During the hype for the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen rematch for Silva’s UFC middleweight title, the fight gained billing as “the most anticipated fight in UFC history.” In the near twenty-year history of UFC there have been many fights that have gotten extreme hype and have attracted extreme anticipation. The Silva/Sonnen rematch not only achieved this, but did so in a way that is rare in recent MMA history.
The night of August 7, 2010 was a night that brought several gifts to the world of mixed martial arts. Aside from a great card, the main-event featured a new attraction created within the space of one fight while in that same fight, those watching witnessed a miracle.
That night was the first meeting between Silva and Sonnen. And for more than four rounds it looked as if the torch was being passed and Silva’s days as a dominant force in MMA were done. Twice in round one, the first being in the first minute of the fight, Sonnen had a chance to stop Silva. He came close several more times, but couldn’t quite get the job done. Despite not being able to finish his opponent, Sonnen would continue to systematically dominate rounds two through four with no hope in sight for Silva’s title reign and unbeaten record in UFC.
Then in round five, it happened. Somehow Sonnen, reminiscent of his WEC loss to Paulo Filho in a fight he also dominated heavily, let himself get wrapped up and eventually locked into a triangle choke while in top position. Sonnen tapped out with just under two minutes remaining in the fight, keeping Silva’s unbeaten record in UFC intact and his title reign given new life. There was no doubt that Sonnen would have been the new champion had he been able to last the final 1:50. It was the biggest opportunity of his MMA career, and it slipped right out of his grasp.
Like the ads for the rematch said, “This isn’t hype.” That is the benefit of having a rematch: if the events of the first fight are good enough or tantalizing enough, you can basically sell the second fight with that.
An easy way to create hype for a fight is to create animosity between the competing fighters. A lot of the time this is more for show than legitimate heat between the fighters or their camps. There are those occasions when the heat is real, and those are usually clear as day in comparison to the more toned down heat that has to be created almost on the fly. With Silva/Sonnen it was a combination of the two as Sonnen basically created a rivalry out of thin air, and then that rivalry took on a life of its own.
If you look into the buyrate numbers for UFC shows that Anderson Silva has been in the main-event of, whether a one-fight draw (his) or a card where he shared main-event billing with another fight, it has always been Silva’s opponent or the other fight sharing the bill, but not Silva that has decided how high the number will go.
His fights with Rich Franklin got good numbers for the time because Franklin was a popular fighter in UFC before their rise began. But after that, the numbers for Silva’s title defenses didn’t seem to go up despite having twice beaten up Franklin, the second being in Franklin’s hometown. Also, UFC’s middleweight division wasn’t as exciting as it has gotten recently. So Silva’s challengers have been either out of their league against Silva or were guys that never clicked with the audience.
On the shows where Silva’s defenses or non-title fights shared main-event billing, it almost seemed necessary that the second fight on top be more of a guaranteed draw. Silva’s defense against Nate Marquardt came with Tito Ortiz/Rashad Evans and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s UFC debut on top with it as neither Marquardt or Silva had proven to be draws on their own at that time. When Silva defended against Thales Leites, they shared the main-event with Shogun Rua/Chuck Liddell, a fight at the time between a popular fighter from Pride and one of UFC’s top draws. When Silva fought Forrest Griffin at light heavyweight, they shared the main-event with B.J. Penn/Kenny Florian for Penn’s lightweight title; Florian had been a UFC project since his days on The Ultimate Fighter and Penn’s fights had been able to draw good for most of his UFC career. Silva’s defense against Damian Maia came on a card with a legends fight & another title fight partly because this was UFC’s first show in Abu Dhabi as well as Maia was an eleventh hour decision. But then came the Sonnen fight.
Chael Sonnen single-handedly increased the draw for the first fight with Silva simply by opening his mouth. Secretly getting some inspiration from the world of pro wrestling (Ric Flair and Roddy Piper specifically), Sonnen set out to create animosity where there was no animosity, a feud where there was no feud. Silva had never been a huge trash talker, and certainly wasn’t to the level that Sonnen began to ascend to. It wasn’t so much that what he was saying was that compelling, but you could see that he was selling the fight. He was also playing on the timing of this fight as it came after the boring-as-all-hell title fight against Maia and because Silva was now being deemed a boring fighter and not a fighting champion. With all of that out in the open, it was easy for someone who knew what they were doing to use all of that to their advantage. Sonnen was incredibly boastful with how he was going to dominate Silva and so on, and it did get to people, gripping them because this was a guy (Sonnen) who wasn’t that known and certainly wasn’t a draw coming into this fight. To most people, Sonnen’s most noteworthy moment until the first Silva fight was tapping out to Filho in WEC. The fact that Sonnen demolished Filho in the rematch is something that is more part of history than part of the perception of Chael Sonnen.
The end result of Sonnen’s selling and trash talk was a buyrate number that came in far above the usual number for Silva defenses against a challenger with little to no drawing power going into the fight. Silva may have gotten the win, but Sonnen now was an attraction due to his words and how he was able to back them up (for the most part) in the biggest fight of his career. The fact that he lost wasn’t forgotten, but was an instance where the performance overshadowed the result.
