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Fresh off big win, Chael Sonnen ready for next challenge

Photo: AP/AP

Chael Sonnen came up big in the spotlight in Boston, and already had his next opponent in mind.

Chael Sonnen!

There. The man finally gets his due. Or at least a mention, all by himself, with an exclamation point. He earned it.

Poor guy was the main event winner of the UFC Fight Night card in Boston on Saturday night, yet his big night was easy to overlook. The 13-fight card was stacked, bottom to top, with former champions and onetime main eventers, hometown heroes and some Dublin lad who took up residency in the hearts and minds of Southie. The fights also had to share the spotlight with the debut of the Fox Sports 1 channel. And the Cirque du Yankee high-wire act/clown show was across town at Fenway. And, of course, the local region was abuzz in doomsday speculation after someone down in Foxboro had violated the restraining order enacted for the safety of Tom Brady's knee.

And then there was Sonnen. Remember him?

Chael's performance deserved more attention than it received. A victory over Maurício "Shogun" Rua ain't what it used to be -- the former light heavyweight champion came in having lost four of his previous seven fights -- but no one had done to the 31-year-old Brazilian what Sonnen did. Reigning champ Jon Jones didn't. No. 1 challenger Alexander Gustaffson didn't. Former Strikeforce and Pride belt holder Dan Henderson didn't. With a guillotine submission executed after he'd dominated from the fight's opening seconds, Chael became the first man to finish "Shogun" in the first round since Mark Coleman in 2006 -- and that bout ended because of a freak injury, not a true finish.

Sonnen has seen the spotlight before, of course, but most often he's drawn attention to himself with virtuosic trash talk. At the postfight press conference, he even had to answer a question about whether the dominant win might squelch the perception that he's all talk. It was a silly line of inquiry. There's no denying that Chael is a talk-the-talk guy, but he'd walked the walk before. Just as Anderson Silva and the doctor who tended to his ribs following their first fight.

But why dwell on the past after seeing Sonnen shine a bright light on an expansive future? Sure, his immediate options are limited at light heavyweight with Jones, who smashed him back in April, wearing the brass-and-leather strap. But "Bones" keeps talking about heavyweight, so working toward another title shot at 205 pounds likely wouldn't be a wasted effort. Meanwhile, the 185-pound weight class is wide open for Sonnen now that Silva, who beat him twice, is no longer on top. So what's next for Chael?

"Wanderlei Silva!"

That was Sonnen's callout in the octagon immediately after the fight, and even after having time to clear his head and consider his options, Chael still was talking about the faded Brazilian at the press conference. To what end? Silva has won two of his last three, but has dropped seven of 11 fights since 2006 and is 4-5 since returning to the UFC in '07. He's 37 years old and standing by the exit door. A win over him leads nowhere.

My sense is that Sonnen is merely biding his time. He'll continue to call out Wanderlei because he'll probably not get that fight, yet it draws attention -- from the fans and also from other Brazilian fighters, who seem pissed off that Chael is picking on their countryman. Late on Saturday night, both Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida challenged Sonnen. They don't want to fight each other, but they're game for Chael. And both are viable options who could boost Sonnen's standing in either of his preferred weight classes.

The pot has been stirred. We'll soon see what's cooking.

Rank amateurs?

"I've been talking all week," said Dana White following Saturday's main event, "about how disrespected Chael Sonnen has been by the media in their rankings."

That he had. The UFC president had mentioned several times -- and would bring it up again at the postfight press conference -- how irked he was that the more than 80 MMA writers whom the UFC has enlisted as voters in its fighter rankings had slotted Sonnen way down at No. 9 among middleweights. That put him below two men he'd beaten (Yushin Okami, Michael Bisping) and even a guy who's yet to win a UFC fight (ex-Strikeforce champ Luke Rockhold, 0-1 in the Dana White Fight Club). Pretty outrageous, right?

Not really. Not if you understand the workings of the UFC rankings. And not if you've been following the serpentine trajectory of Sonnen's career. More than perhaps any other fighter on the promotion's roster, Chael is a headache to rank. I'm not talking about the decision on how high or low he should be in the Top 10; I'm talking about even choosing which Top 10 he should be in.

Sonnen established himself as the UFC's No. 2 middleweight by working his way, sometimes against the odds, toward a 2010 challenge of Anderson Silva. Then he nearly beat the champ, blanketing him and battering him for four rounds and most of the fifth before "The Spider" pulled off a submission. This did nothing to diminish Chael's standing. And even in last summer's rematch, the challenger dominated the first round before succumbing by TKO in the second. On my ballot for the UFC rankings, I kept Sonnen slotted as the division's top challenger because I didn't see anyone else on the roster who could give Silva as tough of a fight. (Chris Weidman sure would change that thinking.)

