The most anticipated rematch since B.J. Penn challenged Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 finally comes to fruition on Saturday as pound-for-pound legend Anderson Silva defends his middleweight throne against outspoken wrestler Chael Sonnen at UFC 148, two years after the most dramatic finish in UFC history.
Sonnen shocked the world by battering the most dominant UFC champion ever for nearly 25 full minutes in their first encounter before succumbing to a triangle choke midway through the fifth and final frame.
The mixed martial arts world has been eagerly counting down the days to this rematch since 2010 and the wait is finally over as the two middleweight stars take center stage Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
In other featured bouts, light heavyweight fan favorite Forrest Griffin looks to send former UFC poster boy Tito Ortiz into retirement, while dynamic middleweight striker Cung Le takes on returning Canadian powerhouse Patrick Cote.
Here’s a closer look at one of the most anticipated cards and main events in UFC history:
-Anderson Silva (31-4) vs. Chael Sonnen (27-11-1)
In a rematch that has all the makings of an all-time classic, the middleweight torchbearer Silva looks to shut the mouth of the cocky showman Sonnen once and for all as the two collide for the UFC championship.
The 37-year-old Silva is widely regarded as the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts history, gaining the adulation and respect of anyone who has ever competed in the sport, with the exception, of course, of his challenger on Saturday night.
Silva’s list of accolades undoubtedly puts him on a pedestal as the best middleweight in history. After beginning his career in his native Brazil, “The Spider” claimed the Shooto middleweight title from Hayato Sakurai before joining the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships. He would suffer a pair of shocking submission setbacks against Japanese journeymen Daiju Takase and Ryo Chonan, but the memory of those losses has long been erased as Silva has torn through his opposition, claiming another title under the Cage Rage banner in England before inevitably taking control of the UFC’s middleweight landscape.
Throughout his UFC run, Silva trounced Chris Leben, Rich Franklin, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Patrick Cote, Forrest Griffin and Demian Maia before accepting the challenge of then-unheralded contender Sonnen at UFC 117. Silva’s mystique was put into question as Sonnen brutalized him for the better part of 25 minutes, but Silva’s heart and technique rose to the occasion as he caught the American in a triangle choke at the 3:10 mark of the fifth round.
Since the close call, Silva has turned in a pair of stellar performances against Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami. Matched up against two of his toughest opponents ever, Silva scored devastating knockouts, further cementing his greatness in the sport.
A slick southpaw with black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo and taekwondo, Silva is a true student of the game. His vast skillset makes him a highly unpredictable foe. Silva trains his boxing under Luiz Dorea, the man behind heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos’ success, while honing his submission skills under Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Sylvio Behring, as well as his wrestling under fellow middleweight Mark Munoz.
Silva’s primary asset is his scintillating striking game and ability to time opponents’ offense perfectly. Statistically, Silva is the most accurate striker in UFC history. Evidenced in his victories over Griffin and Okami, Silva has the ability to make other strikers look like amateurs.
With submission victories over Sonnen and Henderson, the Brazilian’s ground game is also a force to be reckoned with. Overall, Silva has few holes in his game. His wrestling is probably his weakest suit, but with a takedown defense success rate of 80%, he’s hardly a fish out of water against superior wrestlers. Silva is a consummate professional and while his game is not flawless, it’s pretty close.
Proudly representing the Brazilian people and his team, Silva will be looking for his 15th consecutive UFC triumph and his 11th championship win, both records in the promotion.
It’s a matter of time until Silva’s age starts to catch up with him, but the champion has shut down any rumors of potential retirement after this fight. He’s looking to continue his reign atop the UFC middleweight division for years to come, but for now, there’s only one man standing in his way.
The 35-year-old Sonnen has improved tremendously since his early days in the sport, which are littered with submission losses against the likes of Trevor Prangley, Forrest Griffin, Jeremy Horn, Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Paulo Filho.
