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Hail To Chael

I don’t remember a better fight than Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson Silva. It was the most hair-raising, pulse-racing fight I’ve ever experienced. It’s almost certainly of little consolation to Sonnen to hear people like me hail the fight as the new Gold Standard for MMA fights.

Experience beats this wisdom into us at a young age: Life is not fair.

Which explains why so many morally-bankrupt jerks become rich and famous; why many people’s No.1 pick for marriage has somebody else in mind for their No.1 pick for marriage; why plenty of good people die young, and why two-pack-a-day smokers on Death Row live to be 90 years old. And, most relevantly for this column, it’s why Chael Sonnen will never completely forgive himself for the mistake that cost him a world title on Saturday night – eerily similar to the critical errors that also sabotaged victory for him in five earlier fights.

One of the sport’s top fighters and most colorful characters is sadly beginning to resemble the MMA version of the 1991-94 Buffalo Bills of the National Football League, who lost four straight Super Bowls. On three different occasions Sonnen has stepped inside of the Octagon and competed against a reigning world champion; and three times he has departed the cage minus world championship hardware.

Sonnen deserves better and is lobbying for an immediate rematch, but absent another title shot the 13-year veteran would join a long and ignominious list of championship runner-ups such as Bill Buckner, Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, Patrick Ewing and Dan Marino. Nagging questions of “what if?” often haunt such athletes, even decades after their playing days are over and the cheering stops. 

“It’s devastating,” Sonnen said about squandering a four rounds to zero lead against UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva. “I’ll constantly replay it (in my mind). It’s one of those moments you’ll think about for the rest of your life. I’ve had other competitions like that and you go to bed at night and you just can’t shake it. It’s tough. My heart is broken right now. That’s the way it goes.”

What else is a perfectionist like Sonnen, raised in a nation that proudly demonizes second-place with phrases that even elementary school kids have memorized such as “Second place is the first loser” and “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” supposed to feel? A heavy underdog coming into the fight, the outspoken Oregonian shocked and inspired fans with a near-perfect thrashing of the most feared fighter on the planet, owning Silva for all but seconds of their first 23 minutes inside the Octagon.

Given his knack for blowing gargantuan leads, it’s automatically tempting to pin the “choke artist” label on Sonnen. I don’t see it that way. His losses are likely owed more to over-aggression, lapses in concentration and/or poor clock awareness rather than the frazzled nerves or mental “freezing up” that are the hallmarks of choke artists. Case in point, back in 2007 Sonnen fought against then-WEC middleweight champ Paulo Filho. If ever a fighter embodied the pitbull tattoos that adorned his body it was Filho. The Brazilian brick house boasted a 16-0 record, was a decorated BJJ black belt with heavy hands, and at the time was widely regarded as the second-best middleweight in the world behind Anderson Silva. Yet, in a nationally televised title contest, Sonnen didn’t cower before the much-hyped favorite. Instead, Sonnen bullied Filho, pinned him against the cage and dominated The Next Big Thing for 9 minutes and 50 seconds.

You know, of course, that the championship bid didn’t end well for Sonnen. With just FIVE SECONDS left in the second round, the ferocious ground-and-pounder fell victim to a Filho armbar and tapped out (initially denying it, a bad habit of his). Yet the loss wasn’t a case of bad nerves or “choking” – it was a case of “pay more attention to how much time is left in the round” and sprinkle some conservatism into your attack when necessary. Period.

Rotten luck afflicted the perpetual challenger during a rematch with Filho. Showing extreme and uncharacteristic caution, Sonnen dictated a pitty-pat boxing match and coasted to a unanimous decision victory. But the championship belt was never fitted around his waist. You see, Filho missed weight by an astonishing seven pounds. It is unprecedented, and unconscionable, for a champion to be that irresponsible under the banner of prestigious organizations like the UFC and WEC. Sonnen became an innocent casualty of Filho’s embarrassing debacle: commissioners declared the bout a three-round, non-title affair.

Fortunately for Sonnen, Silva made weight. And the lopsided beatdown Sonnen unleashed on the lanky Silva was a massive perversion of what most expected to transpire – that Silva would silence his trash-talking tormentor with a swift and vicious knockout. Somebody forgot to convince Sonnen before the main event that he was easy prey. If you thought Frankie Edgar’s narrow upset of BJ Penn earlier this year was big – well, Sonnen’s performance was Frankie Edgar to the ninth power. Other than Jeremy Horn and Randy Couture, I can’t remember anyone with as many losses – 10, to be exact – vying for a UFC world title. And I can’t remember the last time a fighter not named Muhammad Ali talked so much smack before a fight and backed it up.

