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OAKLAND, Calif. – There have been times during his stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship that Anderson Silva has looked invincible. He made Rich Franklin, one of the elite fighters in the modern era of MMA, look like a bush leaguer.
He embarrassed Forrest Griffin, a former light heavyweight champ, and humbled former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson. Dana White, the UFC's president, for years has called him the best fighter in the world.
But then, on a night when he was pummeled for nearly 23 minutes, Silva pulled off perhaps his greatest victory. He absorbed more than four rounds of punishment from trash-talking top contender Chael Sonnen and looked as if his long winning streak would crash while surrendering his middleweight title.
Suddenly, he was celebrating with one of the most thrilling and improbable wins of his storied career. Flat on his back and taking a brutal battering, Silva wrapped his long legs around Sonnen's neck and caught him in a triangle choke with just 1:50 remaining to retain his belt in the main event of UFC 117 Saturday before 12,971 delirious fans at Oracle Arena.
Sonnen, a former All-American wrestler who earlier this year embarked upon a nonstop trash talk campaign, repeatedly took Silva down and hammered the champion from the top position. He landed punches and elbows seemingly at will. Several times, referee Josh Rosenthal was on his front foot, leaning in as if he were about to stop the bout.
Then, in a flash, in what is likely to be remembered as the greatest match in UFC history: It was over, with an ending that left jaws agape.
"I can't sugarcoat it," Sonnen said. "My heart is broken."
Sonnen turned what would have been a perfunctory card into a significant event with his trash talk. He pegged himself as the toughest man in the UFC, claimed he had never lost so much as a round, despite 10 previous defeats, ripped Silva personally and professionally and mocked Silva's manager, Ed Soares.
He said he'd beat Silva so badly that he would force Silva to retire or make White release him.
Sonnen got a chuckle out of many and a rise out others, but not many took his bravado seriously. Silva, after all, came into the fight ranked first in the world and holding UFC records for consecutive wins (11, now 12) and championship wins (seven, now eight).
Sonnen, though, did nearly everything he said he'd do. He did well standing with the champion, he used his superior wrestling to repeatedly take Silva down and he unloaded a barrage of blows on the ground.
The only thing he failed to do was to finish the fight on his feet with the belt around his waist. Again, he fell victim to the old submission bugaboo. This one hurt that much more, not only because of the significance of the bout but also because he was so far ahead that he conceivably could have stalled the last two minutes and won.
After four rounds, he held an insurmountable lead on the scorecards. Nelson Hamilton gave Sonnen a 10-8 in both the first and third rounds and favored Sonnen 40-34 after four. Dan Stell had it 40-35 and Jon Schorle saw it 40-36. Though there was no way Silva could have won a decision, Sonnen said he'd never considered a stall.
"In order to keep him down and to secure that position so the referee allows you to work, you have to work," Sonnen said. "You have to stay busy. I didn't know how much time was left. I heard someone reference that there was about a minute and 10 seconds left. I didn't know that and, frankly, you even get lost about what round it is. He hit me real hard a couple of times. He kicked me real hard a couple of times.
"You get a little disoriented. You're in the middle of a fistfight on a Saturday night. There's not a lot of thinking. A lot of people like to talk about strategy and thinking and blah, blah, blah. Come on. This is a fistfight in the middle of Oakland, California, in a steel cage."
It was, but it will be remembered as one of the best that the UFC has ever put on. Silva was his usual low-key self after the match and said he held no animosity toward Sonnen, despite the six-month torrent of trash talk.
"What happens in the ring is in the ring and once it's over, it's done," Silva said.
But Silva managed to earn Sonnen's respect for the strikes he landed, the submission he scored and, more importantly, the punishment he absorbed. There are few men who would have been able to take a beating for four rounds like Silva did and make it out for the fifth.
Grudgingly, Sonnen gave Silva his due, though he wasn't about to apologize for his prefight words. He did one interview in which he said cyclist Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer by taking performance-enhancing drugs, then appeared on Jim Rome's national radio show and denied it was him who said it.
He praised Silva's toughness, but stood his ground otherwise.
"There is no question that this sport isn't like any other," Sonnen said. "We have world championships in basketball and football, but in reality, those are national championships. This sport is very unique. We scoured Planet Earth and we came down to the two best guys. If you go look at the rankings tomorrow morning, we're going to be the two best guys.
"I don't apologize for anything and I'm not backing off my stance. If I ever did, I would send myself a pink slip and move on in life. I have one goal in life and that is to be the world champion. I am not backing off that goal because of tonight's decision. Nothing at all [I would change] unless it was to work even harder and to prepare even more. But I'm not Dog the Bounty Hunter and I don't issue apologies."
No apologies were needed, not after a spectacular show was capped with a stunning fight that ended in a hard-to-believe manner. And Silva, who had already done so much, accomplished a bit more on Saturday.
This one, more than any of his awe-inspiring wins, will be the one that defines his career. He's had lackluster defenses over Patrick Cote and Thales Leites and was horrific in a win over Demian Maia in a win at UFC 112 in which he fooled around more than he fought, but this fight will deservedly take precedence.
"This was a legendary fight tonight," White said. "This is one of those fights where Anderson Silva went up a notch."
Or two. After taking that beating and finding a way to finish, his stature has never been greater.
"It was the two best guys in the world out there," Sonnen said dejectedly. "He's No. 1 and I'm No. 2. It hurts. My heart is broken, because that's not what I came here for, to finish second. Anderson is a great fighter and he did what he had to do. Give that to him."