Anderson Silva's Cocoon of Horror
Props to you if you saw this coming, because I sure didn't.
Yes, I understand that UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen was sent into the ring with champion Anderson Silva precisely because he was a different type of challenger, one who wouldn't indulge Silva's cheap imitation of Satchel Paige's showmanship, and one who -- unlike everybody since Forrest Griffin -- would actually force Silva to fight.
UFC president Dana White promised as much in the wake the five-round cure for insomnia that passed for Silva's April title defence against fellow Brazilian Demian Maia in April, and the prospect of an opponent who would force Silva to put his marvelous array of skills on full display sounded tantalyzing.
Problem was, we had heard it all before.
Travis Lutter and Dan Henderson were each supposed to provide that type of challenge, and each of them tapped out.
Griffin, a fearless brawler, was supposed to test Silva's chin and survival skills at 205 pounds, but the Spider splattered him in less than a round, flattening him for good with a perfectly placed left jab to the jaw.
So I don't know about you guys, but Sonnen didn't seem any different to me.
Sure, he manhandled past Silva victim Nate Marquardt over three rounds in February, but that result alone didn't put him in Silva's class. And the 10 losses be brought into Saturday's bout suggested there was more than one way to beat him.
As the bout approached and Sonnen's trash talk intensified he reminded me more and more of Peter McNeeley.
He's the guy Don King unearthed to serve as Mike Tyson's first post-incarceration opponent in August 1995, a world-class jaw jacker who promised to envelop the former heavyweight champ in "a cocoon of horror."
We all know how that turned out.
I knew Sonnen brought a lot more to the table than McNeeley did, but I didn't foresee a much different result. As I told folks on Twitter as the fighters walked to the ring, Sonnen seemed a lot like Griffin -- a fighter just brave enough to get hurt...badly.
Shows you what I know.
The day after Tyson Gay stunned the World's Fastest Man in Stockholm, Sonnen nearly did the same to the Usain Bolt of MMA. And even though he managed not to win the fight, in manhandling Silva for four and a half rounds he proved that the most dominant fighter of the past half decade is indeed human.
Sonnen did, apparently, and Saturday night he put Silva in more jeopardy than we had seen him endure in his first 11UFC bouts combined. He fought with a visceral anger rarely seen outside Tea Party rallies, repeatedly dumping the middleweight champ on his back, and winning round after round with his suffocating ground and pound.
Silva, we all know by now, survived and triumphed because true champions find ways to win even when losing looks like the only option.
Of course, when a megastar like Silva struggles, questions arise. When Bolt lost to Gay track insiders and casual fans alike posited that he dropped the race intentionally, hoping to stoke interest among a sports public bored by his dominance.
Silva's near-loss prompted similar speculation.
Did he give away the early rounds on purpose?
I've heard that theory and the rationale behind it -- that he was
doing fans a favour, building drama by letting an overmatched opponent
whale away on him knowing he could end the fight whenever he felt like
Not sure I buy it, though. This is a bloodsport, where a simple
miscalculation -- say walking into a punch you don't see -- could cost
you a title, and a grave mistake could put you on a stretcher.
Other folks think SIlva simply didn't prepare for this bout properly, and that he underestimated Sonnen the same way many fans and *ahem* experts did.
Perhaps, but I don't know if a fighter who so enjoys outclassing opponents would take an opponent as intense as Sonnen so lightly.
From my seat at Hooters it simply appeared as though Silva simply met a well trained, highly motivated opponent whose mauling, brawling style gave him problems.
Did complacency play a role?
It's very possible.
For four rounds Silva looked like a man fighting to defend a title while Sonnen looked like a man fighting for his life.
We also can't forget that Silva's 35 years old. He's not ancient but certainly not in any athletes prime years, either. Since arriving in the UFC in 2006 no opponent could even make him sweat, but aside from steroid fueled baseball players who delayed the aging process indefinitely no athlete, no matter how gifted and skilled, spends more than three years at the absolute top of his game. They might still dominate but they still slide downhill after they peak.
So it's possible that after three untouchable years Silva has slowed down a bit.
But in the end it didn't matter on Saturday night. Skill and savvy conquered raw aggression. Silva couldn't figure out how to stay off his back, so devised a way to win from there, splitting Sonnen's brow with elbow strikes and locking in an inescapable triangle choke when a tiring Sonnen left himself open to it.
The result was a last-minute submission win and the most dramatic win of Silva's UFC career.
Whether it was the most impressive depends on who you ask.
A lot of observers label Saturday night's win Silva's best because he proved, at last, that he could endure adversity and win emphatically.
Personally, I like to see how well an athlete performs when he's at his best, regardless of the margin of victory. I never downgraded Roy Jones Jr. for never having overcome adversity because the talent gap between him and his opponents wasn't his fault.
On the track I'd rather see Bolt run 9.58 and win by two metres than watch him gut out a 10-flat photo finish. Again, if the second-fastest man on the planet is (on most days) a full stride slower, that's not Bolt's problem.
So while Saturday night's win was the most riveting of Silva's career, give me his one-punch destruction of renowned tough guy Forrest Griffin as the strongest evidence of his greatness.
I don't mean to detract from the drama of Saturday's win -- it stands alone as a signature victory for Silva and the sport, and is to mixed martial arts what Joe Louis' Hail Mary 13th round knockout over Billy Conn was to boxing.
But while a big win despite adversity certainly signals that a virtuoso like Silva also has a legend's heart, it also might signify that the rest of the world is closing the gap.
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