Sound and Fury: As Anderson Silva Rages, Chael Sonnen Faces a Critical Turning Point

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Well, it finally happened. After two years of listening to Chael Sonnen call him everything except a pretty, pretty princess, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva finally broke his stoic silence. On Monday’s UFC 148 media call, he fired back with terrifyingly specific threats ("I'm gonna rip all his teeth out of his mouth") and brutally accurate character attacks (court records show that Sonnen is, in fact, a criminal, so there’s that).

On Tuesday night’s episode of FUEL TV’s UFC Tonight, Sonnen responded, calling the champ a "dirtbag" and a "dummy." So now we’ve hit all our trash talk bases and, like reluctant boyfriends at a modern art museum, those of us in the MMA world are spinning around in circles and demanding to know: what does it all mean? Is Silva really and truly upset for the first time, and, if so, what took him so long? Is Sonnen glad to see he’s provoked a reaction, or is even he starting to wonder if a pissed off Silva isn’t more dangerous than a disinterested one?

Sonnen would have us believe he doesn’t care, that he expects to take some memorable physical damage in the rematch. "I've fought 49 men," he said. "It's not like I've never been to the orthodontist before. It's not like I've ever had my jaw re-set. It's not like I've never had to have my scalp stapled shut in ER." And that’s probably true. You don’t become a professional fighter if maintaining the original positioning of your nose is of vital importance to you. At the same time, this is Silva we’re talking about. This is the guy who has proven that he can and will deliver a drawn-out beating when he feels like it. Sonnen might not mind being hit in the face, but what of his fear of losing? What of his fear of being embarrassed for 25 full minutes in the biggest fight of his life?

Even though it’s Silva who’s putting his belt on the line, it’s Sonnen who has the most to lose here. He’s the one who spent the last couple years as a gleeful antagonist to the world’s top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter. He’s the one who’s already lost once. If he loses the rematch -- especially if he takes a beating in the process -- this sport might remember him as little more than an entertaining foil to a great champion. At best, he’ll be the villain who helped an all-time great rediscover his ferocious sense of purpose. At worst, he’ll be a temporary distraction, a court jester, a man who was willing to trade his credibility for the sake of cheap attention.

But again, that’s only if he loses. If he wins, it’s a different story. Then he’s the guy with a genius plan to become a star and the skills to stay that way. It’s the difference between getting your own chapter in the MMA history books rather than getting your own paragraph.

For Silva, the stakes aren’t so high. His legacy is already established. He’s held the UFC middleweight strap for six years. Even if he loses now, at 37 years old, and retires immediately afterward, he’ll still be remembered as one of the best fighters to ever bite down on a mouthpiece. Sure, he’d have to listen to Sonnen run his mouth some more, and that would be its own special brand of torture, but it’s not the same as having the last two years of your life negated with a single loss. That’s a different kind of pressure.

What we still don’t know yet is how anger will affect the champ. The first time he fought Sonnen, he mostly just shrugged and shook his head at the challenger’s antics. Then he went out and fought like a shadow of his usual self and needed a last-second submission to avoid a decision loss. For better or worse, this time he genuinely seems to want to hurt Sonnen rather than just beat him. Either that, or Sonnen’s fame has taught Silva the value of some forceful pre-fight talk.

The champ has never needed it before. He’s been so good in the cage that it hardly mattered whether he could sell a fight in interviews and promo pieces. Whether he’s deviating from that pattern now just for our benefit, or because he’s finally tired of allowing this be a one-sided conversation where Sonnen grabs all the headlines, we should know soon enough. Maybe we’ll also get to see if an enraged Silva is somehow even more dangerous than a calmly efficient one, and if Sonnen is as cavalier about parting ways with his teeth as he would have us believe.

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