If you've managed to steer clear of Chael the Chatty -- a flesh-and-blood vuvuzela who, as happenstance goes, is one of the toughest mixed martial artists in the UFC -- congratulations. It could not have been easy. Over the past three weeks, the only thing running more regularly than pay-per-view commercials for Saturday's UFC 117 (10 p.m. ET, PPV) at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., has been Sonnen's mouth, which treats the English language much the same way he does opponents: with the finesse of a ball-peen hammer.
And so it's no surprise that opposite Silva, a native Brazilian, Sonnen has carried almost exclusively the marketing and hype building up to UFC's first card in the Bay Area. What else was there for Sonnen to do but to insult Silva; MMA; reporters; fans? Of course he embellished his place in the sport. Hey, why not suggest Portuguese sounds like Pig Latin? Sure, it's appropriate to take a swipe at Lance Armstrong's battle with testicular cancer ... say whatever you want and when it leads to some sort of confrontation, flatly deny having said anything at all.
By some standard, one that apparently fails to take into account any sense of reality, Sonnen earned a pass for his more egregious comments, which aren't worth delving into. Just know that Sonnen (24-10-1) has brought foolishness since Feb. 7 -- the day, he proudly exclaims, he officially became the No. 1 middleweight contender in the UFC. And he hardly seems motivated to stop.
There's no denying Sonnen's efficacy as a lightning rod. Nearly 350 words into this preview for UFC 117 and the champion -- unbeaten in a record 11 UFC fights, universally considered among the top two mixed martial artists competing today, on the verge of his record eighth consecutive title defense -- hardly garnered a mention. Such is the power of Sonnen's curious disposition.
Loved and loathed. This is how the challenger enters the Octagon. Sonnen and Silva. Standing. Face to face. Words strung together any which way can't prevent that now, which is probably why the UFC champion has patiently waited and shrugged and smiled while Sonnen, never a loser at middleweight (unless you count the times he has), lobbed mouthy Molotov cocktails.
Silva knows. They're only words. Empty phrases. Sonnen can sell, sell, sell. Hope, hope, hope. But the calendar was on the champ's side, and the fight is here.
Unlike recent middleweight title defenses, for which Silva was roundly criticized (particularly after the disastrous affair against Demian Maia in April), this weekend foreshadows a real fight. Because of their skills and styles, challengers like Thales Leites and Maia were unable to push Silva (26-4). The 35-year-old champion realized that early, yet instead of wiping the canvas with them he danced and played. Silva may have thought he was putting on an unparalleled display of combat skills, but he has to know now that American crowds want one of the best fighters in the world to destroy the opposition, not two-step with him.
Sonnen, 33, seems made to order for a good brawl. Aggressive. Relentless. He's prone to mistakes, especially in the submission game. And he's nowhere near as proficient a striker as the Muay Thai-sharpened Silva. All of which he freely admits -- not everything Sonnen says is without merit.
Is Sonnen the man to defeat Silva for the first time since the Brazilian entered the UFC more than four years ago? His weakness would seem to match poorly against Sonnen's strength. And if the former two-time All-America wrestler at the University of Oregon can control Silva's long body, score takedowns when he needs them and avoid getting caught in firefights or prolonged duels in the clinch, he should be just fine.
Silva's ground game is not to be underestimated. He always fights long, allowing him to utilize positions such as body triangles from the guard. If he's stuck underneath Sonnen, Silva must create distance with his legs or manage a return to his feet. But to make life easier on Saturday, he must avoid prolonged stretches underneath Sonnen, who battered Nate Marquardt to a pulp in February to earn the title shot.
Early momentum is key. If Sonnen gains an upper hand in the first round, plants Silva on the floor and roughs him up, that pattern could emerge throughout the 25-minute fight. Sonnen won't fatigue, which could be enormously important against Silva. However, should Silva find the proper range and employ his brilliant footwork to parry Sonnen's takedowns, this could come to a quick conclusion.
The time for talk is at an end. Yes, Sonnen appears to have enough in his arsenal to make Silva fight -- really fight -- for the first time since Dan Henderson tested the Brazilian in 2008. But it won't be enough, not against one of the most accurate, gifted fighters of this generation.
Because of Silva's uneven performances, especially against Maia in Abu Dhabi, the UFC made sure to stack the televised undercard as an incentive for fight fans who may have been turned off by what the champ did in the Arabian desert.
An important rematch in the welterweight division between Jon Fitch (22-3) and Thiago Alves (16-6) leads the way. The pair met in 2006 and Fitch walked away with a stoppage victory, but there's very little to glean that matters four years later. Alves, now 26, has matured as a fighter, adding quality grappling -- especially counter-grappling and takedown defense -- to a dangerous, power-based striking game. Fitch, 32, isn't much different tactically, but he has so much more experience in big fights now.
I like Fitch to methodically take apart Alves and win on points. A victory for either fighter almost ensures a second crack at the UFC welterweight title.
Matt Hughes ruled the welterweight division from 2001-06. He has since taken a step back, with losses against elite 170-pounders like Alves and current division champion Georges St. Pierre. We'll know how much he has left after taking on Ricardo Almeida. Hughes, 36, makes his 52nd appearance as a professional while Almeida, 33, steps in for No. 16. Despite a wide experience gap, Almeida has advantages in the submission department, and he could be the better striker. If Hughes' strength remains a factor, he can out-wrestle Almeida to a victory. I have my doubts. Almeida by decision.
An intriguing heavyweight contest pits touted 25-year-old Junior dos Santos against "Big Country" Roy Nelson. If you knew nothing about either man, a simple glance would suggest that Nelson is more suited to be John Daly's stunt double than a competent mixed martial artist. But the 34-year-old Nelson (15-4) has succeeded with the aid of and not in spite of his giant belly.
Dos Santos (11-1) is a powerhouse. And no matter how beautiful his knockouts were against Stefan Struve and Brendan Schaub in his last two bouts, Nelson would be foolish to stand and trade with the young Brazilian. He'll try for takedowns, and if he finishes, things could get interesting because if Dos Santos has a weakness, it is believed to be fighting off his back.
I doubt we'll see too much ground work. Dos Santos simply has too much speed, power and determination. He'll catch Nelson, who was knocked out by a similar style fighter, Andrei Arlovski, in 2008.
Also televised live, fan favorite lightweight Clay Guida (26-11) must make a statement against Rafael dos Anjos (14-4) on a card littered with U.S. vs. Brazil matchups.