Sonnen, the first notice announced, had outstruck Silva 51-2 in the first round. The second alert was even more astounding. Through three rounds, Sonnen had outlanded the champion 218-11. The king is dead, the announcements seemed to be saying.
By the end, the numbers were staggering. Mind-blowing, really. Sonnen set a Compustrike record, landing 289 blows, to only 29 for Silva. Yet somehow, some way, Silva was the one to get up and walk away with the belt.
"The fight that happened tonight is the stuff that makes legends," UFC president Dana White said later. "He got roughed up and beat up, and he found a way to win."
Silva was on the edge of defeat, so far over the side that it seemed that any final push would close the show for Sonnen, who put on the performance of his life. Every time Sonnen put the Spider on his back, on his back is where he stayed. Silva threw up triangles, he shifted his hips for arm bars, he tried to scramble free. None of it was working. Sonnen was always one step ahead, slipping his arms free and slamming elbows and punches against the champion's head.
By the time the fourth round ended, victory for the challenger seemed a foregone conclusion. Silva could not stop the takedown and Sonnen wouldn't break his furious pace. All Sonnen had to do was run out five minutes and he would have the title that had eluded him for so long.
If this was the NFL, he would have run the ball into the line three times and punted it into the corner with a three-touchdown lead at the two-minute warning. If it was baseball, he'd hand the ball to his closer up double-digits. If it was basketball, he'd go into the four corners. Victory would literally be a formality after such dominance. But this is fighting. There's no way to coast to the finish, and so he fought on.
Silva had been thoroughly thrashed, his ribs were hurting from a previously undisclosed training camp injury, and time was now his enemy. A lesser fighter would have had his spirit broken by then. If he could not stay upright, there seemed to be no clear path to victory, and he could not stay upright.
Silva, though, was not going to go quietly. The champion who hadn't faced a test in the cage in ages suddenly had to get past adversity and a spirited opponent, and somehow he summoned the energy to do it.
Everything changed in a flash. Sonnen got lazy for just a blur, a split-second, but with the fatigue of over four rounds slowing him down, that blur was much too much to overcome. Suddenly, Silva's legs were locking into a triangle. Silva had tried the same thing before, and Sonnen anticipated it, escaping. But this time it was too late, Sonnen caught in the Spider's web.
Sonnen tried to escape, throwing his body backward and his leg over Silva's body. His arm though, was still trapped in an arm bar. It was here where he realized, there was no escape, and he tapped with less than two minutes left in the fight.
Twenty-three minutes had been his, but the last seconds were stolen from him.
For four years, Silva has dominated his division. He steamrolled Rich Franklin and Nate Marquardt. He finished Dan Henderson in two, embarrassed Forrest Griffin and toyed with guys like Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia. Everyone knew he had incredible skill, but at least during his UFC run, we've never gotten to see his heart put to the test.
That's all this one was. When you're running on fumes in the final moments of a sure defeat, the only thing fueling your body is willpower and heart. Other fighters would've been dejected, beaten before the round even began. Silva was still searching for his path to victory.
The champ's come under fire in the past for uninspired performances, but when he was put to the ultimate test, inspiration struck under the most trying of conditions and against the most game of opponents. The gritty comeback elevated the moment to sporting theater, and should forever be regarded as the defining moment of Silva's championship reign and Hall of Fame career.
Long live the king.
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