As fight fans saw this weekend, there's something special about big time boxing done right. Sixteen thousand fans filled the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec, Canada to see local champion Jean Pascal defend his title against the legendary Bernard Hopkins. Boxing enthusiasts cleared their calendars and settled in for a night of great action.
It's the beauty of a high caliber boxing match - you know you're in for at least a half an hour of back and forth fisticuffs. Stories can be told in the ring, not just by way of trash talking and antics outside the confines of combat. The story of the fight, the rhythm, ebbs and flows throughout the night, the early leader often fading. The momentum can shift, then shift again. Hopkins took the Canadian champion to Pascal's limits, all while searching for his own. The fight was a majority draw, a fair decision in a bout this evenly contested over 12 rounds. The rematch will do even better business, perhaps this time on PPV.
In boxing, to borrow a phrase, the better man usually wins. Tiny gloves don't allow a lesser fighter to get lucky as often, creating a contest governed more by skill and less by the vagaries of fate. The fights have time to develop over ten or more rounds. You don't see high level boxers heaving for breath and exhausted after just a few minutes of fighting like MMA fans saw earlier this year with top contender Shane Carwin. They come prepared to fight hard for the entirety of the fight and often need to - in the Hopkins-Pascal fight the action in the last several rounds was even more frenetic than that of the first few stanzas.
In mixed martial arts it's common to see faster action, more furious action, more varied action. The fights often end explosively and dramatically. What some fans miss in this fast paced frenzy is the slow build, the long and drawn out battle, the wars of attrition that turn mere pugilists into immortals. That's what made Anderson Silva's amazing title defense over Chael Sonnen so special.
Silva and Sonnen combined the best of boxing - the high stakes, the grandeur, a fight that developed over the entirety of five rounds - with the exciting techniques, prefight squabbling, and dramatic finish that makes MMA so special. This hybrid bout was one for the ages:
After losing 22 minutes of his seventh title defense, Anderson Silva looked all but helpless. Chael Sonnen has talked a riduculous amount of trash leading up to the fight. More frustrating, surely, for the sport's best fighter-Sonnen was backing it up. He knocked the champion down with a left hand in the first round. He deposited him on his butt in every round. According to CompuStrike, Sonnen was outlanding Silva 218-11 through three rounds.
Had the fight gone to the scorecards, he would have been an easy winner. Two judges scored round one 10-8, another gave Sonnen round three by the same margin. It seemed like the bout was a fait accompli. But because of the sheer variety of techniques in the sport, because of how quickly things can turn, the fight never seemed over. Silva fans like me were on the edges of their seats, praying for a miracle as Sonnen once again assumed the top position in the fifth and final round. Even my family got in on the act, as I wrote in the minutes after the fight:
My petite and polite wife was up like a shot. She's inches from the television, screaming her head off. "Oh my God. Anderson! Kill him! Choke him. Choke him!" It was that kind of fight. No amount of breeding, class, or dignity can defeat the power of the UFC. If you ever need to show someone a fight to explain what it is about this sport that moves you, that stirs the primal passions inside, simply pop in a DVD of this show.
...As the fifth and final round opened the impossible seemed a real possibility. Sonnen had only to survive to pull off the biggest upset in UFC history. And then, it was Sonnen being Sonnen, beating himself in the biggest fight of his life. Seconds before the triangle choke that ended his night I tweeted that he was begging to be armbarred. Perhaps looking for an exciting finish, Sonnen got careless. He left his arms wide open, recklessly attacking the champion who lay prone beneath him. Like a true champion, Silva made him pay.
Silva reminded us once again why we fell in love with mixed martial arts. Perhaps because of a prefight injury, perhaps because of prefight PED use by the challenger, perhaps because Sonnen was simply the better man that night, Silva struggled mightily with the challenger's power and top control. Despite his struggles, or maybe because of them, he reminded us of something Royce Gracie had made clear all the way back at UFC 1 - technique can overcome power, skill can transcend athleticism.
It was one of the best fights I've ever seen, one of the best experiences. I'd never felt better about being a fan of this sport. How can anything else be the fight of the year? Other bouts had more action. Maybe they were more closely fought throughout. But what else can compare to a moment like that? The finish that reminds you that anything is possible, that great champions do find a way to prevail against all odds. It was a transcendent moment and my fight of the year.