Has Silva finally found his rival?
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 peers in the division; the most anyone can claim to have done against him is taken a round up until UFC 117. Silva was dominant in a way that no champion in the UFC 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 lot 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. No one expected Sonnen to go mano a mano with the champion and hold his own, let alone be less than half a round away from taking the 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 afterward.
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 buildup. However, because Sonnen did something no one ever thought could happen, it angered Silva, and the relentless self-control of the champion cracked just enough to let it out.
The key to understanding Silva is to realize he's a mercurial fighter who shuns the spotlight. Silva is a family man, 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 buildup to UFC 117, and it shed some remarkable light into the champion. Silva is 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 just 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 UFC 117, he could laugh off Sonnen’s comments toward 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 Silva seemingly lost his temper Monday and discussed the myriad ways and things he wanted to do to hurt Sonnen, it wasn’t that Sonnen finally got into his head. It wasn’t Silva 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 finally could call a true rival. This was Silva finding that inner moment where he let out the rage against someone he didn’t like and against whom he wants to prove once and for all that he is better. This was him letting out all that emotion that had been building up over the years, like Joe Frazier snapping at Muhammad Ali for calling him ignorant.
When the history of Silva is written many years from now, Sonnen is going to be pointed to as the one man who could be called a rival. Silva isn't 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.
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"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 what you say to build a fight when there’s nothing to be found. Those are the kinds 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 Sonnen has brought out of Silva.
UFC 148 is going to be a lot of things, but it also will mark Anderson Silva’s first real rivalry in the Octagon. And that’s a beautiful thing.