We can’t really measure what this has done for Sonnen’s overall drawing power because both Silva fights are the only pay-per-view fights that Sonnen has ever main-evented. Though he did main-event UFC’s network telecast in January with his win against Michael Bisping. That fight was a disappointment ratings-wise because of Sonnen’s newfound energy, Bisping always being a UFC project, and the numbers still coming back lower than desired.
Silva’s drawing power has been relatively unchanged since the near-loss to Sonnen. His defense last summer against Yushin Okami, despite having Shogun Rua and Nogueira in fights on top too, had a buyrate number that looked more like the usual number with a Silva challenger people don’t care about. Silva’s first defense after the Sonnen fight was against Vitor Belfort and did produce the best buyrate for a Silva title defense. This happened for two reasons: people did still want to see Silva lose & believed he was vulnerable after the Sonnen fight, and because Belfort looked like a guy who at the time was ready to snatch that title away from Silva.
In between his fights, most of Sonnen’s talk has centered around Anderson Silva in some way. Whether he’s talking or answering questions about the first fight, or parading around with a replica UFC belt claiming to be “The Uncrowned Champion,” or poking fun at Brazil, or commenting about Silva’s wife, or boasting about beating Silva up inside the octagon…again, this has become an obsession with Sonnen, and it is something that people either love or hate. And no matter the opinion, it means they are engaged in the hype because it’s Sonnen’s desire to get people thinking (positive or negative) about him and about this fight in particular.
If Sonnen’s inspiration is truly pro wrestling, then he should be proud to have become MMA’s biggest pro wrestling heel. And that says something considering Brock Lesnar actually was a heel in pro wrestling and couldn’t pull it off this good in MMA. Sonnen’s name has become synonymous with Silva’s and vice versa all due to the mouth and words of Sonnen alone.
But it was when Silva finally did open his mouth that it created a buzz so soon to the fight itself that it may help boost the final number for this pay-per-view even more. At a UFC conference call, Silva had finally had enough it seemed, and snapped on the topic of Sonnen and the upcoming title fight. Here are some of the highlights:
“The playtime is over. I’m gonna beat Chael like he’s never been beat before. There’s no more talking. I know he’s on the line listening, and the game’s over. I’m going to beat his ass out of the UFC. He’s never gonna want to fight again after I’m done with him.”
“I’m going to beat him maybe the way his parents should have beaten him to teach him some manners, because he’s disrespectful, he’s a criminal, and I’m gonna beat him up like he’s never been beat before.”
“The first time we fought, he stepped out [as] the loser, and he’s gonna step out losing again this time, the only difference is that this time he’s gonna have to go see a plastic surgeon after the fight.”
For anyone who has followed Silva’s career in UFC, this was something new. I don’t see it as something to worry about reoccurring because this was a special circumstance. Remember, no opponent of Silva’s has come close to the variety, quantity, and continuous use of trash talk that Sonnen has bombarded Silva with for the better part of two years.
The final buyrate number should push past one million. The fight has been hyped for too long not to get to seven digits and would be a disappointing draw if it ended less than that. There have been other events that were supposed to draw one million buys “for sure” and came up short. It does happen sometimes. But with Silva’s star continuing to rise, Sonnen creating the perfect role for himself as the trash talking bad guy, and a previous fight that best demonstrates why this fight should be worth $45 out of sheer curiosity, this PPV should get to a million buys “for sure.”
As mentioned previously, there have been fights in UFC history that could be considered the most anticipated in the promotion’s history. Such fights include Rampage/Liddell II, St. Pierre/Penn II, Jones/Evans, and Rampage/Evans. Those fights each had the elements of what Silva/Sonnen had, but the complete package isn’t nearly as compelling in any case. A rematch was what Rampage/Liddell II was built around, but the first fight was in a different promotion and one that UFC had been in competition with, but eventually bought. St. Pierre/Penn II had a very, very good first fight complete with semi-controversial decision, but more time had passed in between fights than was the case with Silva/Sonnen. Rampage/Evans had the animosity, but with Rampage’s other issues (filming “A Team” delaying the fight originally, coming into camp very overweight) the fight was destined to be a dud, and was. Jones/Evans was probably the closest to capturing what Silva/Sonnen captured, but the fight happened almost a year too late as by the time the two finally met, the real-life feud had died down considerably. And I’m not even going to get into Lesnar’s fights as those fights deserve a different classification than other major fights. Brock Lesnar is an example of someone whose fights were always about one guy: Brock Lesnar. No matter the opponent, the great majority of the attention & hype preceding the fight was for Lesnar considerably thus making every PPV he was on not so much a test of how much the fight would draw, but how much Lesnar would draw.
To reiterate my beginning point: it is my opinion that Silva/Sonnen II was the most anticipated fight in UFC history. Period.