It’s often said that a fighter learns more in defeat than they do in victory. If that’s true, then the fact that we learnt so much about Anderson Silva last night shows just how close he was to being defeated by Chael Sonnen.
For all his victories and records there have been several outstanding questions about Anderson Silva, one of which was how he would fare against a wrestler. The closest he had to facing such an opponent was his fight with former Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler Dan Henderson. However for all his wrestling credentials Henderson doesn’t actually lead with his wrestling, having never developed the ‘ground and pound’ that has brought so many wrestlers so much success in the UFC. This was evident in the fight between the two, with Henderson being able to take Silva down repeatedly but unable to control let alone punish Silva on the ground.
Chael Sonnen showed what an out-and-out wrestler could do not only confirming that the champion was indeed lacking when it came to defending against takedowns but also exposing Silva’s poor defense against ground striking. Despite Sonnen spending much of the fight within his guard, Silva was unable to deny the challenger the space to rain down numerous big punches. Silva also showed a noticeable lack of grace on the ground, frequently giving up his back in an attempt to get back to his feet or secure a submission.
Sonnen also did a far better job than Henderson in controlling the champion on the ground although Silva proved to be a handful off his back. Throughout the fight Silva threw some vicious punches and elbows off his back, opening up a nasty cut above Sonnen’s left eyebrow in the fourth round. Indeed it was a jab off his back in the fifth round that dazed Sonnen long enough for Silva to finally get the triangle choke he had been looking for all fight. In submitting Sonnen, Silva once again reminded people that for all his knockout victories he has an underrated submission game having submitted both Travis Lutter and Dan Henderson. No doubt aware of Sonnen’s susceptibility to submissions Silva focused on trying to catch him with either an armbar or a triangle choke.
And this iron focus on the job at hand answered the biggest question about Anderson Silva, whether he had the mental strength required of a world champion. His past three title defenses had seen procrastinate against inferior opposition safe in the knowledge that they couldn’t punish him for refusing to engage. With Sonnen constantly in Silva’s face either standing or on the ground, Silva’s overall game was tighter and more dynamic.
He also showed tremendous heart to dig deep and secure a last-gasp victory after being outfought and outclassed for four straight rounds. When anybody comes from behind to finish a fight it’s impressive but it becomes truly astonishing when somebody who has not had a competitive fight in over four years is still able to move through the gears and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That he still had the energy to do this near the end of a grueling five-round fight also goes a long way to answer the questions about his cardio, which had looked questionable in recent fights at 185Ibs.
For all his craziness in the build up to the fight, Chael Sonnen turned out to be a man of his word. As promised he pushed the action and used his wrestling to exploit long suspected weakness in the champion’s game. In a year where legendary fighters such as BJ Penn and Fedor Emelianenko were unable to respond quickly enough when encountering surprisingly resilient opponents, Anderson Silva’s comeback is a mark of his greatness.