The proud native of Oregon has really started to achieve his potential since joining the UFC in 2009. After suffering a submission loss to Demian Maia in his first appearance at UFC 95, Sonnen has fallen back on his extensive wrestling pedigree in victories over Dan Miller, Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt.
As the heavy underdog heading into his first clash with Silva, Sonnen legitimized himself as an elite middleweight with a strong performance that nearly saw him do the unthinkable.
The fight itself has been somewhat tainted after Sonnen tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone, while Silva has claimed that a rib injury severely hindered his performance.
Sonnen blamed the positive test on testosterone replacement therapy, which was approved by his doctor. Interestingly, Sonnen has been granted a TRT exemption for this fight.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how injured ribs could have impacted the first fight. Sonnen was largely successful scoring takedown after takedown on the champion, but if his performances in recent title defenses are any indication, the task may be easier said than done in their rematch.
Silva easily stuffed takedown attempts from Okami, a very strong wrestler who trains with Sonnen at Team Quest, at UFC 134 last August. In the past, Silva has struggled with Henderson, another world-class wrestler, but he eventually found a home for his precision strikes, dropping the former Pride two-division champion before submitting him with a rear-naked choke.
A former NCAA Division I wrestler, Olympic alternate and Greco-Roman specialist, Sonnen could be the best catch-wrestler in the sport. Also a southpaw, Sonnen’s ability to close the distance and pressure opponents with a suffocating style coupled with a relentless ground-and-pound assault is second to none. This will be his key to victory because Silva will brutalize the challenger if he can keep the fight standing.
After returning from his suspension, Sonnen submitted durable U.S. Army hero Brian Stann with an arm-triangle choke, his first submission win in the UFC, a testament to his improving ground game and focus on the submission aspect since falling short against Silva. Most recently, Sonnen earned a hard-fought decision over Michael Bisping in a competitive tilt this past January.
Silva insists Sonnen doesn’t deserve another title shot, but his accomplishments in the Octagon after sitting on the shelves for over a full year are undeniable. What makes this fight particularly compelling is all the trash talk coming from Sonnen over the course of the past few years. The brash challenger has taken every opportunity to bash, criticize, defame and insult Silva, slandering his personality, fighting abilities, teammates and country. The verbal scolding has been comedic at times, but Silva is no longer laughing on fight week.
Throughout most of Sonnen’s outlandish rants, Silva has remained silent. However, the champion recently lost his cool and finally warned Sonnen of what lies ahead. In recent conference calls, press conferences and interviews, Silva has threatened to break Sonnen’s face, teeth and limbs, insisting he will need help exiting the Octagon when he’s done with him. The verbal outbursts even shocked UFC president Dana White, who said he’s never heard Silva speak this way before.
Fighting with emotion and rage is often detrimental, but Silva seems increasingly confident about his ability to put Sonnen away easily now that his ribs have fully healed.
In what promises to be an explosive showdown, Sonnen will need to do what he does best. The challenger will need to storm forward, closing the distance and relying on takedowns to control the champion from top position. Silva didn’t respect Sonnen’s striking in their first meeting, coming forward with his hands low and even getting rocked on a few occasions. However, when it comes to psyching out his opponents and breaking them mentally, no one does it better than “The Spider.”
Sonnen has a great chin, as he’s only been knocked out once in a 2004 bout with Terry Martin, but a fully motivated and 100% healthy Silva is a scary thought, not to mention he’s hell-bent on teaching Sonnen a thing or two about respect.
The champion should do well anticipating Sonnen’s takedown attempts this time around, sprawling effectively and countering with vicious strikes. Sonnen may put him down briefly, but Silva is well aware of the game plan and he will be timing the challenger’s every move. Sonnen needs 25 minutes to emerge victorious, while Silva is always one connection away. After putting Sonnen on queer street, Silva’s killer instincts should take over as he violently exacts his long awaited revenge for years of trash talk with a thunderous flurry that leaves Sonnen unconscious.
Verdict: Silva via KO, Round 1
-Forrest Griffin (18-7) vs. Tito Ortiz (16-10)
In a rubber match that dates back to April 2006, “The Ultimate Fighter” winner Griffin looks to spoil the going away party of Ortiz, one of the sport’s most polarizing figures.
