It's the most anticipated rematch in UFC history. In their first fight, Chael Sonnen nearly made history, coming tantalizingly close to being the first UFC fighter to beat middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Sonnen showed no fear, coming forward with reckless abandon and taking the fight to Silva, beating him to the punch and taking him to the mat with ease. In the end, a triangle choke rescued the champion from near-certain defeat.
That was two years ago. Ancient history as the MMA world turns. Will Sonnen have as easy a time with Silva in a rematch? I'll break the fighters down in five key categories to see who might have the advantage going into Saturday's big bout.
Silva: Anderson Silva is one of the best, most diverse, strikers in mixed martial arts history. His attacks come at all angles, with each and every appendage, often when you least expect them. This is where he'd like to see the fight contested.
Sonnen: The challenger is certainly a wrestler first. But his striking has developed nicely in the later years of his career. Working with boxing coach Clayton Hires, Sonnen understands angles and isn't afraid to press the attack. More importantly, he understands his limitations. Striking is not what he does—it's just something he does until he can take the bout to the mat.
Advantage: Big advantage to Silva. Chael can sling them, but this is where Anderson butters his bread.
Silva: This has always been Anderson's potential downfall. He is susceptible to the takedown. But first, a fighter has to navigate his treacherous striking game just to get close enough to try a shot. Silva's best takedown defense is his elusiveness, a constant movement that keeps opponents too wary to worry about taking him down.
Sonnen: Chael has, arguably, the best takedowns in MMA. A former NCAA All-American, Sonnen can credit much of his success in this area not just to innate ability, but to the smart way he sets up each shot. He bridges the gap with aggressive striking and, once he grabs a hold of his opponent, he always always succeeds in dragging the fight to the mat.
Advantage: Major advantage to Sonnen. He'll need it. If he can't get the fight to the ground in every round, he doesn't have a chance to win.
Silva: Anderson won the first fight in this area, securing a triangle choke for the win. Wrestling is just part of the equation in this area. Once the fight hits the mat, it's a brand new game and Silva is an expert at it. He's dangerous off his back, making this a "don't blink" fight.
Sonnen: Chael has great top control and all the tools to be a great grappler. But, over and over again, he's fallen victim to momentary losses of concentration that allowed his opponent to finish him. He's worked hard with his coaching team, and jiu jitsu expert Vinny Magahlaes, not just on defense, but on using his top position to finish the bout with a submission.
Advantage: Silva. But the potential for Chael winning this area, and thus the fight, is something you have to seriously consider.
Silva: Anderson is a killer here. Who can forget his use of the Thai plum to decimate champion Rich Franklin, not once, but twice? Silva also uses the clinch defensively, to ward off takedowns, making this an important technique for him once Sonnen closes the distance.
Sonnen: Chael is very dangerous in this position, pressing opponents against the cage and delivering a series of annoying knees. But, most of all, it's a good place for him to drop down and secure a double leg takedown on his foe.
Advantage: Silva. Against most fighters, this is an area of strength for Sonnen. Against Silva, however, Chael will have to be especially careful about just hanging out against the cage. Silva can, and will, punish him if he doesn't keep up a constant attack.
Silva: Anderson has fought and won 10 UFC title fights. He's used to the big stage. He has the cardio and confidence to fight five full rounds. There are few things that can fluster him or make him falter. He's a pro near the height of his powers. He'll be ready to fight.
Sonnen: Chael hopes that he's succeeded in getting in Silva's head. He's worked hard to do so, continuing a barrage of trash talk for more than two years. Is Silva too angry to focus on his game plan? If so, Sonnen has a serious chance to win.
Advantage: Even. Once the cage closes, these are two professionals who have seen and done it all in the sport.
This fight is hard to handicap. Silva is the best fighter in UFC history. But, as the experts will tell you, styles make fights.
As we saw in the first bout, at the top of his game, Sonnen has all the tools to beat the champion. If he utilizes his striking smartly, setting up Silva for the takedown, there's no reason he can't repeat his UFC 117 performance.
Once on the mat, Sonnen will have to keep a constant and laser-like focus on Silva's legs. In the first fight, they snuck up his back and it cost him dearly. He's spent two solid years working to prevent that happening again.
I think they pay off.
Prediction: Sonnen by submission in Round 3.