Two minutes from closing the show on the best performance of his career Saturday night and collecting a belt few believed he could win, Sonnen, the brash challenger from Bend, Ore., allowed a fight he dominated to get out of control for no more than a split second. And that's all it took for the long-legged Silva, down on judges' cards 40-34, 40-35, 40-36 heading into the fifth round, to snatch a brilliant triangle/armbar combination and force a tapout -- the eighth time in Sonnen's career he lost in such a manner.
Sonnen said he would force Silva into a fist fight.
Sonnen said he would take the champion down and beat him up.
Sonnen said he would stand and strike against a feared Muay Thai stylist who owns 15 knockouts in 27 fights.
Energy, wrestling, and belief in himself allowed the former University of Oregon wrestler to accomplish these things against a man who dominated the middleweight division since 2006. And because the challenger did so, he brought out Silva's best.
For a champion whose motivations were questioned after recent performances in the cage, Sonnen left Silva with two options. Survive and slug it out. Or wilt. Go away.
He attempted the former, and what transpired was one of the great five-round championship fights in mixed martial arts history.
Sonnen established himself early in the first with a punch that stumbled the champion, who through the miracle of the late submission moved his record UFC winning streak to 12 Saturday at Oakland, Calif.'s, Oracle Arena. Sonnen pounced and pounded his way to a convincing 10-8 opening round on SI.com's scorecard. No matter what happened the rest of the way, Sonnen proved his point: he belonged, and he could win.
Silva regrouped in the middle periods -- even if he continued to get planted on his back. The damaging ground-and-pound that highlighted Sonnen's first five minutes was essentially neutralized the rest of the way, even as the challenger's output went up.
Round 1: 37 strikes landed on the floor.
Round 2: 73.
Round 3: 93.
Sonnen out-struck Silva 289 to 29, including a massive 270 on the floor. In 11 previous bouts in the UFC, Silva absorbed a total of 208 strikes, according to CompuStrike.
Yes, Sonnen, 33, did almost everything he wanted. But he surely won't feel that way. Not when, within his grasp, was the UFC championship.
"It was a tough fight," Sonnen said. "He's a tough guy. I came in second. They gave me my opportunity and I came up short."
Did he blow it?
Sonnen could have buried his face in the 35-year-old Silva's chest to ride out the last 120 seconds. But he wasn't going to stop attacking. It would perhaps be best to acknowledge Sonnen's massive mistake at the same time, paying Silva proper respects for remaining alert enough to snatch the submission.
That's how fast things turn in MMA. From positions where it only seems possible to get beat up. This is what
Afterwards, Silva said he was nursing a rib injury, one he insinuated that was bad enough for doctors to warn him off the fight. He never appeared hampered in any way.
At the start of the fourth, Silva landed a stiff short elbow that hurt Sonnen (24-11-1) for the first time. The champion, sensing a huge turn in the fight, went after a man who since February said awful, vile things about him; who disrespected his position as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in MMA; who insisted he hadn't fought anyone worth fighting; who suggested his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under the Nogueira brothers was worth as much as a piece of plastic junk toy found in a Happy Meal; who said anything, did anything to prompt a reaction.
What a reaction.
Sonnen may, at some point, ask himself if all the talk accomplished was lifting Silva's spirit to the heights required for this kind of comeback.
Anderson Silva was engaged -- and it was beautiful to watch one of the sport's most talented fighters respond to being pushed to the brink.