To fully understand the context of what Chael Sonnen was able to do against Anderson Silva in their first fight, you have to compare the performance to that of every other fighter who has faced Silva in the UFC. Aside from Sonnen, Silva has had 13 fights in the octagon that have lasted a total of 107 minutes and 18 seconds. During that collective time, those 13 opponents have hit Silva a total of 199 times, less than twice per minute.
At UFC 117, Sonnen hit him 320 times -- 121 more times than Silva's other 13 opponents combined -- in 23 minutes, 10 seconds, an average of nearly 13 times per minute. And incredibly, he lost.
This is one of the trickiest parts of examining the rematch. On one hand, Sonnen was dominant for nearly the entire fight. On the other, he probably he fought the match of his life and still lost.
The first fight between them will forever be an all-time classic, an unpredictably developing match that saw both men out-dueled in their favorite discipline in the beginning seconds. Within two minutes of the opening horn, Sonnen had staggered Silva with a straight left hand, and Silva had responded by taking him down and putting him on his back. The rest of the fight would be just as surprising, largely due to Sonnen's ability to control long stretches against the previously dominant champion.
Since then, Sonnen (27-11-1) has won twice, submitting Brian Stann with an arm triangle choke, and winning a unanimous decision over Michael Bisping. Meanwhile, Silva has earned two straight knockout wins, against Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami, respectively.
Those victories have taken his overall win streak to 15 overall, and 14 straight in the UFC.
To most, the question now is whether Sonnen can utilize the same strategy he did in the first fight while staying out of a fight-ending submission.
One of the reasons Sonnen was so effective against Silva was because he offensively engaged him throughout. From beginning to end, Sonnen was hyper-aggressive, engaging him not only on the ground but in the standup portion of the bout as well. In many of other Silva's fights, we've seen his opponents defer to him, letting him control distance before shooting from so far out that he has no problem stopping them.
Sonnen believed in his striking and that paid dividends in every facet of the match. Why? Because Silva had to respect what he was doing, he had to be on-guard against Sonnen's ability to change levels from low to high, from punching to kicking and takedowns. Sonnen caught him clean with more standup strikes than any fighter ever because Silva was never too certain about what was coming next. A jab? A straight left hand? A feint into a double-leg takedown? Sonnen was capable of anything, and he mixed it up enough that guessing against him wouldn't work.
Sonnen also showed remarkable courage in tight quarters, where Silva has done some of his best work. While many fighters abandon some of the takedown attempts that don't seem promising against Silva, Sonnen stayed with them and was rewarded for his tenacity.
His ground game was similarly varied. He jabbed the body, attacked the head, basically hit any available target. This was important for a number of reasons. First, it scores points with the judges. Second, it is physically and mentally taxing on an opponent on the bottom to defend an onslaught. And third, Silva doesn't mind fighting from his back, but let's face it, Sonnen was more likely to win a fight against Silva one round at a time grinding from the top rather than standing in the center of the cage against him.
Sonnen's top game is predicated on control. It's not about landing the knockout blow or trying to slash his opponent with an elbow. It's first and foremost about the positioning. Unlike others who simply blanket their opponent, Sonnen is active with his strikes, but only from the context of keeping his control.
He can do the same thing against Silva again. I'm more interested in whether he can dominate the wrestling. One thing worth noting in the first fight is that Silva adjusted and did better in the later rounds. Sonnen was 0-for-3 in the last two rounds of the fight, but was able to get Silva on his back with a reversal and a slip.
As we know now, Silva was not near 100 percent health-wise, suffering from a broken rib, yet he did fairly respectably with his takedown defense, stopping four of seven tries. And Sonnen was fighting with an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. So in some ways, the playing field was tilted in Sonnen's favor.
In a recent interview with MMA Fighting's Luke Thomas, Randy Couture had an interesting observation about this fight, saying that in a rematch, usually the loser of the fight gains more knowledge about adjustments than the winner, yet in this case, Sonnen was the loser who did everything right up until the end.
Silva knows the adjustments he needs to make when it comes to squaring up his stance and threatening with more frequent submissions when the fight goes to the ground. He learned things about Sonnen, but Sonnen's greatest takeaways are probably about himself.
Sonnen has the tools to beat Silva. In 2010 we weren't sure, but we know it now. So do Sonnen and Silva. Many things point to Sonnen ending Silva's run at the top, but I think the champion is the one who has the more helpful adjustments to make. Sonnen fought the fight of his life and still couldn't win, making it hard to bet that he could do one better the second time around. Silva has the better striking, but his ground game is far more dangerous, too. That gets forgotten because of what he can do with his fists, but in fights against vaunted wrestlers Sonnen and Dan Henderson, it was his black belt that took him to the finish line. Armed with the knowledge of the first fight, I expect Silva to do much a better job staying on his feet this time around. He'll hurt Sonnen with a flurry en route to a third-round submission win.