LAS VEGAS -- The maximum action that makes mixed martial arts popular is easy to see. What makes it special -- the technical nuance, the stylistic variety, the game within the game -- is less apparent.
There's little obvious beauty in this brutal trade. Yet no reasonable observer, even the staunchest detractors of this (commercially) young sport, can deny the manifest beauty of Anderson Silva.
A freak athlete in the purest sense -- one can easily imagine the sinewy Brazilian as an NFL wide receiver or center back for the Seleção -- Silva's body of work is brilliant in way that transcends the combat-sports niche and defies description, like trying to put into words the way Sugar Ray Robinson moved or how the Beatles sound. He is 185 pounds of fast-twitch muscles and samba style.
And on Saturday night before a sellout crowd of 15,016 at the MGM Garden Arena, Silva -- whose nickname is The Spider -- delivered yet another demonstration of his unique abilities to extend his UFC records of 15 straight victories and 10 consecutive middleweight title defenses. After six minutes of negative struggle against an obstinate opponent, Silva was given an infinitesimal sliver of an opening -- and showed it was all the space he'd need to paint his latest masterpiece.
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When Chael Sonnen missed a spinning back fist and tripped over Silva's leg, the champion moved in like shark to chum and attacked with prejudice. He rained blows on Sonnen until referee Yves Lavingne intervened at 1:55 of the second round. Silva had landed a knee while Sonnen was down -- an illegal maneuver that prompted controversy in the immediate wake of the outcome -- but video replays confirmed the knee hit Sonnen's chest.
"He did what he did best," Silva said through his manager and translator Ed Soares. "The only difference this time is I wasn't hurt this time. I knew in the second round, I'd come back and do what I had to do."
Sonnen, whose acid verbal attacks on Silva did much to goose the pay-per-view sales (which project to be ample), offered respect to an opponent whose name he'd besmirched cynically for the past two years. He refused to accept the out of the illegal-knee -- "I don't make those decisions and I hate those rules anyway, I could see him, I could see it coming, that's the way it goes," he admirably reasoned -- and heaped praise on Silva.
"My opponent was better tonight," Sonnen said. "The better guy wins every time. The better guy won tonight."
They'd called it the biggest event in the 19-year history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and there was every reason to believe Saturday's rematch between Silva and Sonnen would be just that.
When they'd first met nearly two years ago, Sonnen dominated the Brazilian like no fighter before, dragging him into the deepest waters of his career. Consider that Silva had been hit 116 times and spent less than 10 minutes on his back in his 11 fights with the promotion; in four-and-a-half rounds, Sonnen managed to land 320 strikes (compared to just 64 for Silva) while keeping the champion grounded for nearly 20 minutes.
Yet an elementary technical error by Sonnen enabled Silva gain the initiative with his back to the canvas and, in a flash, he'd choked out the challenger and escaped with the title -- if not his aura of invincibility -- by way of the latest stoppage in UFC history.
The buildup to Saturday's fight was laden with animosity. Sonnen, a nascent conservative icon, spewed myopic trash task that belittled the Brazilian people and Silva's character. Many believed the 35-year-old Oregon native, despite the 3-to-1 odds against him, could simply finish the job he'd started two years ago. Perhaps Silva, at 37, was past his peak and prone to slipping off the age cliff.
So much for that.
"The guy's an artist with his hands and feet," UFC president Dana White said. "He didn't look like he was slowing down tonight."
Beauty, when it came down to it, outstripped industry.
"He's just a regular guy, just another guy, we both weigh the same," Sonnen said. "But he finds a way to win, and I admire it."