LAS VEGAS -- UFC president Dana White called UFC 148 the biggest event in his company’s history. It may have also been the biggest win of Anderson Silva’s legendary career. Neither of them could have done it without Chael Sonnen, the challenger who defied expectations to become the rival that the middleweight champion never knew he wanted or even needed.
At the MGM Grand Garden Arena here on Saturday night, Silva didn’t just close the book on that rivalry -- he slammed it shut. After struggling against Sonnen’s ground game for the entirety of the first round, the champ rebounded in the second to put Sonnen in trouble with a risky knee strike that was just inches away from being an illegal blow, then finished the job with some well-placed follow-up punches that forced the stoppage. With that, the 37-year-old Silva cemented his legacy as one of MMA’s all-time greats, if not the best fighter the sport has ever known.
But now that it’s over and the UFC can set itself to the glorious labor of tallying up pay-per-view receipts, we have to take a step back and remember what made this possible. As White was quick to remind us at the post-fight press conference, it wasn’t Sonnen’s mouth that sold this fight. Or at least, it wasn’t only that.
"The first fight sold this fight," White said, and I have to admit he has a point, even if he neglected to mention that Sonnen’s mouth sold the first fight. That meeting was supposed to be quick and brutal. Sonnen entertained us in the weeks leading up to it, but conventional wisdom said that when the cage door swung shut, it would be Silva’s turn to take over. It didn’t happen that way, and by the time both men made their way out of the Oracle Arena in Oakland that night, the rematch was already all but sold.
Even without Sonnen, without that night and without this rematch, Silva would have been in no danger of being overlooked in MMA lore. He’s dominated his division so thoroughly for the last six years that he’s almost made it look weak. When you’re in the business of selling pay-per-views and expensive tickets, that’s kind of a problem.
Let’s face it, Silva hasn’t exactly been Mr. Personality over the last few years. As good as he is in the cage, he’s never done much for English-speaking fans on the mic, nor has he cared to try and change that. His string of bizarre performances -- fights where he seemed bored with his own dominance -- didn’t help. Despite his obvious talent, there were years when, as he showed up at events to corner his friends and teammates, it was almost a given that some brave fun would shout out a demand to be repaid the money he’d spent on Silva’s last pay-per-view fight.
Sonnen came along with just the right solution to that problem, and at just the right time. Initially, his one great (or at least most believable) promise was that he’d force Silva to do something worth paying for, even if it cost Sonnen himself a couple pints of blood. When he delivered so much more, complete with just the right amount of heartbreak and post-fight controversy, he inadvertently laid the groundwork for what may well be remembered as the biggest single UFC fight of all time. At least until the next one.
Silva needed Sonnen, whether he wants to admit it or not. He needed someone who could not only offer the promise of a real test in the cage, but also a persistent motivating force who could guarantee fans that they’d get a memorable night in front of the TV in exchange for their money. Sonnen provided both, and right when Silva needed them most. All Silva had to do was show up and be great.
When it comes to combat sports, you can’t underestimate the value of a good dance partner. A champion needs a challenger who provides not only competition, but contrast. Sonnen did that, and in the process he became the tool that Silva used to carve his name into the sport’s permanent record. It’s just unfortunate for him that while he was busy being the chisel, Silva proved to be the one wielding the hammer.
Will UFC 148 turn out to be the biggest UFC event in history? Depends how you measure it. Revenue and butts in seats and sheer number of eyeballs glued to TV sets might be the indicators that are the easiest to tally up, but they don’t always tell us everything. Years from now, the live gate figures won’t tell you how it felt to be at the MGM Grand when Sonnen stood in the cage and beckoned the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter to come meet him in the middle. It won’t tell you what feverish anticipation there was for this fight in the days leading up to it, or how much the outcome seemed to matter. That stuff isn’t easily measured, which makes it a lot like all the work Sonnen and Silva did to make this night a great one. Maybe even the greatest.