In August 2010, ahead of UFC 117, Anderson Silva was arguably the best fighter on the planet. The Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champ was on a 12-fight win streak and had cleaned out his division to an extent that has rarely been equaled before or since.
“The Spider” had reached a point at which his own dominance worked against him. At the same time that fans clamored for him to face a real challenge—either in his own division or in a cross-divisional superfight against Georges St. Pierre—Silva himself seemed to be growing bored. His last few title defenses, against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia, had all been characterized by stretches in which the champ seemed to be clowning around, taunting his opponents or simply goofing off in the Octagon. Silva’s erratic performances only exacerbated his status as a low-performing box office draw, at least in proportion to his status as a fighter.
At that same time, Chael Sonnen was a man in the middle of a willful self-reinvention. Already a 30-fight veteran by the time he rejoined the UFC in 2009 as part of the absorption of World Extreme Cagefighting, Sonnen was the textbook definition of a high-level journeyman. The former All-American wrestler had fought in a half dozen promotions, winning more than he lost, but was largely forgettable in and out of the cage. To be perfectly honest, Sonnen’s most notable trait in the first decade of his career was his suspect submission defense.
Right around the time he re-entered the UFC, however, Sonnen did two things. One, he began cultivating a boisterous, acerbic, trash-talking persona based generally on professional wrestling and specifically on one-liners cribbed from 70s wrasslin’ icon “Superstar” Billy Graham. Two, he began taking steroids. Both strategies worked like a charm, as Sonnen began attracting fan heat like no other fighter in history, heat that was elevated and validated by the effortless way in which he began knocking off middleweight contenders. After losing his first fight back in the UFC to Demian Maia—by submission, naturally—Sonnen rattled off three straight wins over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, while directing a constant stream of insults at Silva. By the time Sonnen secured his title shot, he had managed to build more interest in the fight than Silva had enjoyed at any point since his own UFC debut. He had also appeared to legitimately get under the Brazilian’s skin with his incessant needling.
By the time Silva and Sonnen entered the Octagon on Aug. 7. 2010, the fight had a lot to live up to, and incredibly, it did. The champ engaged in none of his customary showboating because he had no opportunity to do so. Unlike the rest of the recent challengers to the middleweight throne, Sonnen showed no fear whatsoever of Silva, taking it to him from the opening bell. Sonnen had proclaimed that he would run right across the cage, punch Silva in his face and double-leg him through the floor, and he came awfully close to doing just that. For four rounds and change, Sonnen put on a shockingly dominant display, not only landing takedowns at will but winning many of the standing exchanges against the best striker in MMA. The largest pay-per-view audience that had ever witnessed a Silva fight sat stunned as the final frame began, with the champ probably down four rounds to none.
The end, when it came, was as unbelievable as everything that had gone before. Despite wearing a deep cut that had been opened by an elbow strike from the bottom late in the fourth round, Sonnen appeared to be well on the way to winning the title when Silva threw his legs up for a triangle choke. As the American reacted—too slowly—Silva switched to a triangle armbar and Sonnen was forced to tap at 3:10 of the fifth round. It was one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history, and put an end to one of the greatest title fights ever. The repercussions of the fight were even further-reaching than a mere belt defense, though; Silva and Sonnen both ascended to a new echelon as stars, and the fight forever changed the concept of self-promotion in mixed martial arts.