The Turning Point: Sonnen vs. Bisping

By Chris Nelson Jan 31, 2012
Some felt Chael Sonnen lost a close decision at UFC on Fox 2. | File Photo:

Alright, I’m calling an audible.

(I can do that, right?)

The first round between Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping at UFC on Fox 2 was not, strictly speaking, the turning point of their middleweight bout. In retrospect, however, it did prove the most crucial of the three frames, as well as the most divisive and the toughest to score. So, apologies for this week’s slight misnomer, but those five minutes seem to merit further discussion.

The moment Saturday’s unanimous decision was announced in favor of Sonnen, I watched Twitter light up. Some agreed with the call, if not judge Clay Goodman’s 30-27 verdict; others were all-caps’ing “ROBBERY!” as soon as the scores left Bruce Buffer’s mouth. Multiple people even messaged me, unsolicited -- and why me, I do not know -- declaring that the fix was in to set up this summer’s big middleweight title rematch.

What most seemed to agree on was that Bisping had taken round two and Sonnen round three. That is how’s virtual judges saw the last two stanzas, but there was no consensus on round one, which I scored 10-9 for Sonnen; Sherdog Radio Network Program Director TJ De Santis gave the same score for Bisping, while Canadian correspondent Freddie DeFreitas had it a 10-10 split. After some stat-gazing and five more viewings of that opening period, I’m still confident in my score.

Sonnen came out hot from the jump and floored the notoriously takedown-stingy “Count” with a single-leg after just six seconds. Not to be held down, Bisping pushed right back up to his feet, where he began pawing at his eye after an apparent poke. Sonnen did not stop moving forward, and Bisping made him pay with a clean left cross. After the fight, Sonnen would admit that Bisping hit him so hard in the first round that he did not know where he was; that punch might have come here.

Undeterred, Sonnen kept pushing the fight into close quarters, landing another takedown and keeping Bisping pinned to the cage when the Brit got back up. He denied a double-leg from Bisping as the middleweights danced along the fence, trading knees inside. When midway through the round Bisping reversed the position, Sonnen tied up and began head-fighting, scraping his face across Bisping’s in the clinch while referee John McCarthy warned him against head-butting.

Whenever the two men disengaged, it quickly became obvious with whom the striking advantage laid. Fortunately for Sonnen, he and Bisping spent even more time locked together in the latter part of the round, with Sonnen mugging his man up against the cage. Neither landed any crushing blows, though Sonnen’s sporadic knees to the body seemed to be the most effective strikes.

With a minute to go, they were back to throwing hands, and Bisping put another hard left on Sonnen’s cheek while the Oregonian seemed to pull up short with his punches. The next tie-up saw Bisping on the outside, throwing short lefts to Sonnen’s body and uppercuts through the middle. Sonnen kept busy with short arm punches, which landed cleanly on the mug of Bisping but did not seem to have much effect.

It was not the most action-packed round, but each man had done enough to make it tight. Would the judges favor Sonnen’s takedowns and early positional dominance, as MMA judges are oft wont to do? Or did they like Bisping’s later clinch work and left hands, which, while few and far between, looked to be the hardest shots of the stanza? All three officials -- Goodman, Brad Odum and Otto Torriero -- sided with Sonnen.

Statistics rarely paint a full picture, particularly when it comes to MMA, but in a case this close, they are worth checking. According to figures from, in addition to his pair of brief takedowns, Sonnen kept more active and threw 15 more strikes than Bisping in total (67 to 52). He also outlanded the Englishman 43-23 in total strikes and 24-13 in significant strikes; the bulk of the latter came in the form of body shots, along with punches to the head on the ground during Sonnen’s opening explosion. Sonnen would go on to outland Bisping in all three rounds, including the second frame, which Bisping took on two judges’ cards.

Like most folks I have heard from since Saturday, I was not wild about this fight. By the end, it turned out to be another Sonnen grinder special, atypical only in its early closeness. It was a narrow fight, but to call it a robbery -- a word lobbed about far too frequently these days -- seems absurd.

It was far from pretty, but, by starting aggressively and racking up points early, Sonnen got the job done.


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