March 27, 2012

You didn't believe Chael Sonnen, did you?

"I can guarantee you: Anderson Silva and I will never cross paths again," he said during a conference call with mixed martial arts media members a couple of months ago. "I know Anderson's not going to fight."

We now know otherwise. We always did, really. The UFC announced Monday that Silva-Sonnen II will be the main event of UFC 147 on June 23 in Rio de Janeiro. This is not news, other than officially setting a date. We've always known that Chael and "The Spider" would indeed cross paths again. Sonnen knew.

The conference call in which Chael made his dismissive announcement, in fact, was being held to hype his fight against Michael Bisping on the UFC on Fox card in January, with the winner promised a shot at Silva and the UFC middleweight belt. Yet Sonnen spent less time during the call talking about the Brit he was about to fight -- and whom he would beat by a surprisingly competitive unanimous decision -- than he did talking about the Brazilian he insisted would never again fight him. Sonnen saw taking the big-picture view, hyping the big fight.

He's done quite a job. Some would say he's gone over the line, calling Silva everything from "absolute fraud" to "dirtbag." He's proclaimed himself "the true champion" and even walked around -- and appeared on ESPN -- with a replica UFC title belt slung over his shoulder. He's taken his mockery beyond Silva to trash-talk Brazil in general, most comically with an often-trotted-out anecdote about watching the Nogueira brothers attempting to feed a bus as if it were a wild animal. The man is taking on a whole country, an entire culture.

Come June 23, it might seem that way. UFC 147 is to be held in Estádio Olímpico João Havelange, a soccer stadium that will host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The MMA seating capacity is expected to reach 60,000, and if Sonnen's antics engender enough local fan animosity to fill the place, attendance would be the largest in UFC history.

But this fight is built on more than hype. Sure, Chael Sonnen talks the talk with WWF-style aplomb. But here's what gives bite to all of his gum flapping: The guy can walk the walk. In fact, he's already left footprints all over the otherwise indomitable Anderson Silva. Competitively speaking, this as fascinating as rematches get.

Silva is 14-0 since making his UFC debut nearly six years ago with a 49-second TKO of tough-guy Chris Leben. He won the middleweight belt in his next fight, destroying Rich Franklin, and has barely broken a sweat since then in taking out the likes of Nate Marquardt, Forrest Griffin, Demian Maia and others. Dan Henderson, the Pride champ at the time, pushed him for a little over a round back in 2008, but "The Spider" unified the belts with a second-round finish. The only fighter who's truly taken the fight to Silva is Sonnen, who back in August 2010 dominated the champ for 23 minutes.

This was not your typical wrestler-vs.-striker battle for position. Sonnen, who had to upset Marquardt in a title eliminator to get to the champ, did not simply shoot for a takedown, then ride out the round. He repeatedly beat Silva to the punch, shockingly getting the better of the standup before taking the fight to the mat and beating up Silva some more. This went on for four full rounds and the first few minutes of the fifth. It was only Sonnen's chronic Achilles' heel -- submission defense -- that saved the day for "The Spider." That and Silva's never-say-die champion's heart. Chael had Anderson on his back for the umpteenth time and was two minutes away from taking possession of the championship belt -- the real championship belt -- when he made the mistake of leaving his neck and an arm at risk. Silva seized the moment ... and the limb, securing a triangle armbar to elicit a tapout at 3:10 of the final round.

It was a pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat victory. It was one of those moments when you say, "I want to see that again." And so we will.

Can Sonnen dominate again? Will he make the same mistake twice? Was it just an off night for the champ? Will we see a totally different Silva, one not slowed by the rib injury that supposedly hindered him the first time? All of those questions -- answered in front of a soccer stadium crowd in Rio -- make this possibly the biggest fight in MMA history.

The mere suggestion of that has drawn outrage, especially on Internet message boards where the diehards lurk. Silva-Sonnen II the biggest ever? Bah! Many folks who've been watching this sports since the days of VHS rentals bristle at the suggestion that you can link the term "biggest fight" with any name other than Fedor Emelianenko, who in his day was no less dominant than Silva is in his. "What about Fedor vs. Cro Cop in 2005 in Pride?" goes the argument. To which a bunch of MMA fans -- the UFC hopes it's a big, big bunch, which suggests much new growth -- quizzically respond, "Who vs. who, way back when in what?"

OK, that's an overdramatization of the then-vs.-now mentality of today's MMA. But behind the hyperbole is this truth: The sport has experienced so much expansion over the last few years that to cite a 2005 fight as the biggest is like touting some George "Mr. Basketball" Mikan performance as the greatest in NBA history. In both cases, it was a different game back then.

The truth is that the biggest fight in MMA history hasn't happened yet. It will be a bout that once and for all captures the imagination of the Super Bowl-World Series-March Madness public. It might be hard for diehards to connect with the concept that MMA is even now still on the fringes of American (and world) sports. The UFC is on network television. Strikeforce is on premium cable. But the emergence into the mainstream is proceeding haltingly. It's going to take an athlete like, say, Jon Jones or maybe the next Jon Jones to break through.

Among fights that have already happened, the biggest could very well have been last November's Cain Velazquez vs. Junior dos Santos. It was the UFC's debut on Fox, meaning it had the sport's largest TV audience, and it was for the heavyweight championship, which in combat sports automatically lends a fight added importance. Had it not ended in a mere 64 seconds -- turning the hour-long telecast into a numbingly bland 59-minute pre- and postgame show -- this would have been the UFC's biggest moment since Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar put the fight promotion on the map with their Spike TV slugfest in the first Ultimate Fighter finale back in 2005.

Randy Couture also figured in some transcendent moments for MMA. There was his trilogy of fights with Chuck Liddell, of course, which solidified his own Hall of Fame status and built "The Iceman" into a celebrity worthy of the cover of ESPN the Magazine and a cameo on HBO's Entourage. When "The Natural" lost his heavyweight belt to Brock Lesnar in 2008, that ushered in a different type of celebrity, one the UFC would ride for four years before the former WWE star's health issues derailed the pay-per-view gravy train. And when Couture stepped into the octagon with boxer James Toney in 2010, that crossover bout had the potential to thrust the UFC into the public eye. But watching the fight, it was hard to tell whether MMA was that dominant or Toney simply was over the hill.

So now we're left with Silva-Sonnen II as a fight on which to continue building a sport. We have three months to the combatants to stir up the animosity. Then we'll have the greatest MMA fighter of our time stepping in the cage with the one man who's stood up to him and even knocked him down a few pegs. The biggest ever? Stay tuned.

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