Griffin, 33, is on the rebound trail after a first-round knockout loss at the hands of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in their rematch last August.
A longtime representative of Xtreme Couture, the Ohio native won the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, defeating Stephan Bonnar in a fight that helped propel the UFC to mainstream superstardom.
Griffin’s first UFC setback came against Ortiz back at UFC 59 as he dropped a split decision. Griffin would later shock the world by upsetting “Shogun” by submission in his UFC debut before outpointing Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in a highly contentious decision to claim the UFC light heavyweight title.
The reign was short-lived as Griffin lost his belt to Rashad Evans. Next, he suffered the most embarrassing loss of his career as he was simply outclassed by pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva at UFC 101.
Griffin would avenge his loss to Ortiz at UFC 106, winning a razor-thin split decision, before going on to outpoint Rich Franklin in February 2011.
Griffin’s skills are always evolving and the Las Vegas resident recently earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Robert Drysdale. However, Griffin’s punching power remains highly questionable. His size has been a major asset as he towers over most 205-pound competitors, but he lacks the striking prowess to go toe-to-toe with elite light heavyweights.
Ortiz, 37, was finished by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in his most recent bout at UFC 140 this past December.
A true UFC pioneer with a light heavyweight title reign that lasted 1,267 days, Ortiz will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on the same day that he enters the Octagon for the very last time.
The Team Punishment founder, a standout collegiate wrestler and former ADCC submission wrestling bronze medalist, was a juggernaut at a time when the UFC was still in its infancy.
His career wins over Guy Mezger, Wanderlei Silva, Yuki Kondo, Evan Tanner, Vladimir Matyushenko, Ken Shamrock, Patrick Cote and Vitor Belfort may not get much attention today, but Ortiz was cementing himself as the premier light heavyweight in the game during the early 2000s. Though Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture always had his number, Ortiz was a major force to be reckoned with.
With only one win in his last eight fights, Ortiz is hardly the dominant fighter he once was, but he remains a highly dangerous combatant with a strong wrestling background, underrated submissions and dangerous hands. If his July 2011 upset submission win over Ryan Bader is any indication, Ortiz has the tools to pull off wins 10 years past his prime.
Futhermore, Ortiz’s recent string of setbacks has come against some of the top competition around, including Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida. The fights haven’t been entirely one-sided and Ortiz proved that he still has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Ortiz’s primary weakness is his conditioning, which has been his downfall time and time again, including a decisive unanimous decision loss to Matt Hamill in October 2010. Meanwhile, Griffin struggles from a sloppy striking approach and a lack of real power.
While Ortiz’s best days are undoubtedly behind him, Griffin is the perfect type of matchup for him to enjoy one last hurrah before hanging it up for good. If Ortiz can pace himself effectively without running out of gas in the first round, he should find success scoring some pivotal takedowns and landing some crisp combinations, eking out a decision against his younger opponent to cap off an exciting trilogy and a legendary career.
Verdict: Ortiz via decision
-Cung Le (7-2) vs. Patrick Cote (17-7)
A pair of exciting middleweights will showcase their abilities in a clash that has all the makings of a “Fight of the Night” battle.
Le, 40, comes from an unblemished kickboxing background with a record of 17-0. The Vietnamese-born Sanshou kickboxer rose to prominence under the Strikeforce banner, earning marquee wins over Frank Shamrock and Scott Smith.
Anchored at San Jose’s famed American Kickboxing Academy, Le utilizes a spellbinding striking system wherein he breaks opponents down with a cavalcade of kicks and counterpunches.
A former collegiate wrestling champion, Le is also well-versed with takedowns and throws, which are an integral element in Sanshou, but he often elects to stand and trade.
The pupil of Javier Mendez was first exposed by Smith in their December 2009 bout, gassing out in the latter stages of the contest before ultimately being knocked out in the third round. Le would get his revenge in their rematch six months later, but his conditioning has been a point of critique ever since.
