We thought we knew what made Anderson Silva great. We had no idea.
We watched him destroy opponent after opponent ever since his UFC debut six years ago. Not one of his first 11 bouts in the organization that's home to the world's elite mixed martial artists even made him break a sweat. The rangy Brazilian with a dancer's fluidity and a matador's killer instinct outclassed everyone, even when he appeared to be barely trying. We thought we were seeing greatness.
We weren't. We were seeing dominance.
Greatness would not come until two summers ago, when Silva stepped into the octagon with Chael Sonnen. The UFC middleweight champion won that fight, too, but it wasn't the day at the beach his fights had been to that point. Silva took a beating from the loquacious Sonnen, a smothering wrestler who surprised the sport's greatest striker with his fisticuffs acumen. For the better part of 23 minutes, Anderson was on his back beneath a Chael blanket, eating punches and elbows. But then he pulled a rabbit out of a hat, clamping on a triangle armbar that elicited the tapout and ensured that the championship belt would remain his.
Some saw that brutal bout as tarnishing the shiny brass on Anderson's well-worn title strap. I was in that camp, even going so far as to ultimately drop Silva below the always-dominant light heavyweight champ, Jon Jones, in SI.com's pound-for-pound fighter rankings. But upon further reflection, I now get that in watching "The Spider" tough it out, we were seeing his true preeminence emerge.
Silva gave us an even more brilliant display of his supremacy on Saturday night, when he once again withstood Sonnen's best shot and, in the blink of an eye, seized a thrilling victory. This time, in the main event of UFC 148 in Las Vegas, the end came in the second round, after Silva had spent the entirety of the first -- all but the fight's first four seconds -- on his back. Chael got his takedown, swiftly passed Silva's guard to allow him to unleash an attack without serious concern for submission defense, and eventually moved to full mount, the ground game's most dominant position. Although Sonnen landed only a few damaging blows among the 76 strikes recorded during the five minutes by the UFC's official statistician, FightMetric, Silva was credited with zero strikes. One cageside judge scored it a 10-8 round.
Not so great for Silva.
But then the champ came out for the second, stopped a Sonnen takedown try, stopped another and then another. And when Chael -- perhaps frustrated, perhaps fatigued, perhaps simply reckless -- tried a spinning back-fist and tripped over his own feet as his wild attack missed its target, Silva's killer instinct kicked in. With Sonnen seated against the cage, Anderson wasted no time before delivering a hard knee to the body that seemed to drain the life out of the challenger. Chael did manage to rise to his feet briefly after taking several hard shots to the head, but a Silva right hand put him right back on the canvas, where the champ swiftly and efficiently finished the job.
So now it's twice that Silva has reached down deep. And ascended to heights even he had not yet seen in the annals of his sport.
Now what? There doesn't appear to be a middleweight this side of West Linn, Oregon, who can give the 37-year-old Silva a fight. Will the 185-pound champion -- now the winner of 15 straight UFC bouts, including 10 title defenses -- next find himself in the cage with one of the UFC's other pound-for-pound stars, 170-pounder Georges St-Pierre or 205-pound manchild Jon Jones? Highly unlikely. When GSP is ready to fight following his recovery from knee surgery, he will return to a welterweight division with a logjam at the top, from interim champion Carlos Condit to next-in-line contenders Martin Kampmann and Johny Hendricks, and eventually even suspended Nick Diaz as well. He has plenty on his plate. As for Jones, he has only Dan Henderson on his dance card, and if he passes that test the light heavyweight belt holder will be available. But would Silva pack on the pounds necessary to take on the man who, after Saturday's fight, tweeted: "Man my man Anderson Silva went to work tonight, consistently amazing." My man? That and the men's pre-fight hug at cageside suggest that we won't be seeing a Silva-Jones superfight.
Dana White, even being the uber-promoter that he is, isn't going to push for Silva to switch weight divisions. "I don't ever tell guys whether to move up or move down," said the UFC president. "Anderson Silva is the greatest fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. I'm in awe of this guy."
So is Chael Sonnen. Reluctantly. After the fight he was uncharacteristically a man of few words, saying of his opponent, "He's a true champion, man."
We came within inches of having the belt change hands. That is, the six inches or so between the tip of Sonnen's chin and his upper chest.
