In combat sports great champions tend to be defined by their rivals. In MMA the one exception had been Anderson Silva for quite some time. The middleweight champion had been without peer in the division for some time; the most anyone can claim to have done to him is taken a round up until UFC 117. Silva was dominant in a way that no champion in the UFC ever has been since: no one seemed to be a worthy matchup. In many ways he was a lot like “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis during his heyday. While Silva didn’t fight nearly as often his list of defeated opponents felt an awful like a “bum of the month” club.
Enter Chael Sonnen and the war they went through at UFC 117.
The one thing that Sonnen, for all his brash talk and bravado, did at UFC 117 was prove that Silva could be mortal. It’s something no one expected; no one had ever expected him to go mano a mano with the champion and hold his own much less be less than half a round away from taking his title. If it had ended there it would be a champion defending his title against an opponent who nearly had his number. It would be the challenge that pushed him to his limit and showed the sort of inner mettle he had inside him. There’s only one problem with all of it.
Sonnen never shut up following it.
For all the talk of their first fight, the one thing Silva seemed to have going for him is that he never really took Sonnen seriously for what he said in the fight hype. Most of Sonnen’s best lines were reserved for the build up and since Silva’s career-defining victory over Sonnen the Olympic alternate have done something to Silva no one ever thought could happen: it angered him and the relentless self control of the champion cracked just enough to let it out.
The key to understanding Silva is to understand a mercurial fighter who shuns the spotlight. Silva is a family fan, first and foremost, and his avoidance of the media and pre-fight hype has created a mystique about him. A film crew followed him around for the documentary “Like Water” during the build up to UFC 117 and it sheds some remarkable light into the champion. Silva’s a quiet man who brings the proverbial lunch bucket to work every day and then goes home. Inside the cage, however, “The Spider” becomes a wrecking machine who only wants to destroy whoever is across the cage from him. Soft-spoken, Silva would rather shun the spotlight and be left alone. It’s why he’s never been one to do massive amounts of media or interviews, even in his native Brazil, to promote a fight.
As such his ability to keep a calm, even-keeled temperament has been the defining part of his fights. He doesn’t talk trash; he shows up and goes to work. Always respectful of his opponents, Silva embodies the sort of honor and competitive spirit that the phrase “martial arts” comes from in MMA. For the first fight he could laugh off Sonnen’s comments towards himself, his friends and his country because Sonnen was a goofball trying to build up interest for a fight he surely would lose. Sonnen’s talk was just that: talk.
When Anderson Silva seemingly lost his temper and discussed the myriad ways and things he wanted to do to hurt Chael Sonnen, it wasn’t Sonnen finally getting into his head. It wasn’t him finally promoting a fight after years of avoiding it. And it wasn’t Silva losing his temper when discussing an upcoming fight. It was a champion obliging a man he could finally call a true rival. This was Silva finding that inner moment where he let out the rage against someone he didn’t like and wanted to prove once and for all that he was better than. This was him letting out all that emotion that had been building up over the years, like Joe Frasier snapping at Muhammad Ali for calling him ignorant.
When the history of Anderson Silva is written many years from now, his rivalry with Chael Sonnen is going to be pointed to as the one man who could be called a rival. Silva’s not known for trash talk and if he didn’t think of Sonnen as his biggest rival he wouldn’t have gone off the handle to the media.
“I don’t live in the past. The things in the past are in museums. Playtime is over. I’m gonna beat Chael like he’s never been beat before. There’s no more talking. I’m going to beat his ass out of the UFC. He’s never gonna want to fight again after I’m done with him.”
That’s not the type of talk you say to build a fight when there’s nothing to be found. That’s the kind of things you feel deep inside when someone has pushed you to your breaking point and past it, making you bring out that final reserve you didn’t know you had. That’s what Chael Sonnen has brought of Anderson Silva: rivalry.
UFC 148 is going to be a lot of things but it marks Anderson Silva’s first real rival in the Octagon; it’s beautiful thing.