Le joined the UFC this past November, winning the first round of his middleweight battle with MMA legend Wanderlei Silva before he was stunned in the second round and put away with an onslaught of knees and punches.
Luckily for Le, the returning Cote loves to trade punches, so he won’t have to worry about strategies that could neutralize his somewhat predictable offense.
Cote, 32, makes his UFC return on a four-fight winning streak, including a knockout of Gustavo Machado in March.
The French-Canadian “Predator” was released from the organization in October 2010 after three straight losses, including a one-sided decision against Tom Lawlor in which his lack of wrestling was heavily exploited.
Cote made his UFC debut back in 2004, losing a hard-fought short notice decision to Tito Ortiz. Throughout his tenure with the promotion, he has defeated the likes of Scott Smith, Kendall Grove, Drew McFedries and Ricardo Almeida.
Five straight wins earned Cote a shot at UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in October 2008, but Cote suffered a knee injury in the third round, which caused him to sit on the sidelines for nearly two full years.
Training under Fabio Holanda at BTT Canada, Cote is primarily a striker who utilizes his boxing to put opponents away, but his submission game is also an overlooked tool in his repertoire. Cote insists his wrestling has come a long way since his loss to Lawlor, which remains to be seen.
Cote is one of Canada’s most beloved competitors and the two-time “Knockout of the Night” winner will be gunning for another bonus against Le on Saturday night.
However, Le’s systematic dissection of opponents should work in his favor against Cote, who is unlikely to close the distance and push his adversary against the cage. Cote will have his moments and he should become an increasingly major threat as the fight progresses with Le’s questionable cardio, but the Sanshou expert should find success with his kicks and outpoint his foe if it goes the full 15 minutes.
Verdict: Le via decision
-Dong Hyun Kim (15-1-1) vs. Demian Maia (15-4)
In an international showcase of welterweight hopefuls, the South Korean judo sensation Kim and the Brazilian submission ace Maia will collide.
The 30-year-old Kim last saw action in December, earning a convincing nod over Canadian veteran Sean Pierson. Since joining the UFC in May 2008, Kim has amassed wins over the likes of Matt Brown, T.J. Grant, Amir Sadollah and Nate Diaz.
Kim’s lone blemish came at the hands of Carlos Condit by knockout at UFC 132 last July.
Based at Busan Team M.A.D. in his native South Korea, Kim is a 4th dan black belt in judo. Kim showcased dynamic striking in his win over Pierson, though he usually smothers opponents with an overwhelming top game, as was the case in his biggest victory to date against Diaz in January 2011.
The 34-year-old Maia has been struggling to return to top form, which prompted the former middleweight to drop to 170 pounds, where he is sure to become a more prominent threat.
Maia entered the UFC as one of the most acclaimed submission specialists in the sport, having won the ADCC world championship in 2007 and the Pan American championship in 2006 to go along with his three BJJ World Cup titles.
The Brazilian southpaw lived up to his hype early on, submitting his first five Octagon opponents, including Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry and current No. 1 contender Chael Sonnen.
At UFC 102, Nate Marquardt tainted Maia’s perfect record with a big knockout punch in just 21 seconds.
In his next big challenge, Maia was thoroughly outclassed by middleweight king Anderson Silva at UFC 112 in the United Arab Emirates, losing by unanimous decision. Maia would go on to drop fights against emerging middleweight contenders Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman, while recording decision wins over Dan Miller, Mario Miranda, Kendall Grove and Jorge Santiago between his four losses.
The 3rd degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt now trains primarily out of Wand Fight Team in Las Vegas, where he works closely with Wanderlei Silva, which is probably a wise move as striking remains a critical area to round out his game.
Maia is doing the right thing for his career by dropping to welterweight, but Kim is an incredibly stern test for his first foray into the division. Kim possesses superior striking and Maia will be hard-pressed to pull off a submission against the well-versed judoka. Kim should tactically pick his spots in a slow-paced affair, landing more significant strikes and dictating the action with his grinding top control, earning a hard-fought decision on the judges’ scorecards.
