All night long, a cloud had been building over the Octagon. And now, with the main event set to begin, it seemed primed to explode. The lights dimmed. A terrific roar went up from the crowds, and the challenger - Chael Sonnen - emerged from his tunnel.
Saturday, August 17, 2013. UFC Fight Night 26. Boston. The arena pulsed with the anticipation that good fighting produces. Slowly, inexorably, fight-by-fight, the clouds had gathered-every bout of the evening, from the prelims to the co-main event, had lived up to the hype. The fights were being broadcast on Fox Sports 1, the first time the network had premiered a UFC event, reaching a far wider demographic than was previously possible, and expectations had been raised.
The fighters did not disappoint.
From James Vick opening the festivities with a first round submission win over Ramsey Nijem, to Conor McGregor's unanimous decision over Max Holloway, to Matt Brown's first round knockout of Mike Pyle, to Urijah Faber's dominant display of ground-and-pound over Iuri Alcantara, to Travis Browne's incredible, come-from-behind front kick knockout of heavy favorite Alistair Overeem, it had been a night of upsets, close fights, and sudden, violent finishes A night of momentum, of rising tide
A night of power.
It had all been leading to this: the main event. Chael Sonnen, the underdog, strode from the tunnel, lights swirling around him, a storm of sound and electricity and neon color seeming to usher him forth. His fists bounced together. On his face was an intense expression; his steel blue eyes, focused, bereft of emotion, betrayed nothing. He stripped to his shorts, black, stark against the paleness of his skin, and he stepped into the cage, pacing, staring at nothing, eyes bulging with adrenaline, mouth-guard protruding against his lips.
Once more the lights dimmed. The unintelligible screaming of the crowds rose to a feverish pitch in the sudden silence. And then music could be heard, bounding from the loudspeakers, and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua made his entrance.
Shogun and entourage filed towards the cage, bedecked in the green and yellow of their homeland-Brazil. He did not appear nervous. Sonnen, in the cage, continued to pace, a panther, waiting for his meal. Sonnen exudes intensity when he fights. He is, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, a "Mad Dog," and everything about him, as he watched Shogun climb into the cage, emanated force-the desire to maim, to dominate, to crush. They were beckoned forward; the referee explained the rules. Neither listened. They were in another realm, these two; a place that can only be reached by those like them, incomprehensible to the uninitiated. A place of violence, of conquered fear, of life and death. A place for warriors.
They retreated to their corners. It would be, for them, the last backwards moments of the fight. A red wind of electricity and strength suffused the arena, tearing through the stands, and swept across the Octagon. The referee stepped back. And the fighters, as if freed of invisible chains, attacked.
A world-class wrestler, Sonnen immediately closed the distance and secured a takedown. This is what he does: takes fighters down, and pounds them bleary-eyed. Shogun, a veteran of the sport, reversed, landed in the loose guard of Sonnen. Grappling, pressing against each other, each vying for control, they staggered briefly to their feet. And Sonnen, spinning, strong, slammed the fight to the ground again, holding Shogun in side control, throwing punches and elbows when he could. He looked completely in control, jaw clenched, eyes open and relaxed-the eyes of a killer, unwilling to blink. Shogun, for his part, did a good job of entangling the topside wrestler, neutralizing the more punishing blows. He wobbled to a kind of sitting position, facing Sonnen, hunting for the sweep. Sonnen defended. They reached, for an instant, a standstill Like two waves rolling together, each tried to overcome the other. They were at an impasse; samurai locking swords, searching-waiting-hoping for a chance, a mistake, a chink in the armor Who would be the first to succumb?
Something had to give. The crowds roared, rose cheering from their seats.
Shogun, perhaps impatient, perhaps overzealous, pressed forward. But he'd been incautious, and left his neck exposed. Sonnen's arm snaked around the open flesh, clasping Shogun in a guillotine choke. Shogun pressed forward. Sonnen leapt into the air, wrapped his legs round Shogun's waist, and the fighters toppled down. Down, they fell, and Shogun sunk deeper into Sonnen's trap. The skin over his neck stretched, reddened And then his freehand was fluttering against Sonnen's side and referee Herb Dean wrenched them apart and the fight was over. The arena shook with the noise of the stands-those intangible clouds above the Octagon burst, lightning rained down upon the canvas...
And Chael Sonnen, the victor, got to his feet.
It was an exciting end to an exciting card, the ramifications of which will no doubt echo far into the future. Coming off back-to-back losses, Sonnen needed a win-to prove he's still a force to be reckoned with-to show he can do more than talk-and that's exactly what he did. Shogun sat alone amidst the churning humdrum of the Octagon, head down, battle-flushed chest heaving air. He too needed a win. Overhead, directly above this downcast, defeated warrior, you could almost see his dream of the light-heavyweight belt, gleaming in the ever-changing lights. Slowly, he stood up. He listened as the final verdict blared "Winner by guillotine submission in the first round Chael Sonnen!"
He stared at his toes. The lights danced. Feet away, Chael Sonnen was already expounding on his next potential victim: another iconic Brazilian by the name of Wanderlei Silva.
"Until I met you," he said of Silva, "I didn't know they could stack crap that high Wanderlei-three months: you and the bad guy."
The self-proclaimed bad guy then took his leave. The lights above twisted and turned. Shogun Rua gazed up, into the light... But there was nothing to see.