Familiar with Sonnen’s career, I believed the world-class wrestler possessed the requisite brutish style and fearlessness that would at least keep the fight interesting for a few rounds, maybe even enable him to architect a huge upset. But for an instant Saturday night I began to question Sonnen’s resolve and my unpopular expectations. The second-guessing came during the staredown, right after Bruce Buffer’s volcanic battle cry. Champ and challenger stepped to the center of the cage for referee’s instructions. A stone-faced Silva looked straight ahead; Sonnen did not oblige him. The mouthy challenger declined the chance to look into the champion’s eyes and instead looked down.

I found it a curious moment, wondering if it might portend the events to come. Perhaps more doubt had crept inside of Sonnen than I had anticipated.

But I quickly discovered that Sonnen’s tact in the staredown meant nothing.

By the fourth round I started keeping one eye on the clock as the minutes and seconds slowly whittled away. Silva, riding an unbeaten streak that spanned 4 and ½ years and 12 straight, would be dangerous until the end no matter how dire the circumstances. Sonnen let the champ “hang around” because that is one of the glaring shortcomings of Sonnen’s game – he has never been a first-rate finisher. Proof: the majority of Sonnen’s 26 wins have come by decision.

So coming into the fight Sonnen faced an overwhelming burden. He was way overmatched in speed, athleticism and standup skills and could ill afford to stand with Silva for an entire round. Sonnen needed to take down Silva early in each round, smother him, score with ground and pound, avoid submissions and hold the champ on the canvas -- FOR ALL FIVE ROUNDS. That’s akin to telling a Major League Baseball pitcher with a 4.79 ERA before his first World Series appearance, “Listen son, in order to win tonight we’re going to need you to pitch shutout ball for nine innings. Got it?”

Improbably, Sonnen kept fans mesmerized, minute by minute, round after round, with near-flawless execution. If you were watching on Pay-per-View, you could definitely feel the magic and largesse of what you were watching. If you were privileged enough to be inside Oracle Arena it was a gripping and profound experience.

How exhilarating was it? Consider this: I was watching the fight near a tunnel and then I felt this massive shove on my right shoulder that threw me forward a foot or so – mosh pit behavior. So I turn to my right and see Albert, a Zuffa cameraman, overflowing with excitement and yelling, “Can you believe this!” It was a highly unusual outburst from a normally reserved guy. Albert is a very talented cameraman and video editor who had worked for a major television news station, which is why Zuffa hired him. But in the four years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him show the slightest emotional reaction to a fight. He’s a bright guy with a one-track mind for debating political issues of the day – and he’s never shoved me. But this Fight for the Ages had touched a chord inside of this politico and he was instantly and uncontrollably smitten. He was under the spell of disbelief and on the edge of his seat just like the rest of us.

By the end of the fourth round, mouths throughout the arena were agape and Silva’s reign was in serious jeopardy; Sonnen had amassed a four rounds to zip lead – and you could have rightfully given him a 10-8 round for the one-sided whoopin’ he poured on Silva in round one. But even pinned under an avalanche of adversity, when most would have folded or broken in spirit, Silva impressed with his toughness, will to win and grace under pressure. He kept it interesting, cracking Sonnen with some hard shots in the brief time they stood up, even wobbling Sonnen in the third round, but the champ played “the nail” for the bulk of this bout and never panicked. And Silva’s virtually unscathed face revealed a miracle. It was Sonnen, not Silva, who was a bloody mess with gashes on the bridge of his nose and both eyes and a huge welt on his right cheek bone.

Twenty seconds into the fifth round one fighter dropped to his rump following a punch. To our amazement, it was Silva who had been stunned for a second time in the fight. Sonnen was on top again, pressuring and imposing his will from Silva’s guard. A monumental upset seemed a foregone conclusion: The champ had been on his back throughout the fight and had great difficulty getting to his feet and breaking free from Sonnen’s clutches. The seconds on the clock whittled away and the suspense continued to rise.

2:15, 2:14, 2:13 ….

The relentless challenger found himself roughly two minutes away from joining the decimal of the human population that can write “World Champion” on their resume for life without compromising truth. Two minutes away from completing arguably the greatest upset in UFC history. Two minutes away from clinching a career-defining victory that would expel the ghosts of past defeats and let him bask in the most glorious moment of a 13-year, roller-coaster existence in MMA.