Verdict: Kim via decision
-Chad Mendes (11-1) vs. Cody McKenzie (13-2)
In what appears to be a featherweight mismatch on paper, the recent title challenger Mendes takes on the guillotine choke master McKenzie, who competes at 145 pounds for the first time in his career.
The 27-year-old Mendes is a burgeoning star in the UFC’s featherweight division. Mendes earned marquee victories over Erik Koch, Cub Swanson, Javier Vazquez, Michihiro Omigawa and Rani Yahya to firmly position himself as the No. 1 contender.
However, the Team Alpha Male member, whose training partners include Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and Danny Castillo, was completely decimated by 145-pound king Jose Aldo at UFC 142 this past January, a loss he surely wants to erase from his memory.
A standout NCAA Division I wrestler, the superbly conditioned Mendes has adapted well to mixed martial arts, utilizing his tremendous takedowns to control opponents on top. Mendes isn’t one to stall, however, as he often takes chances and he’s becoming increasingly comfortable with his striking.
The 24-year-old McKenzie utilized his patented guillotine choke to put away Marcus LeVesseur at UFC on Fuel TV in May.
After suffering a TKO loss to Nam Phan on the 12th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, McKenzie is 2-2 in the UFC. He was submitted by both Vagner Rocha and Yves Edwards, but his guillotine choke continues to be his refuge as the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt has earned 12 of 13 victories with his trademark hold.
Based at Throwdown Training Center in Las Vegas, the Alaskan recently spent time with Cesar Gracie’s Academy, honing his skills alongside the Diaz brothers, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez.
McKenzie is a unique fighter with a real signature move, which is a rarity for mixed martial arts, but his limitations with wrestling and striking will likely be his downfall against a well-oiled machine like Mendes.
The Californian should control the fight from start to finish, overwhelming McKenzie and suppressing his strengths en route to a triumphant decision.
Verdict: Mendes via decision
-Ivan Menjivar (24-8) vs. Mike Easton (12-1)
Kicking off the main card is an intriguing bantamweight battle that could determine the next No. 1 contender in the wake of Dominick Cruz’s knee injury.
Menjivar, 30, a native of El Salvador, is a proud representative of Montreal’s Tristar Gym, where he has reached his full potential training under Firas Zahabi alongside the likes of Georges St. Pierre, Rory MacDonald and Miguel Torres.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt actually competed for the promotion in June 2004, losing a competitive decision to welterweight Matt Serra at UFC 48. After competing overseas and taking a prolonged hiatus from the sport, Menjivar resurfaced in 2010 before joining the UFC shortly thereafter.
Menjivar dropped a closely contested decision to Brad Pickett at WEC 53 before rebounding with a trifecta of victories under the UFC banner, including stoppages of Charlie Valencia and John Albert.
“The Pride of El Salvador” has been around since 2001, helping pioneer the sport in Canada. He’s a balanced fighter with skills in all areas, but submissions are his greatest weapon.
Easton, 28, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu and taekwondo black belt, recorded wins over John Dodson, Josh Ferguson and Chase Beebe to earn his shot in the UFC.
The Alliance MMA member under Lloyd Irvin debuted this past October, finishing Byron Bloodworth in the second round. He continued his success in his sophomore UFC appearance, earning a majority decision over Jared Papazian in January.
Easton is also a strong submission practitioner, which makes this a particularly evenly matched affair. Menjivar will have the experience edge, but Easton has yet to legitimately taste defeat in his career, as his only blemish was the result of an injury.
Menjivar, who had been priming to take on top contender Renan Barao before the Brazilian was promoted to an interim title shot, still has his eyes on the top prize.
If Menjivar can avoid getting caught up in heated striking exchanges, fighting cautiously and intelligently over the course of three rounds, he should earn the nod in what promises to be a competitive bantamweight barnburner.
Verdict: Menjivar via decision