Rivalry comes to a head tonight

Published 11:45 pm Friday, July 6, 2012

“Anderson Silva, you absolutely s**k.”

Those were the words of UFC contender Chael Sonnen toward the promotion’s middleweight champion, the first words out of his mouth after Sonnen’s dominating UFC 136 victory over Brian Stann. Silva, seated at ringside, laughed off his rival, who had been pushing for a championship rematch ever since Silva’s dramatic victory over the wrestler in August 2010.

The laughing ends tonight.

The two will throw down at UFC 148 in one of the most hotly anticipated rematches in the history of the sport. And whether you’re a UFC devotee or not, the spectacle in store promises to be worth the viewing.

Allow me to slip into my “Old Man Arena” persona for a second, but rivalries simply aren’t what they used to be in sports. They’re not dead, not by a longshot; but free agency and the trend of one-or-two-and-done collegiate players has curtailed the ideal of a group of players staying together for years and years in a team sport —  and, naturally, the idea of that group of players in the other lockerroom that have done the same, that you’ve played 30 times before, that you can’t stand the sight of.

The same isn’t true of a one-on-one sport, for obvious reasons. And while we’ve grown accustomed to fighters, be it in the Octagon or boxing ring, playing things up to create drama and pay-per-view sales, the feeling here is that Silva and Sonnen aren’t joshing it up behind the scenes. These two men don’t like each other.

The stage was set over two years ago, when Sonnen, then considered something of a fringe contender, began calling out Silva.

He launched a war of words befitting of a WWE star; this framed him as something of a clown in the eyes of many fight fans that abhor any comparison to professional wrestling. Also: to Silva, who refused to respond to any of the insults, many of them ridiculous and over the top. At the prefight weigh in and photo-op, Silva “stared down” Sonnen by, well, refusing to look at him at all. The implication was obvious: this ‘clown’ is beneath me.

And why not? Silva was considered perhaps the most dominant champion in UFC history, a fighter riding a record streak of title defenses and one who, quite frankly, the UFC began to lack proper competition for.

A bored Silva began turning in lackluster performances in wins before showing a different side of himself in fights: he began taunting his overmatched foes, dropping his hands, sticking out his chin, daring competitors to engage him. His fight against Forrest Griffin, a former champion and respected contender, became legendary for how humiliating it was for the comically overmatched Griffin against his laughing, dancing foe.

So Sonnen’s rants, while clever and YouTube worthy, seemed like the words of a delusional fool. Or, at least one who knew how to maximize the number of people willing to see him finally meet his comeuppance.

But when the fight came, something crazy happened: Sonnen DOMINATED. For four and a half rounds, the loudmouthed underdog backed up his words with a barrage of takedowns, punches and, on the rare occasion that Silva seemed to take an advantage, nifty reversals. Had the judges gone to scorecards on this night, the decision and score rendered would have humiliated Silva to an unbelievable degree; he’d have won none of the five rounds, and perhaps lost a 10-8 here or there.

But much like Sonnen fought the fight of his life, the fight he needed to for his boastful words to carry any meaning, Silva reached down as well in that fifth round. With Sonnen’s victory all but assured, he just needed to ride out a decision.

But on this night, he was on the attack … and it left him slightly vulnerable. Silva pulled off a desperation, once-in-100 maneuver, trapping him in a triangle choke and pulling out one of the most unlikely comeback victories of all time.

Since then, a rematch bid had been put off due to a Sonnen suspension for using a banned substance; Silva called him a cheater. Silva’s camp claims he fought injured in the first fight; Sonnen, of course, calls him a liar, and in true “pro wrestling bad guy” form, trumpets the fact that he beat Silva from pillar to post without acknowledging the loss.

Silva has said that Sonnen isn’t worthy of a rematch, citing the disrespect Sonnen has shown to he, his family and his Brazilian countrymen in comments over the past two years. UFC promoters disagree, and here we stand, everything to be settled before night’s end.

For over two years, Sonnen has taken every opportunity to speak.

Finally, last week, Silva matched him.

“What I’m going to do inside the Octagon is something that’s going to change the image of the sport,” Silva said. “I’m going to make sure every one of his teeth are broken, his arms are broken, his legs are broken. He’s not going to be able to walk out of the Octagon by himself. I can guarantee that.”

Rivalries do still exist, I suppose.