July 10, 2012

Where would Ali have been without Frazier? Bird without Magic? Jack without Arnie? Abbott without Costello?

OK, so the last pair never dueled, unless you count their verbal sparring in the "Who's on First?" routine. But they belong with all those other duke-it-out twosomes, not only as an homage to The American Pastime during All-Star week but also because the duo this whole discussion is centered on, Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, squared off in words as well as deeds.

It was the whole dance, the physical and psychological warfare, that made Saturday night's middleweight championship bout special. UFC president Dana White tried to downplay the psych-out aspect of the game, lecturing the press in the fight's aftermath, "Don't say, 'Oh, because Chael Sonnen says crazy things is what sold this fight.' The crazy ass whupping he put on Anderson in the first fight and the way that that fight ended is what sold this fight." As is often the case, the UFC president is telling only the part of the story that paints the picture he wants to sell us to hang on all of our walls.

It's true that if we didn't have Aug. 7, 2010 -- and the 23-minute beat down Sonnen dealt the indomitable Silva before succumbing to a last-ditch submission -- in the back of our minds, we would have dismissed Chael as a bag of wind these past several months. (Actually, we wouldn't have even had a rematch if Silva had handled Sonnen the way he has everyone else the UFC has stood in front of him.) But knowing that the loquacious challenger had walked the walk made us sit up and listen to him talk the talk. And that tough talk is what stirred up interest among the larger sports fandom. There's no denying that the steady stream of unconscionable that Sonnen unleashed and the malevolence that Silva stoically held in until he no longer could is what made this the most anticipated rematch in UFC history.

The rematch lived up to the hype. Sort of. Sonnen got the takedown he craved a mere four seconds in, and he remained on top and in control -- including nearly a minute in the dominant full-mount position -- until the horn sounded after five minutes. Then, in the second round, Silva tightened up his takedown defense, Sonnen lost his focus for a moment and suddenly it was over -- the champion a winner by TKO. It wasn't the five rounds of Sonnen smothering that Chael had promised, or the lightning-strike first-round KO that Silva had predicted. But what we did see told us what we needed to know about these men, especially the champ. Silva showed again that he's not just a wave, he's the water. (Thanks, Butch Hancock.) He survived the deep water of having Sonnen splashed across him for five potentially drowning minutes. Then he morphed into shark-infested waters himself, seizing upon the slightest of vulnerabilities to eat Chael alive.

For Anderson Silva and his legacy, Chael Sonnen was a gift. Numbers crunchers will remember the champ for his 16 straight wins (and counting), 15 in the UFC, including 10 title defenses. But those who measure fighters by amorphous yet meaningful things such as heart and poise and fire will hold Silva in the highest esteem for his two go-rounds with Sonnen, fights that did not start out so well for the champ but ended with his arm raised. And his status, too.

Don't get your hopes up for a Silva-Sonnen III, but Chael's head coach is pushing for one, crying foul. Scott McQuarry even has inquired with the Nevada Athletic Commission about the procedure for lodging an appeal of Saturday's result, according to an MMAjunkie.com report. The basis of his discontent is the Silva knee that was the beginning of the end for Sonnen. McQuarry acknowledges that it hit his fighter in the chest but argues that it also connected to the chin, which would make it illegal. (In repeated viewings of replays, I didn't see evidence to support the coach's contention, but no replay offered a clear, unambiguous view.) McQuarry also brings up two other rule violations by Silva: grabbing Sonnen's shorts (he did, but Chael grabbed Anderson's, too) and greasing up his body before the fight began (he did that as well, but representatives of the commission saw it happening and instructed referee Yves Lavigne to towel off the champ before starting the fight, so no harm, no foul).

It's highly unlikely this appeal -- which Sonnen's manager professed to know nothing about, by the way -- would go anywhere. But the mere mention of it did stir up some chatter on the Internet (doesn't everything?). And we all know that Dana White is a man of the people, telling us over and over that he always gives fans what they want to see. However, there would have to be a tremendous furor among fans for the UFC to book a third installment of this melodrama. And this "Kneegate" hullabaloo does not appear to be giving rise to an Occupy UFC movement. So Anderson and Chael can proceed with their friendly barbecue.

