On August 7, 2010, Chael Sonnen took Anderson Silva to the brink of defeat.
As a result, a battle-tested journeyman became a bona fide star, and a gifted artist finally found a suitable foil. Nearly two years later, after suspension, injury, insult and a change in venue, the two rivals finally crossed paths again on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
In the meantime, Sonnen became a larger-than-life figure thanks to his outlandish professional wrestling routine. Silva, meanwhile, helped contribute to the hype by promising that his opponent would need extensive dental work after their rematch.
It was all great theater, and it helped to generate the type of mainstream interest the UFC had not seen since its centennial event in 2009. In the end, the champion restored order by stopping Sonnen via technical knockout in the second round, an anti-climactic ending for those who were anticipating five-round drama along the lines of their initial meeting. Really, though, was not what Silva did to the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn” at UFC 148 what we all expected to happen when they first crossed paths at UFC 117?
After all, Sonnen was not even supposed to get past Nate Marquardt in a No. 1 contender bout at UFC 109 six months earlier. The Oregonian did that and then some, raising his, Silva’s and the UFC’s profile along the way. It is hardly the scenario one would have envisioned when Sonnen was submitted by Demian Maia upon returning to mixed martial arts’ largest organization at UFC 95.
At the UFC 148 post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White gushed about the event’s box office success: “This is absolutely, 100 percent, the biggest fight we’ve done by far.”
Tito Ortiz, one-half of the largest gate in Nevada history up until now, sat just a few feet away as White estimated that the event generated a live gate of $7 million -- approximately $1.6 million more than Ortiz and Liddell helped make at UFC 66 in 2006. That success can be attributed to the unlikeliest of partnerships. At first glance, it is hard to think of Sonnen and Silva as partners, but the reality is that neither could have risen to these heights without the other.
Thanks to Sonnen, Silva has never been more marketable. By physically and mentally testing the champion like no one else before him, Sonnen made people forget Silva’s maddening efforts against the likes of Maia and Thales Leites. Meanwhile, Sonnen became the world’s clear-cut No. 2 middleweight, as well as a guy who can sell pay-per-views on his own. Sonnen needed someone to push, and Silva, in turn, needed someone to push him. The dominant outcome rendered by “The Spider” in their sequel secured his legacy.
Despite the results, it is hard not to think the rest of us have missed out an even bigger payoff: the most lucrative trilogy in Ultimate Fighting Championship history. With two losses relegating Sonnen to guest-of-honor status at Silva’s championship cookout, the promotion has to find the next suitable challenge for the sport’s pound-for-pound king, because he is not riding off into the sunset just yet.
Why would he? Silva was nasty at UFC 148, landing a knee to Sonnen’s chest that was both borderline illegal and devastating. It was just another example of how Sonnen was able to bring out the edgier side of Silva, a positive for a fighter so talented he often has had to combat boredom in the Octagon.
“I love what I do -- every time I get ready for a fight, I enjoy [it]. As long as I can perform mentally and physically, I’ll fight,” Silva said at the post-fight press conference.
The problem is not a lack of matchups that make sense for Silva. Depending on how things play out, Mark Munoz, Hector Lombard, Chris Weidman or Michael Bisping could all prove to be worthy challengers in a matter of months. So could Rashad Evans, if he elected to drop down a division. However, none of them can generate the buzz that a third showdown with Sonnen would have.
When asked whom he would like to face next, Silva mentioned none of the above names. Instead, he half-jokingly expressed a desire to fight his clone. Of course, the closest thing to that, at least in terms of length, creativity and weight-class dominance, is Jon Jones, and it has become obvious that neither man wants that bout.
“I guess Anderson said he had no interest in fighting me at tonight’s press conference,” Jones tweeted. “I feel the same way about him. Nothing but respect.”
Respect, as Sonnen has taught us, is not the foundation of a memorable rivalry, but even he knows when to give credit where credit is due. While he never said it directly, the former University of Oregon wrestler has to know that his time to antagonize Silva has passed. Sonnen’s next chance at the middleweight belt will come when Silva is no longer sitting atop the divisional mountain.
“They gave me the opportunity. Nobody owes me anything,” Sonnen said after the bout. “He’s a true champion.”
If not for an errant spinning back fist, perhaps we would be making plans for Silva-Sonnen 3. There would be more months of trash talk, hype and anticipation. Instead, it is time to close the book on this rivalry for good.
The most enduring image of Silva’s outing was a moment of reconciliation shortly after his hand was raised. The champion put his arm around his bitter adversary, burying the hatchet after the most emotionally charged victory of his career. For all intents and purposes, it felt like a moment of closure.
The smart money says Silva has a few more impressive wins in him, and that he will be sending out more barbecue invitations in the not-so-distant future. It is also probably pretty safe to say that none of those wins will be quite as memorable as this one. Nobody brought out the best in Anderson Silva quite like Chael Sonnen.