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There is nobody in MMA today who has as impressive a spotless record as World Extreme Cagefighting 185-pound champion Paulo Filho, a man many feel is the best middleweight in the world.
Yet, even with a 15-0 record, Filho's last year has been frustrating. A knee injury kept him one match short of winning the 2006 Pride Grand Prix tournament. After recovering, he made his U.S. debut in winning the vacant World Extreme Cagefighting middleweight championship on Aug. 5 in Las Vegas, beating Joe Doerksen in a match where he was nowhere near his best.
On that day, he was fighting two bouts in one. First, he was facing a tough Canadian, and second, an even tougher opponent, food poisoning. Still, a bad night for Filho would be a good night for most fighters. He struggled early for the takedown, but then got it and quickly pounded Doerksen into defeat in 4:09.
His MMA style is based on using his judo, which he started at the age of five, to take his opponents to the ground. Then he uses his physical strength and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to power into a submission, favoring an armbar. But he said his biggest improvement over the past year has been his boxing, with which he plans on making a statement.
The scouting report on Filho has always been that if you can keep the match standing, he's vulnerable. But in 15 matches, not one opponent has been able to implement that game plan.
Filho will try to show a live American cable audience what he's really all about when he's in top condition in his first title defense on Wednesday night at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His opponent is former University of Oregon All-American wrestler Chael Sonnen, who, at least on paper, has the best opportunity of anyone he's faced to make the game plan work.
It's one of three championship matches on a show that airs live on the Versus Network at 9 p.m. Eastern, headlined by a featherweight title defense by Urijah Faber against Jeff Curran.
A muscular powerhouse who is 5-foot-8 and 205 to 210 pounds, Filho specializes in an aggressive form of BJJ. He started in the sport at the age of nine and competed in both judo and Jiu Jitsu, winning age group championships through his teens. His BJJ career was capped off by winning the Mundials, the world championships of the sport, in 1997 as a purple belt, 1998 as a brown belt and 1999 as a black belt.
He switched to MMA in 2000, although he never thought it was something he'd be able to make a living at. His record is hardly padded with easy opponents, as it includes name fighters like Doerksen, Yuki Kondo, Amar Suloev, Ryuta Sakurai, Ryo Chonan, Murilo "Ninja" Rua and Kazuo Misaki.
In last year's seven-month-long Pride Grand Prix tournament, Filho dominated Rua, Gregory Bouchelaghem and Chonan to reach the final four, which is held in one night.
On Nov. 5, 2006, in Yokohama, Japan, he opened by beating Misaki, who had beaten both Dan Henderson and Phil Baroni to reach the semifinals. He finished Misaki late in the first round with an armbar, but he blew out his knee in the fight and couldn't continue. Misaki took his place in the finals and beat Dennis Kang to become the champion.
"It's an unfinished chapter in my life now that Pride is no more and a championship there is something I'll be unable to get," Filho said through interpreter Ed Suarez. For months he didn't even want to think about the tournament, calling it a personal nightmare, but capturing the WEC title, his first championship in the sport, allowed him to erase the disappointment.
Sonnen, 19-8-1, has a background that includes placing eighth in the 1998 NCAA tournament at 190 pounds, and a failed bid as a Republican for a seat in the Oregon state house of representatives in 2004.
The gamesmanship began when Sonnen said he put a picture of Filho in his shoes while training so he was constantly stepping on his face. Filho responded by predicting one of two things: "He's either going to get knocked out or I'm going to grab his arm and take him back to Brazil with me."
Sonnen has felt he'll be able to utilize his wrestling to match power with Filho, something none of his other opponents have been able to do.
"Everyone knows his strength is his wrestling," said Filho, as he knocked the pounds off in the days before the fight. "This is not a wrestling match. It's an MMA match. I'd be concerned if it was a wrestling match."
Filho was at 198 on Sunday night, on the road to 185. He wants to be 190-192 by Monday night, make weight, and be back to 200 to 205 pounds by the time the match starts. Unlike most of the transplanted stars from the defunct Pride Fighting Championships, he sees his new fighting environment, a cage instead of the ring, as a positive for his style.
Filho is in the WEC for unique reasons. Anderson Silva, the UFC champion in the weight class, is one of his best friends and a training partner with the Rio de Janeiro-based Brazilian Top Team. Because of that relationship, the decision was made by UFC to put him in the WEC. The idea was it would give the newer organization someone who can legitimately be argued is the best in the world at his weight. But if Filho keeps winning and Silva keeps winning, will the big question of who is really No. 1 be answered?
"It's a great honor for people to consider you No. 1, but it's also a great honor for people to consider you No. 2," he said. "We're friends. We train together. There's enough sun for everyone to get a tan."
But is he willing to fight him to determine a true No. 1?
"I'd rather not fight him if I don't have to," he said. "But if it's the fight that the people want to see, the time is right and the money is right, I would do it. We are professionals. The only stipulation is the winner takes the loser out to dinner after the fight. But the circumstances have to be right."