* * *

A more likely next opponent for Silva might be anointed on Wednesday, when the UFC holds a rare midweek show in San Jose, Calif. (9 p.m. ET, Fuel TV). In the main event, Mark Muñoz takes on Chris Weidman, and while others have been angling for the title shot -- Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher are trying to drum up fan support online to bolster their cases -- Muñoz would seem to be the one best situated with a win. He is 12-2 and on a four-fight winning streak, and he was scheduled to face Sonnen in a No. 1 contenders' fight in January before injuring his elbow in training. So if he gets by the 8-0 Weidman, "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" could be next for Silva.

That is, if there even is a next. Silva is 37 years old and has proven all he needs to prove in MMA. He can walk away now and be remembered as one of the greats, perhaps the greatest ever. Anderson says he wants to keep fighting, though, and perhaps the challenge of facing a guy with even better wrestling than Sonnen -- Muñoz was the 2001 NCAA Division 1 champion at 197 pounds and beat Chael on the mat -- and with a more potent ground-and-pound would keep the juices flowing. Muñoz and Silva have trained together and have professed to be friends, so the prospect of a more gentlemanly competition might also appeal to "The Spider."

* * *

Even when fighters are on their way out the door, the UFC has a way of letting them know who's boss. For Tito Ortiz, who in the last couple of years has made nice with friend-turned-nemesis Dana White, that meant being handed a winnable swan song against a résumé-enhancing name. Ortiz didn't end up beating Forrest Griffin in Saturday night's co-main event, but in facing a guy whose career is also in the slow lane, Tito at least was able to hang in and make a fight of it. The former light heavyweight champ walks away looking like a warrior right to his last breath as an active fighter.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin. Quinton Jackson, who has publicly sparred with Dana and expressed a desire to be done with the UFC, is being shown the exit ... but with a scary doorman lurking to toss him out on his keister. According to a report on the Brazilian website Sportv.com, Jackson's final UFC fight will be in October in Rio de Janeiro against Glover Teixeira. The 32-year-old Brazilian (18-2) has fought only once in the UFC, but his quick destruction of Kyle Kingsbury in May -- his 16th straight victory -- opened a lot of eyes. The UFC tried to match him with Mauricio Rua, but according to White (don't forget your grain of salt here), "Shogun" said he'd rather be cut by the promotion than fight Teixeira. So now Glover gets Jackson, a one-time champion whose recent fights would be plaintiff's evidence if fans brought a false advertising lawsuit against Jackson for still calling himself "Rampage." If Quinton cannot live up to his nickname once more, he might need The A-Team to rescue him.

* * *

Speaking of movies, when Russell Crowe spends a day in a posh Beverly Hills hotel suite being interviewed by the arts press to promote his new movie, The Man with the Iron Fists, he'd better not complain about the catered lunch or having to answer the same questions over and over. Crowe has it a lot easier than one of his co-stars. On Saturday night Cung Le stood in front of a banner touting the Quentin Tarantino-produced, RZA-directed film, which opens in September. Le, who portrays Bronze Lion in the action movie, had only a brief promotional stint, however, as he had to focus on his other job. As soon as the banner was removed from the octagon, Cung stepped into battle against Patrick Cote. After three back-and-forth rounds, Le was declared the victor. "Hey, for all the 40-year-olds," Le said following his first UFC win, "I did this for you." Save that speech for the Oscars, Cung.

* * *

A couple of undercard fighters had notable names on their early-career résumés. Fabrício Camões, who lost a unanimous decision to Melvin Guillard on Saturday night, went 25 minutes with Anderson Silva in his second professional fight, a TKO loss back in June 1997. And Ivan Menjivar, who dropped a unanimous decision to Mike Easton at UFC 148, welcomed a guy named Georges St-Pierre to MMA back in 2002. GSP made a smashing debut, handing Ivan his first career loss with a TKO with one second remaining in the first round.

* * *

Just as word was getting out on Twitter that @KingJames was at the MGM Grand Garden Arena for UFC 148, pay-per-view announcer Mike Goldberg declared that there were "lots of great people in attendance." But instead of showing LeBron, the camera zeroed in on Antonio Esfandiari. What weight class is he in? He's not a fighter, not even a hoopster. He's a poker player, who earlier in the week became instantly rich and famous -- or at least rich -- by winning poker's largest prize, upwards of $18 million. That's even more than LeBron's annual NBA salary.

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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