Monday Myriad: Anderson Silva, world’s greatest athlete?

Here’s a great idea for a Google Doodle or an ad campaign: Have a floating picture of Anderson Silva’s head, and tell the user to try to “punch” his head with the pointer. No matter where you point, the head floats away, and you miss.

That’s basically what Silva did to Stephan Bonnar on Saturday. Oh, you want to hit me? OK, give it a try. Here, I’ll back up against the cage. Hands down by my side. OK, go.

When Silva got bored of dodging Bonnar’s blows, he simply knocked him out. Now consider this — Bonnar had never been knocked out, excluding fights stopped because of cuts. Never. He and Forrest Griffin hit each other with everything they could throw, and both guys were still standing at the finish. Now Silva has knocked out Griffin and Bonnar in the first round.

So when we’re thinking of the world’s greatest athlete, where does this guy stand?

Also speaking of the world’s greatest, check out Usain Bolt’s second appearance on Saturday Night Live this weekend. (He’s near the end of the clip.)

Other stuff that happened over the weekend:

Soccer: The U.S. men continue their bid to induce panic attacks among the fanbase, getting a 90th-minute goal to beat Antigua and Barbuda. The good news: They just need a draw on Tuesday against Guatemala to advance to the next round.

Cycling (track): No medals for the USA in the World Cup stop in Cali, Colombia. Might be because the USA only sent one cyclist, Cari Higgins, who finished fourth in the omnium.

Not much else happened over the weekend — see the Team USA wrap for more — but everything changes this week: figure skating revs up with Skate America, and the short-track speedskating World Cup starts in Calgary.

 

The contrarian take on Silva-Sonnen

A lot is riding on the upcoming UFC pay-per-view with Anderson Silva defending his middleweight title once again against Chael Sonnen, who grounded-and-pounded Silva for four-and-a-half rounds the first time they faced off before Silva pulled off the miracle comeback two years ago.

For the UFC, it’s a chance to continue its comeback from a disappointing string of injury-riddled pay-per-view cards. The last two big ones — Jon Jones-Rashad Evans (UFC 145, April), Junior dos Santos-Frank Mir and other heavyweights (UFC 146, May) — have done well. (We’ll give the UFC a pass on UFC 147 in Brazil, which turned into a finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil with a Rich Franklin-Wanderlei Silva bout on top. That one really wasn’t about the U.S. market. The current wave of UFC growth is overseas, and they know it.)

Silva-Sonnen is the standout fight of the UFC’s overloaded year, in which it’s pumping out fight cards by the dozen for the Fox networks along with its now-standard steady flow of pay-per-view cards. The storylines are obvious. The fighters hate each other. Sonnen won’t stop talking about how he dominated Silva for all but the last few seconds of their last fight. Silva is one of the greatest fighters of all time.

So why am I not interested?

1. The first fight was dull aside from the shock value. Sonnen takedown. Silva stuck on his back. Repeat. The only interesting thing about it was the man on his back was Anderson Silva … the man who had the aura of invincibility.

2. Age. The combined age of the guys in this fight is 72. Experience can be a good thing in this sport — the complexities of martial arts can take years to master — but the 35-year-old Sonnen is still bringing essentially the same wrestling-intensive skillset he’s always had. The 37-year-old Silva might have lost a step despite his wonderful bounce-back from the first Sonnen fight, a highlight-reel KO of dangerous opponent Vitor Belfort.

3. Chael Sonnen, middleweight champion? Sonnen has had a slow climb up the middleweight ladder. He was 1-2 in his first stint in the UFC, departing after his third career loss to the ubiquitous Jeremy Horn. Some solid results in BodogFight brought him into WEC, where he lost a title fight to Paulo Filho. He got a quick rematch and won one of the oddest fights in MMA history — Filho missed weight and acted as if he were hearing voices. He moved into the UFC and immediately lost to Demian Maia.

Sonnen rebounded with a couple of wins and plowed through Nate Marquardt to earn the title shot. He looked far stronger than Marquardt, a prelude to how he would treat Silva.

