LAS VEGAS – Paulo Filho's days as a middleweight are dwindling. But few expected his reign as WEC champion to come as close as it did to ending on Wednesday at The Joint in the Hard Rock.
Filho retained his crown in less-than-impressive fashion, winning on a controversial arm bar submission over Chael Sonnen with five seconds remaining in the second round of their scheduled five-round bout. Sonnen says he didn't submit and insisted he said, "No," to referee Josh Rosenthal.
"It's common for the referee to ask, 'Do you want to stop?' and you have to verbally respond," Sonnen said. "No response is the same as saying 'I quit.' The referee asked me if I wanted to stop and I said, 'No, I don't.' He looked at me again and I yelled, 'No.' Then he stepped in and stopped the fight and I kept yelling, 'No, no, no.' "
Sonnen said Rosenthal apologized to him afterward and said he made a mistake.
"I thought we were on the same page, but we weren't," Sonnen said. Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, wasn't buying that argument. He said there was little doubt of Sonnen's intent to submit.
Sonnen was screaming in pain, Kizer said, and only yelled no after Rosenthal stopped it. UFC president Dana White, who was ringside, said he heard Sonnen screaming in pain, as Kizer described. White said he would have been angry had he felt the fight had been halted too quickly.
"These guys work too hard to get to this point and they put their hearts and souls into it and you never want to see it end on a mistake by (the referee)," White said. "But he was screaming. If I thought there was a mistake, I'd have been screaming."
Until the point of the stoppage, Sonnen was in control of the bout and appeared on the way to a huge upset. Filho is regarded by some as one of the top 10 fighters in the world and there are many who believe it is he, and not his friend, UFC champion Anderson Silva, who is the world's best middleweight.
But Filho was lethargic and appeared disinterested on Wednesday and for most of the nearly 10 minutes of competition was absorbing punishment from Sonnen, who was nearly a 3½-1 underdog.
Sonnen, an All-American wrestler at Oregon and Olympic team alternate, whipped Filho easily to the mat in the bout's opening seconds. He delivered a ground-and-pound that had Rosenthal looking carefully at the downed Brazilian.
Sonnen said he thought Filho had gone unconscious briefly. "I was dizzy when he took me down and was trying to gather my thoughts, but I wasn't close (to being out)," Filho said.
But he also wasn't close to displaying the skills of a fighter who should be ranked among the world's top 10.
He blamed it Wednesday on problems cutting weight. He said he walks around at 212 and said he'd be better fighting in the light heavyweight division, which has a 205-pound limit. Filho, who is only 5 feet 10, said those close to him encourage him to fight at 185 because of his height.
But Filho has a stocky build and said he weighed 203 when he arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday.
"I'm not here to make any excuses," said Filho, who is now 16-0. "You have to take your hat off to Sonnen. He came with a very good game plan. He's a very tough wrestler. He knew how to utilize his strengths to do what he had to do."
Filho has plenty of strengths and is not only a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but is an explosive striker.
But Filho looked like an average fighter on Wednesday and was only fortunate that he was facing Sonnen and not Sonnen's coach, Matt Lindland. Lindland ranks along with Silva and Filho as one of the three best 185-pounders in the world.
Had Filho been fighting Lindland, there almost certainly would have been a new champion.
"He's a good fighter, but honestly, I thought Chael was going to beat him," Lindland said.
Filho has a big decision to make, because he can't perform the way he did and keep the title much longer. He said he's not used to cutting weight and said he's going to consider whether he should move to light heavyweight.
There has been a lot of talk about a big-money match between Filho and Silva, but they're friends and have said they'd only fight if the money were impossible to turn down.
Based on Filho's performance on Wednesday, there's not going to be much demand for a bout with Silva any time soon.
"I won and that's the important thing," Filho said. "I did what I came to do, which is win and keep the belt. I'm sorry if the fans didn't think I was myself, but it was hard with the weight."