Sonnen, Silva and the Death of Hype

701 days.

That’s how long MMA fans waited to find out if UFC 117 was an aberration.

On August 7, 2010, Chael Sonnen dominated the seemingly unbeatable Anderson Silva for 23 minutes before falling victim to an unexpected triangle arm bar. Despite the loss, Sonnen humanized the UFC’s golden boy and drew attention to a fundamental reality of life inside the octagon: nobody stays on top forever.

But Sonnen didn’t win. He didn’t fight clean, either.

Pursuant to UFC drug regulations, fighters cannot exceed a testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 6:1. In the urinalysis conducted after UFC 117, Sonnen’s specimen revealed a ratio of nearly 17:1. As a result, he was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission and plans for an immediate rematch were shelved.

The hype was not.

Upon his return in October 2011, Sonnen set the internet ablaze with speculation of a rematch. In the months that followed, he declared himself the UFC middleweight champion, made disparaging comments about Silva’s wife, insulted the country of Brazil, and vowed to leave the promotion in the event of a loss. In response, Silva assured fans he would break Sonnen’s arms, legs and teeth in victory.

The hype was building.

Much like the historic rivalries of Lesnar/Mir and Ortiz/Liddell, the relationship between Sonnen and Silva encompassed hatred and disdain. Silva (like Mir and Liddell) became the revered, respectful babyface, while Sonnen (like Lesnar and Ortiz) became the brash, ill-mannered heel, eager to exploit and embarrass the beloved hero.

With the promotional machine in high gear, all roads presumably led to a brutal, bloody finale at UFC 148. Labelled as the biggest fight in company history, one combatant would surely destroy his adversary, silence the critics and erase all lingering doubts.

Sadly, that never happened.

Sonnen dominated Saturday’s opening round, scoring a takedown and dictating the remainder of the frame from the canvas. As expected, Sonnen appeared hell-bent on exploiting Silva’s weaknesses with a careful combination of power and control.

Then came round two.

After an inexplicable spinning back fist, Sonnen lost his balance, fell to the canvas, and trapped himself in a vulnerable position. With a knee to the chest and a flurry of punches, the fight was over. After two years of hype, questions and doubt, Anderson Silva raised his hand in victory.

But for some reason, it didn’t feel right. Something was missing.

Closure.

As he rose to his feet, Sonnen quickly dismissed the oncoming doctors. He appeared composed, rather than gassed or injured. Contrary to pre-fight assurances, his arms, legs and teeth remained intact.

But much like August 7, 2010, Sonnen’s expression spoke of regret and frustration. A mental error, once again, had resulted in a loss. While Sonnen hadn’t been outclassed or outworked, he had been inexcusably careless against an exceptional opponent. For that, Sonnen has nobody to blame.

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