With two title fight loses, though, Sonnen was at a dead end at middleweight, so when the opportunity presented itself, he stepped up to face light heavyweight champ Jon Jones. Now, we could argue all day over whether Chael deserved a shot at "Bones," considering that he hadn't fought at 205 pounds in seven years. I've been pretty vocal with my opinion that he was an unworthy challenger. But let's set that aside and stick with the rankings. Where in the middleweight rankings do you put a guy who is fighting for the light heavy belt? Where do you slot him at 185 when, after being dominated in that fight, he signs to take on Rua, another light heavyweight?

The dilemma is complicated by the rules of the UFC balloting, which allow voters to rank fighters in more than one Top 10. As a result, the Sonnen voting was split. Some media folks kept him in the middleweight rankings, while others -- myself included -- removed him from the list because he was no longer fighting in that weight class. Some of us ranked him at light heavy, although not too highly because the crushing defeat to Jones was all we had to work with. Some ballots probably ranked Chael in both divisions. In the end, what we got -- and what White complained about -- was a distorted picture of Sonnen.

The dominant victory over Rua changed the picture but didn't really bring it into focus. Sonnen remains at No. 9 among middleweights (it's really No. 10, because in another quirk of the UFC rankings, the champ is set aside and the top challenger gets the No. 1 slot), and now he's moved into the light heavy rankings, at No. 10. He's way higher on my ballot. I'd had him at No. 7 going into the Rua fight, feeling that he deserved to be in the Top 10 based on his middleweight resume but was still a mystery because he'd yet to win a UFC fight at 205. However, in doing to "Shogun" what no one had done before, Sonnen showed me all I needed to see. I voted him No. 2, behind only Gustaffson. Pushing him past the fading Henderson and Lyoto Machida seemed like a no-brainer, and I think his performance on Saturday night also warrants his leap over Phil Davis, Glover Teixeira and Rashad Evans.

My voting colleagues apparently don't agree. Or do they? The quirks in the UFC's rankings system -- which allow Sonnen to be ranked in two weight classes, but behind a man he finished in the first round over the weekend -- tell me that it's not the voting panel that needs some work but the ranking system itself. Instead of calling out the media, Dana White should get on that.

Super Mario

There were two winners of Saturday's co-main event. One was Travis Browne, of course, as the Hawaiian heavyweight had his hand raised following a stunning first-round knockout of Alistair Overeem. The other winner? That would be the man who allowed the fight to continue to its thrilling destination: referee Mario Yamasaki.

It was Overeem's fight early on, as the buff Dutchman swarmed Browne with punches and knees and brawny clinch work. About a minute in, Alistair dropped Travis with a numbing knee to the gut and, as the crowd roared, moved in for the kill. Yamasaki moved in, too, keeping a close watch as Overeem let loose with an unending, unanswered flurry of right hands to the head. By "unending" I mean Alistair pummeled Travis with 17 vicious punches in a row. By "unanswered" I mean Browne did no more than cover his head with his arms.

Actually, Browne did have an answer. "I'm OK!" was his response when Yamasaki warned that if the battered fighter didn't do something, he was going to stop the fight. As the punches kept coming, though, the ref wanted to see more from Travis than simply turtling up and letting his arms block what they could block. He told him to move. And that was a problem. "My body just shut down on me when he hit me to the body," said Browne. "I've never had that experience before -- not in training and not in a fight."

But Yamasaki was imploring him to move, said Browne, "so I just stood up. I couldn't breathe."

It didn't help that as soon as Travis got to his feet, Alistair nailed him with another knee to the body, followed by eight more rights, then two knees that had him again kneeling on the canvas. Then came more punches and what appeared to be an illegal knee to the head. At that point Yamasaki looked ready to jump in ... but for what? To declare Overeem the TKO winner? To warn the big guy for the illegal blow?

We'll never know, because suddenly Browne was back on his feet. He looked like a beaten man, but he had taken everything Overeem had to dish out. Literally. "I felt him starting to slow down," said Browne. "As soon as I felt him starting to slow down, I knew this was my game."

Which is to say, Browne created enough distance to give his long-legged front kicks room to land. And he began landing them. A scowling Overeem seemed to treat the first couple of kicks as a nuisance, walking right through them. He should have treated them more seriously. Browne finally leaned into one, landing his foot flush on Alistair's chin, and the Dutchman crumbled to the canvas. Browne leaped on him with a hammerfist, then another, and as he wound up for a third, Yamasaki pushed him away.

The ref had allowed Browne to withstand more than two dozen blows in succession, then called off the fight after Overeem had taken three. In both cases, Mario made the right call. It had looked bad for Travis, but he was still in the fight. Alistair, on the other hand, was out.

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