And then, in a moment that probably forced every heart in the arena to beat faster, Silva’s long legs leaped up Sonnen’s body and began to constrict. One arm in, one arm out.

It all seemed so surreal. Silva’s legs kept closing tighter and tighter. In a span of less than 15 seconds, a triangle choke to armbar transition instantly erased four and a half rounds of Sonnen domination. All of those dreams that were right there for the taking instantly vanished. It’s ironic, in fact downright harsh, that it was a triangle choke/armbar sequence that spelled Sonnen’s undoing. Why? Because it’s common knowledge that the future Hall of Famer nicknamed “The Spider” is a BJJ black belt whose best submission from the bottom is a triangle choke. Any guy with legs as long as Silva’s who happens to be a legit BJJ black belt will be extremely dangerous with triangle chokes. And Sonnen undoubtedly respected and prepared for this danger. He probably practiced defending against triangle chokes and armbars hundreds of times in practice. Over and over again. There was no mystery there, so every time Silva tried to set up a triangle in the early rounds with wrist and head control, Sonnen showed adequate awareness and stuffed the move before it developed.

With two minutes left in the fight, and the desperate champion planted on his back and unable to return to his feet, what could Silva possibly do to pull a rabbit out of a hat? I would have bet the house that he would be hunting for a triangle choke.

Sonnen had to have known it, too, though he later admitted he had no idea how much time was actually left on the clock. Whatever the case, losing by triangle choke has to deepen Sonnen’s disappointment, especially since triangle chokes and armbars have long been the kryptonite to Sonnen’s smash and mash style. Dating back to 2003 and all the way up to the present, Sonnen has been submitted six times by either an armbar or triangle choke. That is a startling number of times for such a formidable, veteran fighter to fall victim to the same archtype of Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves – especially when one considers that Sonnen turned pro in 1997 and has been training submission wrestling and jiu-jitsu for most of that time. Compare Sonnen’s luck in the anti-jiu jitsu department with say, fellow wrestler and past Team Quest teammate Randy Couture. Couture tapped to an Enson Inoue armbar in 1998 and a kimura in 1999 and has never been tapped out since in a live MMA fight. It’s exactly what you might expect from such a cerebral, hard-working athlete like Sonnen, but for some reason the whole triangle choke/armbar sequence seems to confound him or he simply suffers untimely lapses in concentration.

For several years now I have regarded Sonnen as one of the top 5 interviews in MMA because of his extraordinary candor, wit and professionalism. I’ve never understood why people get so outraged when an athlete speaks their mind. We put microphones in front of pro athletes, expect them to answer honestly, and when they refrain from regurgitating the same played-out, politically correct stereotypes – and speak their heart -- then a lot of reporters and fans jump all over them and cry, “Oh he’s just so cocky! Oh he’s so disrespectful!”

Please, spare me. Go take up badminton or curling or something. This is the fight game, not a presidential debate. It shouldn’t surprise anybody when an elite fighter wants to destroy his opponent and says so. It shouldn’t surprise anybody when a guy like Sonnen doesn’t give too much respect to a champion. I mean, hey, look what happened to all of the guys who did trip over themselves with respect for Anderson Silva. What good did all that respect and cordiality do them? Fighters need to do whatever they need to do to get themselves mentally in a place where they can perform their best. And that’s exactly what Sonnen did and no one should fault him for his sincere choice of words. You be you and let Chael be Chael. He’s a Renaissance Man who seems to excel at anything he puts his mind to. He’s a successful realtor, runs the most successful amateur MMA show in Oregon, is an elite fighter, an extremely charismatic and politically astute man -- and I wouldn’t bet against him if he ever seeks a major political office in Oregon or beyond. He treats reporters and fans with maximum respect at all times.

On Saturday, even in defeat, he added yet another distinction: Sonnen v. Silva was the most hair-raising, pulse-racing fight I’ve ever experienced. It’s almost certainly of little consolation to Sonnen – a driven perfectionist who for years has been trying to shake the silver-medalist syndrome that has cruelly shadowed both his wrestling and MMA career -- to hear people like me hail the fight as the Gold Standard for MMA fights. This achievement in itself is rather crazy because if you had told me in April that a fight would surpass the heavenly three-round war between Chan Sung Jung (The Korean Zombie) and Leonard Garcia, which some deemed Fight of the Decade, I would have dismissed it as sheer nonsense. But against the odds, Sonnen-Silva now gets my vote for Fight of The Decade.

