Silva’s long journey to the breaking point

June, 26, 2012
6/26/12
8:14
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Anderson Silva finally let his words do the talking, rather than his sharp appendages.

What a rare moment. So rare that it could more accurately be called a “never” moment.

Silva aired his bad intentions for Chael Sonnen on the UFC 148 media call on Monday. If taken out of context of the fight game, these were the kinds of threats that usually end in litigation. He said he’s going to break Sonnen’s face, careful not to exclude a single tooth from his mouth.

And boom! Just like that, the drama to UFC 148 has two sides. It was a couple of years in the making, but Sonnen finally made Silva want to assault him, which -- as any psychology major would say -- is exactly what Sonnen has wanted all along.

Let’s remember how this all started.

In 2009 and early 2010, Sonnen, seemingly from out of nowhere, defeated a couple of high-ranking guys by the names of Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt. Before he fought Marquardt at UFC 109, he told those who would listen, “I have no choice but to win this fight.” As a 4-to-1 underdog, he talked as if his life depended on overcoming Marquardt, who was the guy most thought would be facing Silva next.

Sonnen was doing real estate at the time in suburban Portland. He had vowed to his late father to become a champion. He had a not-yet-totally public fetish for pro wrestling and a great understanding of how friction can be made of fiction. There were political ventures.

Just before Marquardt, Sonnen hit the switch and embodied all those elements of his biography. What happened next, it seemed, was as close to an example of self-fulfillment as MMA fans will ever see play out in public. Suddenly, Sonnen was a driven fighter, a parody, a fun-loving hypocrite, a one-man marketing campaign, a showman and a legitimate threat to the throne. He was loathed, he was loved.

He was a godsend to a division with MMA’s best fighter at the top and no known rival.

And above all else, he was smart.

Leading up to that Marquardt fight was when Sonnen first began casting stones Silva’s way. He said harsh things, audacious things and some comically untrue things. Things that felt goofy to hear and impossible to back up. To that point, Silva had been nothing but respected by everybody he destroyed. In fact, Rich Franklin enjoyed this kind of punishment so much that he began training with Silva. That’s a special sort of abuse.

When Sonnen beat the odds and ground Marquardt into a pulp with no-nonsense wrestling, his style looked dangerously like beacon-green kryptonite to Silva’s striking. At least it did for those with imaginations and/or cauliflower ear.

You remember the lead-up to UFC 117 -- it was like no other lead-up in UFC history.

Sonnen lambasted Silva for three months in the media. It was a piece of pure cunning, with Silva coming off the worst performance of his career in Abu Dhabi against Demian Maia. Sonnen’s timing was perfect to be the foil and vindicator of the people who had grown tired of watching Silva dance. He was saying publicly what plenty of people thought.

And that was the first allure -- Sonnen was the guy who would force Silva to fight. He was going to pry the predator back out of him, and this was music to the UFC’s ears. And guess what? He did. He backed up every word and brought the fight to Silva, dominating nine-tenths of the bout. Silva stared up at the lights at Oracle Arena in Oakland for nearly 23 minutes, eating elbows and having his ears boxed, all the while with a head burrowing into his chest.

Never had we seen somebody talk the game like Sonnen did and back it up ... only to, in the end, leave it at the altar of fruition.
Sonnen/Marquardt
Dave Mandel for Sherdog.comTurning point: A win over Nate Marquardt, right, marked a new stage in Chael Sonnen's career.

Silva persevered, and Sonnen tapped. Then Sonnen got popped for elevated testosterone, was suspended, and pleaded guilty to money laundering. And in the process, became an immense star.

But add this to his list of credits, too: He also awoke Silva, who has gone back to annihilating opponents (Vitor Belfort, then Okami). Through it all, Sonnen has continued yapping. The lead-up to UFC 148 began the moment he tapped out back in 2010. For the past couple of years, he’s been calling Silva a fake and a coward and poking his finger in the champion’s chest. He’s done this relentlessly, to the point that it angers him to be the only one in a two-man party selling what is the greatest rematch in UFC history.

Not anymore. Silva finally fired back on Monday.

“He doesn’t deserve to be in the Octagon,” he said. “And when the time comes and the time is right, I’m going to break his face and break every one of his teeth in his mouth.”

It’s on.

And you know why this feels so personal? Because other than the two years of fermentation, each guy needed the other as much as the sport needed the rivalry. If Silva had been anything less than a gentleman’s champion -- a quiet great who’d been strictly revered -- Sonnen’s words wouldn’t have meant anything. If Sonnen hadn’t come along and provoked Silva, who knows if he’d have lost interest in the fight game? Now, the memories of Maia are as far away as Abu Dhabi.

Sonnen helped bury the memory.

And Sonnen made Silva the canvas of his greatest work. He didn’t beat him the first time through, but he has used the platform impossibly well. Without Silva, Sonnen never becomes Chael P. Sonnen from the “mean streets of West Linn.” Without Sonnen, Silva retires without a rival -- a rival that helped perpetuate his greatness into his late 30s through two solid years of pride shots. When this is all over, the two should thank each other.

Monday was good. Silva finally broke character and said publicly that he wants to punch holes in Sonnen’s face. We all knew this to be the case, but it never hurts to hear it. So what is the public’s response?

It can’t be anything other than these three words: It’s about time.

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