“You know, he got me with a good shot,” Sonnen told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan inside the cage, his voice betraying the uncertainty of a man still trying to piece together how things had gotten away from him. “I was on the ground and he got me with a good knee; other than that, I’m just going to have to look at the tape.”
No shame in that, really. A total of 13 guys have tangled with the UFC middleweight champion in the Octagon, and in the end they’ve all probably come out feeling pretty much the same way. When Sonnen does go back to review the footage, however, he’ll see something few of Silva’s previous opponents will have seen, something a lot more heartbreaking.
He’ll see a winnable fight undone by yet another careless mistake. He’ll see one more bout lost because of the unforced errors and mental lapses that have plagued him throughout his entire career.
The first 6½ minutes of “the most anticipated rematch in UFC history” looked a lot like Sonnen’s first meeting with Silva at UFC 117 in August 2010. The challenger dominated the opening round with his trademark wrestling skills, and in the early stages of the second round he continued to pressure and muscle the champion around the cage, nullifying most of Silva’s attack when “The Spider” didn’t have a big, fat handful of tights.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
Then came the spinning backfist that might well haunt Chael Sonnen for the rest of his days.
As is so often the case with immediate postfight interviews, Sonnen’s initial account of how things ended failed to tell the whole story. Truth is, with 3:31 left in the second, he had Silva right where he wanted him -- on defense, pressed against the chain link, fighting off an array of takedown attempts -- when Sonnen inexplicably launched into that wild, spastic backfist, missed by a mile, and fell down.
It was an out-of-character moment of flash from a guy whose offense is typically meat and potatoes. If Sonnen had landed it, we’d probably still be talking about how cool it looked.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he fell on his butt, his face suddenly stricken with the terrified look we might all get if we’d just spent two years talking a raft of trash about the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in history and suddenly found him standing over us with his fists clenched.
Twenty-eight seconds later, the fight was over.
In retrospect, that spinning backfist comes off looking like a needless risk in the midst of a bout Sonnen was solidly winning. With the benefit of hindsight it looks, frankly, dumb.
And yeah, maybe it’s unfair to criticize a guy for a split-second, spur-of-the-moment decision made in the heat of battle, one that was surely more the product of instinct than forethought. Maybe it’s wrongheaded to think that if Sonnen had just played it straight, he might be walking the mean streets of West Linn, Ore., right now with the real UFC title belt, instead of a $30 knockoff.
But the fact remains, this is how Chael Sonnen loses fights. This is how he’s always lost fights. He starts fast and gets ahead, only to make some critical error that costs him everything.
There was Silva’s triangle choke at UFC 117, which came just minutes before Sonnen would have claimed UFC gold. There was UFC 95, when he tapped to the same choke from Demian Maia after controlling the first two minutes of the fight. There was December 2007, when Sonnen conceded with a scream to Paulo Filho’s arm bar in the second round of a WEC title fight the former Oregon wrestler was winning. Keep going back, keep looking at the losses, and you'll find many of them are eerily similar.
On Saturday night, it was a slightly different kind of mistake, but the end result was the same.
It’s strange to think that a guy so talented and so good at the mental part of the fight game outside the cage could be so prone to such blunders during his bouts. It’s perhaps the weirdest kind of hole a fighter can have in his game, and it's one that Sonnen has been incapable of closing while racking up a 27-12-1 record during a 15-year career.
If it seems odd to us, imagine how frustrating it must be for him.
Seconds after succumbing to Silva’s strikes on Saturday, Sonnen may not have been able to put it all together in his mind, but when he watches the tape what he finds might look all too familiar.
When he sees it with his own eyes, I think he’s going to want this one back.