The telling blow in Silva's second-round TKO came after the challenger had missed with a spinning move and lost his balance, falling to his rear against the cage. Chael was sitting there when Silva charged in with a knee to the chest that took the fight out of him.
It was a risky move for Anderson. Had the knee landed just to the north, it would have been illegal, costing the champ at least a point and, if Sonnen was unable to continue, perhaps the fight and with it his belt.
Watching in real time, the knee did appear to be directed at Sonnen's face. Pay-per-view broadcasters Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan questioned whether it was a legal blow, and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva could be seen at cageside screaming for the referee to jump in. However, replays show that Silva's knee made contact with Sonnen's chest, although his thigh might have landed on his face.
Sonnen declined to complain afterward ("We can't sit and nitpick these things") and White used his sheepdog control of the MMA media to head off a question about the knee that was posed to Silva. "The knee was legal, the knee was legal," he blurted out before Silva could say a word. "We watched it on tape. The knee was legal. The ref called it legal. There's no need to talk about the illegal knee. There was no illegal knee."
Perhaps there wasn't, but it would have been nice to hear what Silva had to say about a move that could have been disastrous for him. The questioner chose not to follow up with a request for Silva to comment. Baaah.
A surreal scene played out in the immediate aftermath of the main event. The crowd was roaring, stunned by Silva's lightning-quick turnaround and finish. Sonnen stood in his corner looking dazed, perhaps contemplating what might have been if he had made better use of his 50 seconds in full mount and had not thrown the crazy spinning move.
And Silva stepped to the microphone, interviewed by Rogan at the center of the octagon. Asked about the animosity that had built in the lead-up to the fight, Anderson didn't wait for his manager, Ed Soares, to translate. "Me and Chael working hard, for the show for all the people here," he said. "Please, this is nothing. Chael fight against me. I fight Chael. No have problem. I don't have nothing for Chael. Chael disrespect my country, but it's fine. This is a sport. This is UFC."
As a rumble of boos arose from the sections of MGM Grand Garden Arena that were filled with flag-waving Brazilian fans, Silva quieted the crowd. "Brazil, one second, one second," he said, then walked over to his vanquished opponent's corner, Brazilian flag around his shoulders, and grabbed Sonnen by the hand. You could lip-read Chael saying, "Good fight," as they walked together back to the center of the octagon, to scattered boos. Which Silva quickly put a stop to.
"Hey, hey, one second, one second," he said, then switched to Portuguese, eliciting polite applause. Soares translated: "He said, 'Let's show Brazil has manners. And I want everybody to applaud Chael.'"
As cheers slowly built, Silva then turned to Sonnen, his arm draped over his drooping shoulders, and added, in English: "Chael, thank you for the fight, bro." And then back to Portuguese, drawing another cheer. Soares' translation put a smile on Rogan's face: "If you'd like to have a barbecue at my house, I'd love to have you over for a barbecue."
When Sonnen was asked at the post-fight news conference if he would accept Silva's invitation, he said he's starving and would love some Brazilian barbecue, "as long as it's medium rare." Both fighters smiled. Doubly surreal.
And a short while later, Sonnen changed his anti-Brazilian tune, praising the country's MMA supporters. "The Brazilian fans have it down right. They back their guy," he said. "North America is the only country in the world where we don't do that. And that's fine.
"But I really admire the Brazilian fans, and that includes when I'm getting booed on the way in. I should getting booed when I'm taking on their guy."
The UFC has seven champions. One of them fought Saturday night, and in the days leading up to the fight, the other six belt holders offered their opinions of how he'd do.
The on-the-money prognosticators who picked fellow champ Anderson Silva were heavyweight Junior dos Santos, light heavyweight Jon Jones, lightweight Benson Henderson and featherweight José Aldo. That last one is an assumption, since I didn't actually see an Aldo prediction among those I dug up on Twitter and various MMA websites. However, José trains with his Brazilian countryman, so he surely wasn't with Chael Sonnen.
But welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and bantamweight Dominick Cruz were. And so were a couple of other champs: Strikeforce's heavyweight Grand Prix winner, Daniel Cormier, and welterweight titlist Gilbert Melendez. They were in the minority among the MMA fighters who weighed in. And rightly so, as it turned out.