Give Silva his props after UFC 117

It’s often said that fighters learn more in defeat than they do in victory. If that’s true, then we learned so much about Anderson Silva on Saturday night in his win over Chael Sonnen.

For all his victories and records, there have been several outstanding questions about Silva — one of which was how he would fare against a wrestler. The closest he had come 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 their fight, with Henderson being able to take Silva down repeatedly but unable to control let alone punish Silva on the ground.

At UFC 117 in Oakland, Calif., Sonnen showed what an out-and-out wrestler could do not only confirming that the middleweight 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.

However 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.

In submitting Sonnen, Silva once again reminded people that for all his knockout victories, he has an underrated submission game, even after having submitted Henderson and Travis Lutter. 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 answered the biggest question about Silva: whether he had the mental strength required of a world champion. His past three title defenses had seen him goof around 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 more than 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 185 pounds.

For all his craziness in the build up to the fight, 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 when 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.