January 29, 2012

If you're in it for the story line, for the melodrama, you got just what you wanted.

Ever since Chael Sonnen dominated Anderson Silva for 23 minutes before the middleweight champion magically pulled a submission out of thin air back in 2010, you've been longing for the rematch.

Ever since Rashad Evans and Jon Jones were transformed from friends to foes a winter ago just as "Bones" was transforming himself from rising prospect to powerful force at light heavyweight, you've been anticipating their inevitable collision.

UFC on Fox 2 did not deliver the most scintillating mixed martial arts you've ever seen -- it was not the type of heart-pumping combative action that'll persuade any of your non-MMA-fan friends to chip in for the next pay-per-view -- but Saturday night's fight card at the United Center in Chicago did deliver.

It delivered Evans vs. Jones, which is slated for UFC 145 on April 21 in Atlanta. It delivered Sonnen vs. Silva II, which will be contested sometime this summer, likely in Brazil.

Both challengers-to-be earned their title shots with unanimous decision victories, with Evans dominating Phil Davis and Sonnen earning a close but clear decision over Michael Bisping.

Jones, who was working on the Fox telecast, set up the back story during the prefight analysis. "As most people already know, there's been a lot of hype, a lot of drama surrounding me and Rashad Evans, being former teammates," he said. "So I'm really hoping and praying he wins this fight tonight, so I can get past this chapter in my story."

His hopes were answered, as Davis didn't have a prayer. "Mr. Wonderful" came into the bout undefeated, yes, but he was untested at the level of Evans, a former UFC champion. And while Davis (9-1) appeared more fluid and comfortable in the standup game than in the past, he didn't have the speed or diversity of attack to give "Suga Rashad" much of a fight. Evans (17-1-1) even showed off how different the NCAA record books might look if collegiate wrestlers had to concern themselves with punches and kicks. Davis was the 2008 Division I champion and 2006 runner-up, but Evans got the better of him even in the grappling. Rashad, an All-American wrestler himself in college, secured some dominant positions on the ground, although he was unable to finish Davis.

"I wanted to put him away, but I just didn't get a chance to land those big punches," Evans said during an interview in the octagon after all three judges had handed in 50-45 scorecards. "I'm kind of disappointed about it."

But not disappointed about where the shutout victory puts him. "I'm excited. This fight was the monkey on my back that I had to get over," Evans said. "It was hard to really focus on this fight, because everybody kept talking about that fight [with Jones]."

It was a low-key, understated interview; perfectly understandable mere moments after the guy had tussled for 25 minutes. What, then, fueled Chael Sonnen in his postfight interview? No sooner had his hand been raised when he went a lively round with the TV analyst sent into the cage to ask him some questions. "Joe Rogan, tonight is not for questions for me," he said. "This is your night, brother. I want to know how you feel being only inches away from greatness."

Sorry, Chael, but Rogan was miles and miles from greatness. He'd just spent 15 minutes singing the praises of Bisping (22-4) for managing to hold his own against an elite grappler, all the while ignoring that Sonnen (27-11-1) had beaten the British striker to the punch time after time. And when Chael took Michael's back, then gained full mount in the third round, Rogan told viewers that Sonnen, "if he wants to win this fight, may have to submit Michael Bisping." Really? Even first-time MMA viewers who'd switched over from Great Performances on PBS knew that wasn't the fight they were seeing.

Bisping did do himself proud with his performance, but this was Sonnen's fight. It began with Chael walking across the cage on a grim mission and taking down the Brit within six seconds. That was no surprise. What was surprising was that within eight seconds "The Count" had made his way back to his feet. But before the round was over, Sonnen had taken him down again, and although he kept Bisping there for a mere 20 seconds, he landed a couple of left hands. While the fight was standing, Bisping successfully neutralized Sonnen against the cage, but he landed no telling blows.

The second round was a testament to how deceptive fight statistics can be. Midway through, Sonnen scored another takedown, and Bisping was on his back for about a minute. During that time, according to CompuStrike stats, Chael landed only 3 of his 8 punches, although what the numbers don't tell you is that one was a hard right hand that landed flush on the chin. Bisping, meanwhile, was credited with 11 of 11 striking from his back. What those numbers don't reveal is that Michael did no more than box Sonnen's ears repeatedly with an open hand, a pitter-patter of nothingness.

Then, in the third round, Sonnen got the takedown 10 seconds in and stayed in control until the bout's final 30 seconds. He was in dominant position, maneuvering for a finish, for a stretch. This was the clearest round to score, although one judge gave all three to Chael and the other two scorecards had it 29-28. The thing is, the scoring could very well have been not as close as it turned out. Referee John McCarthy warned Bisping several times for holding Sonnen's shorts and grabbing the fence. One of those warnings came even after "Big John" had said, "I'm not going to warn you again." No doubt there would have been an uproar if Bisping had had a point deducted, but several times he seized an advantage with those little infractions, which can make a big difference in a grappling match.

But I digress. Let's allow Sonnen to finish his octagon monolog-- I mean, interview:

"When you're the greatest fighter in the world today, they got a name for you. They don't call you a great fighter. They call you Chael Sonnen. Beat me if you can."

That's one way of looking at the evening. But perhaps a more poetic way -- one that applies not just to Sonnen and Evans but also to the champions they'll next face -- came from one of those belt holders. As the Fox telecast was winding down, Jon Jones was asked how he was feeling now that his showdown with Rashad is finally on the schedule. "Oh, man, I'm so pumped up right now, I've got goose bumps everywhere," he said. "I feel so alive when I know who I'm fighting next. I have a new mission. I have a new purpose."

And so the story line turns to a new chapter.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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