Then came the scandal. Sonnen’s postfight drug test showed a 16:1 testosterone-epitestosterone ratio. The limit, depending on the overseeing body, is either 4:1 or 6:1.  There’s no need to rehash the whole case, but the end result is this: Sonnen served a suspension  and returned with a strong win over Brian Stann and a less convincing win (I’m not convinced at all, frankly) over Michael Bisping. He’ll fight Silva under a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone use, but he’ll be tested extensively, and his ratio still needs to be under 6:1.

So if Silva is the old Silva, he shouldn’t have any problem with Sonnen. The champion supposedly had a rib injury the first time they fought, and he’ll be better prepared to fend off Sonnen’s takedowns. No one doubts Silva would win if the fight remains standing. And if Sonnen derived any additional strength from testing off the charts in the first fight, he’ll have less of an advantage this time around. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that Silva is about to deliver an epic beatdown that ought to make Sonnen shut up for once.

But what if he doesn’t? What if age has really robbed Silva of his legendary explosiveness? What if the UFC ends up with a middleweight champion with a 28-11-1 record who wouldn’t have gotten this rematch without his big mouth and a massive favor from the judges to beat Michael Bisping? A champion who sneers at any reporter who dares to ask real questions or do any real reporting about his testosterone use?

To me, it looks like pro wrestling. We’re about to see the heel get his come-uppance. Or not. (And a lot of people actually like the heel, who is indeed a witty guy and, oddly enough, a pretty good TV analyst.)

There’s a reason I’ve used first person through all this. I know this is just me. The typical MMA fan is far more interested in the storylines than I am. This card is going to get a ton of media coverage. I’d be stunned if the pay-per-view numbers weren’t the biggest of what’s already a pretty good year.

But the date I’ve circled is Aug. 11. Ben Henderson. Frankie Edgar. Lightweight title rematch. Two great guys. Two great fighters. Bring it.

UFC 136 and my love/hate relationship with MMA

UFC 136 was one of those events that showed how mixed martial arts has evolved into a enthralling athletic competition and how it hasn’t.

Let’s start with the bad news, the antics that show how the sport’s fan base is still very much a pro wrestling fan base, willing to toss facts and reason to the wind for a cheap spectacle.

Continue reading UFC 136 and my love/hate relationship with MMA

UFC 126 on three days’ reflection

What we learned and what happens next after UFC 126:

– Former WEC fighters looked great. Chad Mendes and Demetrious Johnson plowed through Japanese stars Michihiro Omigawa and Kid Yamamoto. Donald Cerrone’s maturation process continued in a clinical but thrilling win against Paul Kelly. Miguel Torres left Antonio Banuelos punching at shadows.

– Jon Jones hasn’t been fast-tracked quite as quickly as Brock Lesnar, but his rise is similar. Even his one loss, he looked dominant. Ryan Bader was supposed to challenge him with superior wrestling and dangerous stand-up, but it never materialized. He has cleared out the second tier of light heavyweight challengers, and once the new rankings come out, he’ll be the highest-ranked 205er who has not yet held the 205 belt. Given that, his title shot against Shogun Rua seems early, but not too early.

– Worst corner chatter of the card: Rich Franklin’s corner saying he won round 2. He didn’t, and he didn’t seem to realize he needed to finish Forrest Griffin to beat him. Easier said than done, of course. Hard to tell where Franklin goes next, but he’s still a viable veteran who could give an up-and-comer a good test.

– The 205 title picture is as murky as ever. If Jones wins, Rashad Evans says he’ll change weight classes — perhaps back up to heavyweight, where he won The Ultimate Fighter — rather than face his friend and teammate. Maybe Griffin gets the next shot to reclaim his title?

– Let’s quit pretending Anderson Silva is going to wipe people out from the first second. Unless someone steps forward and presses him, as Forrest Griffin did, Silva is going to go through a feeling-out process with everyone he faces. Most fighters are going to be cautious against him, so you’re going to see a minute or two of circling before something happens. But when he catches you, good night.