To be sure, some fans still consider Sonnen to be an annoying, insult-spewing big-mouth and will hold it against him. They will further ridicule him for spontaneously denying that he tapped to Silva. But I see Sonnen’s trend of tap denials as heat-of-the-moment, can’t-believe-I-blew-it kind of reactions, certainly not a scathing indictment of his character. He probably wanted to believe in that moment that he didn’t tap. He probably wanted to take it back. He wanted a do-over, a second chance. But referees in the UFC are not in the business of granting on-the-spot second chances.

It’s worth noting that Sonnen quickly abandoned his protest. I can’t hold it against him, especially when I consider how valiantly he fought and other moments immediately following his loss. For instance, while the entire arena was in a frenzy, and Silva was breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating about the Octagon, a stunned Sonnen picked himself off the canvass and sat on a stool. He looked, as you would expect, tired and dejected. Yet as a doctor finished examining him, Sonnen looked up from the stool and said softly to him, ‘Thank you.’

How many fighters would instinctively do that under the circumstances of the most devastating loss in a 13-year career? Let’s be real -- manners could have rightly been tossed out the window, under the circumstances. But that’s vintage Chael Sonnen. He behaved similarly following a 15-minute war with Nate Marquardt earlier this year – another fight people equated with Sonnen being thrown to the wolves. When walking back to his locker room, a triumphant but exhausted Sonnen barely had the energy to stand. He leaned on his cornermen for support. Once in the locker room, he crashed on a mat, completely drained. His face was a bloody and swollen mess.

I walked back to his locker room with a UFC camera crew. Chael was laying on his back, looking up at the ceiling.

“Chael, great fight,” I said, standing over him. “I know you’re exhausted. Do you think you’ll be up to doing an interview with us once you get your bearings back?”

I’m expecting him to tell us, “Yeah, come back in 20 minutes,” which would have been reasonable.

Instead Sonnen says, “Yeah, sure … We can do the interview right now.”

Barely able to sit up, he did a 5-minute interview – and it was a great interview.

Highly unusual, and I say that as someone who has interviewed thousands of people over the years.

Sonnen was not the only one hurting Saturday night, many fans hurt right along with him. I can’t tell you how many people I ran into at the airport in Oakland, and fellow fight aficionados, who seem to still be coming to grips with the loss and shaking their head. It was as if Sonnen was not the only one deprived of a golden moment -- those he uplifted and had inspired were deprived, too. His time on the UFC’s biggest stage had been relatively short – months, not years – yet people had gravitated and identified with his courage and determination. His inspiration was verifiable; many came to the arena and booed Sonnen but left cheering him, admiring him, respecting him. His loss was their loss.

“I had never seen Chael Sonnen fight, but I was jumping up and down during the fight,” said Ian Stephens, my brother-in-law, who lives in Mexico. “I’m very sad that he lost. Tell him he has fans in Mexico now.”

When I reflect on UFC 117 and its main event, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Sonnen will remain etched in my brain. I vividly remember a somber Sonnen walking to a back room to have his face stitched up. When the procedure was over, Sonnen rose to his feet and, true to form, graciously granted a media interview while walking 200 yards or so through the hallway toward the UFC post-fight press conference. He briefly stopped to shake a few hands and then sat on a podium and answered questions that forced him to relive his latest, most gut-wrenching failure in public. He stood in front of the media and fielded all questions until there were no more.

“The better guy wins every time,” Sonnen asserted, occasionally speaking in a passionate, almost militant tone. “He was the better guy tonight. That’s it … I came in second. I’m a runner-up and it hurts real bad.”

The loss to Silva, equal parts exhilarating and agonizing, may wind up being the defining memory most fans have of Sonnen. It’s not a reputation he likes. He doesn’t want to be known as “the guy who almost beat Anderson Silva for the UFC title” and made it clear that he refuses to accept Saturday’s loss as the de facto highpoint of his career.

“I have one goal,” Sonnen said, “and it’s to be the world champion and I am not backing off that goal because of tonight’s decision.”

If this fascinating figure never wins a world title, I for one won’t respect him any less. But a lot of adherents to the “Second place is the first loser” sports culture will. No one will be harder on Chael than Chael. And though it might be cruel, the silver medals that Sonnen so vehemently dreads may be as good as it gets for his MMA career. That would be a shame, but you know what they say about life …