There are reasons why Chael Sonnen, years past his prime, is still a big deal in MMA.
Part of it, is his incredible mouth and ability to talk people into the building, and turn on their television sets. Another part of it, is his talent and ability. A great collegiate wrestler, Sonnen has the kind of skill people enjoy watching.
But, the real reason Sonnen is etched into MMA history, is because of the night he nearly defeated the greatest mixed martial artist in the world at the time, Anderson Silva.
It was UFC 117, the night that Sonnen came seconds away from pulling off an enormous upset. Despite his loss in the final round, Sonnen dominated the fight, and proved that at his best, he is capable of beating and manhandling the most elite fighters in the world. Sonnen earned a lot of respect that night, and even though he has never achieved that level since, the fact that he crushed Silva for nearly 5 rounds, at a time when Silva was knocking out and submitting everyone, is remarkable.
Sonnen dictated the pace early when he connected with a straight left hand on Silva, sending him backwards and rattling him. Silva has never had the greatest chin, as we saw in this fight and later in the first Chris Weidman fight. Sonnen exploited it here. He rocked him a couple of times early and then jumped on top of him and pounded him. Sonnen hammered him over and over and attempted a few submissions.
Silva tried to change the pace in round two, connecting with a left hook and a leg kick, but Sonnen took him down and began a round of dominance. Oddly, about this time, the crowd at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, the crowd that was shouting "Silva" early in the first round, now started chanting "USA."
Sonnen started boxing Silva's ears, mixing it in with punches to the face. Silva showed his jiu-jitsu skills, though, defending Sonnen, so the beat down never reached an epic level. He even attempted his first triangle choke from the bottom, and you could almost see him studying Sonnen, preparing for the eventual finish.
Rogan and Golberg were silent at the end of the second round.
Silva came out dancing and boxing and looked to have some kick in his step, but Sonnen just took him down again and rode him. Sonnen landed about 20 consecutive punches from the top. Chael is not a big puncher; if he were, the ref would have stopped him. Still, the All-American from the University of Oregon applied relentless pressure, and Silva couldn't do anything but defend. Sonnen seemed to tire, and started to drop his head and arms. Silva attempted another triangle choke, but Chael slipped out. The round was the same. Sonnen on top, hammering him.
Silva came out and changed the fight. He started to box, and rocked Sonnen. But Chael didn't fold. He fought back and pressured Silva. So many other fighters gave up when Silva attacked, but Sonnen didn't. Silva took him down during the skirmish, but remarkably, the self-titled American Gangster reversed it from the bottom and landed on top. Sonnen then dominated the rest of the round.
Silva is sneaking in a triangle choke attempt, but Sonnen keeps slipping out, and there's one more round to go. Silva opened up a cut on Sonnen's eye with an elbow from the bottom.
Sonnen is five minutes away from winning the championship and defeating the greatest mixed martial artist on the planet. He went for a takedown that was stuffed by Silva, but then later landed a straight left hand that knocked the Spider down.
Sonnen went for a side choke, but Silva slipped out. He spent the rest of the round on top, but exhausted, just pounding away at Silva, but it would not be enough. His fatigue allowed him to make a mental lapse and Silva jumped in. From the bottom, Silva grabbed Sonnen's left arm and slapped on the triangle choke. Sonnen tried to defend, but one tap on Silva's leg ended the fight.
Sonnen came 1 minute and 50 seconds away from winning the fight by unanimous decision. So close, yet so far.
After the fight, Silva went to Sonnen's feet and bowed in an ultimate show of respect. He stood up and hugged him.
Sonnen lost the fight, but gained a lot of respect from everyone for his performance. He didn't win, but he became a legend that night. That's why when he signed with Bellator last week, it was a big deal. Sonnen may never wear championship gold, but he is one of MMA's greatest fighters, and at UFC 117 on Aug. 7 in 2010, he proved why.