When Anderson Silva shrugged off Chael Sonnen's attempt at a Greco Roman throw in the second round of their UFC 148 rematch and then danced away like he didn't have a worry in the world, I turned to my buddy Matt Roth and said "Silva's about to mess him up."
Except, you know, using a word that rhymes with truck or luck.
It was obvious then, even to the most diehard Sonnen fan, that the end was nigh. Chael must have felt it, too. Instead of going back to his strength—an undeniably potent wrestling game—Sonnen plunged forward with an awkward spinning backfist. Hitting nothing but air, he went flying into the cage and onto his backside.
It was academic from there.
After months of bad blood, heated words and angry exchanges, MMA's top feud came to an explosive end. It was Silva who made the first move toward reconciliation, draping his arm around his fallen foe and encouraging the rabid Brazilian fans to applaud the man they were moments earlier verbally lynching.
Sonnen took his loss like a real man. He didn't make excuses, although he certainly could have, instead choosing to acknowledge Silva's greatness.
"It's very important when you lose a fight that you don't say things like, 'My opponent was better tonight,'" Sonnen told the assembled media at the post-fight press conference. "The better guy wins every time. The better guy won tonight."
It was more than just the win that made Silva's fans sing out into the night—it was the manner in which he won. Silva's haymakers left Chael curled up on the mat, nearly fetal. For a Sonnen fan like me, it was bittersweet.
As an MMA historian, I love to watch a fighter like Silva, a man who will undoubtedly go down in the history books as the top fighter of the era. Seeing him vanquish his most fearsome foe, a fighter who taunted him for years, is the kind of moment a writer dreams about.
As a person who has spent a little time with Chael, however, it was a crushing loss. Especially the way it happened.
In the first round, we saw what might have been a five-minute block pulled out of their first fight. Sonnen took him down immediately and went to work, eventually landing in the mount. It was the definition of positional dominance.
You could see why Chael's trainers were so excited for a potential ground-fighting exchange with Silva. This time, Sonnen was ready both to defend and apply submissions. Silva, it seemed, had no answer for Sonnen's wrestling.
"Seemed," of course, is the operative word here. Because in the second round, he discovered a work-around. It wasn't a fast sprawl, the kind Mirko Cro Cop used to keep heavyweights away from his legs in Pride. It wasn't elusive foot work, staying one step ahead of Sonnen.
It was blatant rule-breaking.
I can hear the outrage already. I've seen the conversation play out a couple of times on the Internet. But if we're honest with ourselves, we can at least acknowledge the truth. To prevent a takedown in the second round, Silva grabbed a hold of Sonnen's shorts and refused to let go.
How serious a violation was it? To me, Silva was just displaying a veteran's presence, the MMA version of Bernard Hopkins using his head and shoulders to their full potential in a boxing bout.
It was a move that could only have been pulled off so successfully by a veteran of Silva's experience and prestige. He managed to be verbally warned twice by referee Yves Lavigne, without ever letting go of the shorts or being penalized. Essentially, Silva had the cachet to ignore the official, the same way a veteran in the NBA is going to get every close call.
For his part, Sonnen seemed alright with Silva's fast and loose interpretation of the rule prohibiting grabbing an opponent's shorts.
"Yeah, Anderson grabbed my shorts, but I grabbed his right back," Sonnen said. "It goes both ways. We can't sit and nitpick some of that stuff. It's a two-man sport. It's kind of like moving the chains in football. It evens itself out. Anderson grabbed my shorts tonight. I'll grab somebody else's sometime down the road."
More important—to the outcome of the fight, at least—was Silva's quasi-legal knee to a seated Sonnen. In that position, a knee or kick to the head is illegal. Silva charged Sonnen and stuck his knee high in his enemy's chest. That part was clearly legal. The fact that his thigh slammed into Sonnen's head? A grey area, one that Sonnen, again, is willing to forgive.
"You know, I don't make those decisions and hate those rules anyway," Sonnen said. "I'm an old-school guy from before we had rounds and weight-classes and all that stuff. Now, we're in a lot better spot now. I don't propose we go back to that, but I don't care about legal or illegal. I could see him coming. That's just the way it goes."
In the end, the details of the fight will be obscured. What matters most is that Sonnen failed, once again, to take home that coveted middleweight title.
Silva is such an amazing athlete that we are willing to overlook the fact that he bent the rules all the way to the breaking point to win. Kind of the way the sports media was willing to pretend Michael Jordan didn't blatantly toss Bryon Russell halfway across the court before calmly nailing a game-winning jumper.
We like to see greatness triumph, and no one wants to let a little thing like the rules get in the way.
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