for every second of every minute of their middleweight championship showdown to such an extent that the word 'mismatch' was being bandied around press row. One-sided to the point of ugliness, Sonnen sent a message to not only Silva, but the entire 185 lb division.
Then he got careless. His achilles heel, a susceptibility to triangle chokes, once again reared its head and Silva, on his back for much of the contest, spotted an opening. Ever the predator, Anderson locked his legs around the prone neck of Sonnen and duly squeezed until every remaining ounce of energy was drained from both men. The dominant force had no choice but to relinquish his authority and tap.
If a defeat could ever feel like victory, this was surely it. After all, Sonnen, in bettering Silva for more than four rounds, achieved something no other man had come close to since The Spider's arrival in the UFC back in 2006. Few before him had taken the champion down, let alone remained on top of him and near pummelled him into the floor with heavy blows and pressure. Sonnen did all of this nearly two years ago, yet walked away empty-handed, his tail between his legs, pride dented, merely another name on Silva's ever-increasing list of extracted scalps.
Sonnen claims his success in the first four-and-a-half rounds of their August 2010 battle amounts to more than the split-second triangle choke slapped around his throat by Silva, but, regardless, he lost the fight. That is beyond dispute. When the pair meet again this Saturday in Vegas at UFC 148, Chael walks first and will be announced first, as challenger, rather than champion. Yet, through this clear bravado, Sonnen does talk sense and his boasts of indirect victory in that famous 2010 encounter do resonate. Sure, he may have eventually succumbed to the superior submission skills of his opponent, but, up to that point, Sonnen was as dominant as a challenger can expect to be in a title fight. Not only did he outwrestle and out-grapple Silva -- perhaps to be expected -- but he also out-struck the famed striker on his feet, beating him to the punch and even staggering the Brazilian with a series of well-placed left crosses from his southpaw stance. Nobody expected that.
Looking back, it was a huge effort on the part of Sonnen, maybe even the type of effort tough to again replicate. He went to the well over and over in summoning the strength and belief to trade punches with the fearsome champion and then drag him to the floor like a rag doll. Time and time again, he'd repeat the trick, to the point where he made it look easy. Of course, we knew it was anything but -- nobody before him had managed it -- and Sonnen moved and fought with such a conviction that night that he verged on being superhuman. And, lest we forget, it was Anderson Silva, not the grinder from Portland, deemed the invincible superhero going into the bout.
Fast-forward two years and Sonnen, even in defeat, appears to carry more confidence than ever, the result of those four-and-a-half rounds and, indeed, the reception he received from fans in the aftermath. Though one would like to think his boasts of being the people's UFC champion -- fake belt and all -- are said only in jest, Chael, at the very least, now comes armed with the kind of unshakeable belief most Silva opponents leave at the front door en route to the fight venue. That alone makes this rematch on Saturday night a can't miss fight, the best of 2012, in fact.
The American remains on good form, too. He looked like an unstoppable force in an October 2011 bout with Brian Stann -- his first fight post-Silva -- a performance that only added further credence to claims he was the best 185 lb fighter on the planet. So taken aback was Stann that night, he forgot to throw a punch in retort. Sonnen was a whirlwind, and Stann, as nice a guy as you'll find in MMA, was helplessly trapped and submitted with ease in the second round.
But then Michael Bisping happened. Whatever the reason, the Chael Sonnen that tore up the script against Anderson Silva, and then publicly stripped down Brian Stann, failed to show in a January 2012 contest with 'The Count,' leaving many of us to wonder what the hell happened. That's not to say Sonnen was a disappointment, of course -- he still just about won the fight -- but fans witnessed little of the magic that had made him such an irresistible force against Silva a year-and-half before. Remember, he struggled to take Bisping down and keep him down, and was also picked off on his feet at times by the sharp-shooting Brit's counterpunches. All in all, it was hardly vintage Chael.
Of course, I'm sure Sonnen will be the first to admit he needs to be considerably better than he was against Bisping to gain success against Silva this weekend. That's a no-brainer. Bisping may do the odd thing better than his Brazilian counterpart, but, on the whole, there's a reason -- many reasons, in fact -- why Silva is the number one pound-for-pound talent in all of mixed martial arts. Moreover, there's every chance Silva enters this rematch on Saturday, healthier and more hateful than he was first time round, a combination that could prove disastrous for Sonnen if he's nowhere near the fighter he was during their first go-round.
Because all the signs suggest Silva -- the real Silva -- is planning on turning up. His two fights since Sonnen have resulted in both Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami being crushed with kicks and punches, neither competitive in the slightest, while last week's uncharacteristic conference call outburst suggests he's firing on all cylinders right now. Sonnen can take heart from the fact Silva has been sidelined since last August, but will extract little hope from the way in which he dusted off last opponent Okami, especially in light of the fact Chael has frequently heralded the Japanese star as the next best middleweight in the world.
For now it is Sonnen, not Okami, who is the next best middleweight in the world. A champion named Anderson Silva remains the best. At least for now.
UFC 148: SILVA vs SONNEN is live this Saturday on Pay-Per-View from Las Vegas.