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Can Silva summon another thriller?

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – Imagine the Steelers or Packers scoring three touchdowns in the final two minutes of Super Bowl XLV on Sunday to come from 20 points down to win. Imagine the Yankees scoring eight times with two outs and nobody on, down seven, in the bottom of the ninth to win Game 7 of the World Series.

If you can imagine that, then you might be able to appreciate what Anderson Silva did at UFC 117 on Aug. 7 in Oakland, Calif., when he rallied in the final two minutes after being pummeled throughout to retain his UFC middleweight title by submitting Chael Sonnen.

UFC president Dana White considers the bout the most significant in UFC history given the gravity of what was at stake and Sonnen's stunningly utter dominance for more than 22 minutes.

Injured before the fight and beaten, battered and bruised during it, Silva maintained his composure and managed to find a way to win.

Winning against a quality opponent when you're not at your best is one of the signs of true greatness. And after that victory, Silva has to be regarded as the greatest fighter in UFC history and, along with Fedor Emelianenko, in mixed martial arts history.

Silva's reward is a pressure-packed bout against one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, when he meets countryman Vitor Belfort for the title in the main event Saturday of UFC 126 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

The significance of the bout in their native Brazil was clearly wearing on Silva, who was shorter and more curt than usual at Wednesday's prefight news conference. Silva wore dark shades and rarely gave more than a few words of answer to any question. He continually denied feeling any pressure, though White finds that difficult to believe.

"There's a ton of pressure on both guys," White said. "Not only for what's at stake, but for where they come from, how big this fight is down there, etc. etc., etc. The 30 minutes of [expletive] we just listened to [during the news conference], none of it is true."

What is true is that Silva faces a challenge to raise his game and shake off the beating he took from Sonnen.

Silva has been off for six months, so he should have had time to allow his body to heal. There are times, though, that the body can take no more and never responds the same way again.

The great unanswered question of UFC 126 is not whether Silva can outstrike Belfort – when two great punchers are throwing hard at each other, expect the unexpected – but rather whether at nearly 36, Silva can summon it up yet again.

Belfort believes he can, though he has no choice to think that way. Silva is in the midst of UFC record runs of 12 consecutive wins and seven consecutive successful title defenses and, as he proved against Sonnen, is dangerous for every second of the fight. One small mistake against Silva and your night will end in an instant.

Belfort has been an enigmatic figure throughout his career, known more for his physical talent than his tenacity and determination, but he has the power in his fists to stop Silva. If Silva is at less than his best, it becomes more likely, but Belfort, typically, isn't expecting anything less than a 100 percent champion across from him.

"I think Anderson is getting better every time," Belfort said. "Someone else may think he's getting older, but not me. I know what he can do. I am fighting the best fighter in the world, without question."

Silva is second in the Yahoo! Sports rankings, though I've personally voted for him first, but whether he'll be in such a lofty position after the Belfort fight remains in doubt.

If the lingering effects of the Sonnen fight cause him some snap, make him a bit less dynamic, then his lengthy championship reign may be nearing an end.

Bantamweight Miguel Torres, who fights Antonio Banuelos on Saturday, knows a lot about coming back after absorbing a serious beating. Torres was cut badly in a fight against Joseph Benavidez at WEC 47 on March 6, and was pummeled on the ground before Benavidez finished the fight with a guillotine choke.

After the bout, Torres looked like Frankenstein with a large, jagged gash creasing his forehead. But Torres regrouped and turned in a sensational performance to stop Charlie Valencia at WEC 51 on Sept. 30. He said Silva's ability to do the same will depend largely on those around him.

"I didn't train with Anderson, so I don't know who he had or who was around him, but it's the support system that is so important," Torres said. "I was able to get with one of the best plastic surgeons available to me. He did a great job and I allowed the cut to heal up well. I rehabbed 100 percent and after that, I sought out a great gym with some great coaching to help me. It's a process and you can't do it yourself."

White, who said Silva's win over Sonnen may be the victory that "defines his career," conceded it's a possibility that Sonnen beat the fight out of Silva that night.

That will be proven in the cage Saturday. White, though, said that while boxers often absorb such a beating that they're never the same – neither Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier were ever close to the same after their brutal 1975 battle in Manila – it's not often the case in MMA.

"It's a good question, but I haven't really seen a lot of it in the UFC," White said. "Pedro Rizzo was never the same after that Randy Couture fight, but I haven't seen a lot of situations like that. [Boxer] Meldrick Taylor was never the same after the [Julio Cesar] Chavez fight. You don't hear a lot of that or see a lot of that in this sport, but who knows?

"Was Chael Sonnen so dominant in that fight? We don't focus on this, because of the freak of nature that Randy Couture is, but when Couture was 37, 38, I was like, 'Ah, it's probably over,' and now, the guy is 50-something years old and he's fighting in Toronto [in April]. But Anderson Silva is 35, 36 years old. To be at the level he's still at and to accomplish what he's accomplished, it's pretty amazing at that age, too."

Only time will tell.

But my guess is, given the intensity in the match, if there's any way Silva can summon up his greatness once more, we'll see it Saturday.

He may eschew it, but his face said what his words did not: He wants this fight and he wants it badly. Now, we just have to see if he's physically up to it.