This was it. The longest title reign in middleweight history was about to come to an end. For four-plus rounds, Chael Sonnen had backed up every ounce of his pre-fight smack talk and was putting the finishing touches on a monumental upset win over Anderson Silva.
There was just one problem – Silva wasn’t ready to go yet, and with the seconds ticking away in the fifth and final round, he was still plotting a miracle finish.
“I was thinking of what I had to do to finish the fight, defend my title and go home healthy,” said Silva through translator Derek Kronig Lee.
Healthy was out of the question after absorbing a punishing attack from Sonnen, not to mention a pre-fight rib injury, but the finishing the fight and defending the title for a seventh time (tying him with Matt Hughes for most in UFC history), that was still possible. Not probable, but possible, and at the 3:10 mark of the round, less than two minutes away from defeat, he produced a tap out from Sonnen after locking in a triangle armbar.
It was a stirring victory to say the least, one that will remain on Silva’s highlight reel forever and a true determinant of his status as an all-time great. Winning easy and in dominant fashion is one thing; winning in the face of adversity is quite another. There would be no Muhammad Ali without the wars with Joe Frazier, no Sugar Ray Leonard without Tommy Hearns, and now Silva had shown that same grit against Sonnen, admitting that when you overcome such a test of wills, the true fighter emerges.
“I think all my fights have been tough, and fighting tough opponents builds a stronger fighter, one who can overcome adversity and stay in the fight to the end.”
And even after being beaten for much of the Sonnen bout, it may have been what the Brazilian star needed to break out of the funk that had put a cloud over the last two years of his reign. Sure, he looked spectacular and motivated when jumping up to 205 pounds to blast out James Irvin and Forrest Griffin in less than a round each, but he appeared to sleep walk through defenses against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, and Demian Maia. Sonnen, in his face before and during their UFC 117 bout, brought the fire back out of Silva.
“I love to challenge myself and I always want to fight the best,” he said. “It motivates me to keep working hard to defeat those challenges.”
This Saturday night, there will be another challenge to his title, and this one may be the toughest as he faces countryman and former training partner Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC 126 in Las Vegas.
“He is a dangerous opponent who was a young champion in the UFC,” said Silva of his opponent, who won the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament at 19 and then briefly held the organization’s light heavyweight title in 2004. “It’s going to be a great fight for the fans.”
But will it be a great fight for Silva, who is coming off a draining war with Sonnen? You can also add in the pressure of being in his fifth year as champion, something Silva readily agrees can be burdensome at times, but that he seems to have taken control of.
“There is a lot of responsibility and pressure when you are the champion, so keeping a healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body; both aspects are determining in any fight.”
Silva has shown his toughness – mentally and physically – on the sport’s brightest stage, and at the ritual pre-fight press conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the champion made it clear that the Mandalay Bay was his house as he went nose to nose with the challenger. It’s added even more intrigue to this early-2011 dream fight, with fans and pundits wondering if the seemingly unbeatable “Spider” can hold off the charge of the still explosive “Phenom.”
The champion admits that Belfort “is a tough opponent” who “has good hands and has a lot of experience,” but when asked how the challenger has progressed as a fighter over the years, Silva’s response is simply “I’m not sure, we will have to wait and see on February 5th.”
It’s as much as you’ll get out of the champion, who saves his charisma for the Octagon and for those moments when the microphones are put away. But if his body language this week in Vegas says anything, it’s that his come from behind win over Sonnen has lit a fire under him that now has him approaching every fight with the intention of taking over from the opening bell. That’s a scary proposition for opponents, but a compelling one for his fans, who Silva promises to entertain in 2011.
“I want to defend my belt and fight the best,” he said. “The fans can expect to see great fights this year.”
Anderson Silva – The Champion
“I love to challenge myself and I always want to fight the best. It motivates me to keep working hard to defeat those challenges.”