– The first karate technique I ever saw was demonstrated by a middle-school classmate. He leaped with his left knee up as if to kick with his left, then slammed his right foot upward. (Fortunately, he was demonstrating on air, not a classmate.) I’ve often wondered if that would work in MMA. Silva’s knockout of Vitor Belfort makes me think it might. It helps, of course, to be as quick as Silva.

– So now the biggest potential fight in UFC history — Silva vs. Georges St. Pierre — hinges on whether GSP can beat Jake Shields. No pressure.

– The brilliance of the UFC at this point is that we talk about what happens next. In boxing, on the rare occasions in which two interesting fighters face off, the next superfight is always too far away to discuss. We’d talk about Pacquiao-Mayweather, but with all the stakeholders involved, we know it’s likely never to happen. Silva-GSP, on the other hand, is basically one fight away.

MMA: Not pro wrestling

Mixed martial arts has a few historical links to professional wrestling. The connection is stronger in Japan than in the USA, but it exists here. They’ve chased some of the same audiences, and a couple of people have existed in both worlds. Ken Shamrock went back and forth between the two. Brock Lesnar left pro wrestling behind to climb quickly to UFC heavyweight champion. We even have an overlap in journalism — Dave Meltzer, who dove aggressively behind the scenes with Wrestling Observer, is a very good MMA writer.

No one would want to drum Lesnar or Meltzer out of the sport, but MMA fans have every right to play up the differences between their sport and the scripted version. Luke Thomas minced few words on Twitter today (not that Twitter gives anyone much leeway to mince words) in talking about it: “I’m going to start swinging a machete if we keep pretending MMA is professional wrestling.”

Thomas, who hosts “MMA Nation” on WJFK and is the editor of great MMA blog Bloody Elbow, expounded in two more Tweets. Combining them: “The other issue that folks need to consider is the longer you pretend there is a cozy relationship btw MMA & pro wrestling, the longer you put off integration into the larger sporting audience. They will not accept it on those terms. And who can blame them?”

Thomas is a passionate defender of MMA as a sport and not just a spectacle, something Bloody Elbow’s critics in the fight world should remember. And he’s right.

In Japan, fans and the media may be more accepting of close links between the “fake” and “real” worlds. In the USA, that’ll go over as well as the “European carry-all” on the great old Seinfeld episode.

All of this is in the wake of UFC 117, which played out like a pro wrestling storyline, vividly spelled out at Watch Kalib Run. Chael Sonnen hyped the fight with ludicrous overstatement, dominated for most of the fight and then lost when Silva pulled a submission win out of nothing. That’s Sonnen playing the heel to Anderson Silva’s babyface.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Sonnen had a lot of fan support against Silva, whose popularity has suffered through some erratic performances.

But the differences between MMA and pro wrestling were more apparent in the rest of the card, which no one would script:

– Jon Fitch took a typically methodical win over Thiago Alves in the type of bout.

– Matt Hughes, a few years past his championship run, beat Ricardo Almeida with an improbable choke. (Maybe you’d script that one.)

– Clay Guida beat Rafael dos Anjos on an injury — a Guida punch injured dos Anjos’ jaw, and dos Anjos tapped out when he was caught in a hold that made the injury worse.

– Junior dos Santos beat up Roy Nelson in a matchup of contrasting builds.

UFC fight build-up is sometimes nasty. Lesnar and Frank Mir had some pointed exchanges, and Lesnar went way over the top in celebrating his win. But it’s generally a different vibe. Even Sonnen and Silva embraced after the fight, with Silva going out of his way to praise a fighter who had spent several months ridiculing him.

As a journalist who has come to love this sport, I’m with Luke. I can deal with pre-fight confidence-building boasts, but not with pro wrestling-style histrionics. I’d bet I’m not the only one.

Update: At Bloody Elbow, Kid Nate sums up one of the problems — the more MMA resembles pro wrestling, the more likely observers may think it’s predetermined.