For every great champion there comes a great challenger, someone who helps them define their legacy. We all tend to forget but less than two years ago Anderson Silva was a dominant champion who had seemingly run out of competent challengers. After dismantling Rich Franklin twice, Nate Marquardt and Dan Henderson, Silva was the best middleweight in a division that didn’t have a ton of depth.
Finally during his title defense against Demian Maia in Abu Dhabi, Silva’s dominance turned to visible arrogance. Faced with another opponent out of his depth, Silva decided to humiliate him by “clowning” him at various aspects of the fight for his refusal to engage the champion. After Abu Dhabi fans were upset, and rightfully so, as what was a boring fight turned into a farce that disgusted many.The fans had seemingly grown wary of Silva, it seemed, because there was no one to challenge him.
Instead of a vicious wrecking machine he was the cocky champion who refused to engage or finish. He was the guy so far head of the pack that he was just coasting once he won on points. And his next defense seemed to be settling into the same rhythm that famed boxing heavyweight champion Joe Louis had at one point: Chael Sonnen was going to be another member of Silva’s “Bum of the Month” club.
No one told the All-American wrestler and former Olympic Greco-Roman hopeful that.
Running his mouth everywhere he could, and insulting the champion in every manner possible, Sonnen disrespected the champion in a way no one has ever done. And he was given little chance of being competitive with the champion, either. Sonnen’s antics were looked at as pumping up his fight, which Silva would seemingly steamroll through again, and then Sonnen would disappear for a while like many of Silva’s opponents. Nearly every single prediction before the fight was Silva by TKO early as a vicious domination from the champion, despite the talk from Sonnen, seemed apparent.
Before the fight, Sonnen stated what many felt was painfully obvious: if Sonnen couldn’t take Anderson Silva down then he’d be carried out on his shield. The takedown game was emphasized and then something funny happened: Chael’s boxing ended up becoming much more important than anyone ever thought.
Using his boxing game to set up takedown attempts, and rocking Silva several times with crisp punches, Chael Sonnen dominated Anderson Silva in a way no one has ever done. The numbers bear it out, too, as Sonnen struck Silva more times in that single fight than Silva had been hit in his entire UFC career to that point. Everything Chael said he’d do before the fight he seemed to do during it; he held Silva down and beat him down for nearly 23 minutes. And he was 110 seconds away from finishing the job, too, before Silva pulled off a Hail Mary submission off his back and caught Sonnen to pull the victory out of the jaws of certain defeat.
That fight, and that submission, meant something significant for the career of Anderson Silva. It was the first fight in the UFC to push him to the brink and show just how tough he was as a fighter. Many other fighters have wilted under Sonnen’s relentless assault and Silva took eight more minutes than most of it. Many others would’ve just tried to survive that final two minutes, content with losing by decision in dominant fashion.
Pulling off a submission at the end of a fight was spectacular and something the best fighter in the world does. With both fighters drenched in sweat and the slickness making it that much tougher makes it remarkable. After taking the beating he did, with a rib injury coming into the fight, even more remarkable. And it’s changed how we look at Silva.
After the first Sonnen fight, Silva was seemingly permanently elevated to the top of the Pound for Pound lists because we’d seen what he’d do when he was challenged and he overcame it. Sonnen gave him the sort of legitimacy he needed; he was a challenger who had pushed the champion as far as he could go and Silva responded accordingly. Every great champion has someone who pushes them to the brink and brings out the absolute best in them.
When we think of Silva once he retires, the spectacular finishes and the utter dominance from the champion will be what is played in the highlight packages. His front kick of Vitor Belfort, his Muay Thai clinch destruction of Rich Franklin and Chris Leben, his flurry that finished Yushin Okami, the counter punch that dropped Griffin, the choke of Dan Henderson and others will be reminiscent of just how much Anderson Silva wrecked an entire division. But the fight that defines him will always be the first Sonnen fight. No matter what happens, Silva’s career has gotten a boost because of Chael Sonnen. He needed him to bring out the absolute best in him.