Paulo Filho and what could have been

Three years ago, something broke inside Paulo Filho and he hasn't been the same since. The sad and frustrating turn to a highly promising career -- emotional and psychological highs and lows, accusations from his handlers about drug abuse -- have apparently prompted the Brazilian to walk away early from a sport he seemed so perfectly suited for.

From 16-0 and No. 2 in the world at 185 pounds, to 22-4-2 and off the grid, Filho's is a cautionary tale. You think you have the tools to be great, then, rather suddenly, you don't and you aren't. For a 33-year-old man whose in-cage meltdown against Chael Sonnen in 2008 publicly signaled that something was very wrong, Filho's pro career is best represented by this question:

What could have been?

In peak form, Filho was a grappling force. If he wanted you on the floor, you went to the floor. If he wanted to hit you, he did. If he wanted to submit you, he probably did that too.

Look no further than the back-to-back fights with Sonnen to get a sense for how quickly things shifted.

In 2007, Filho made Sonnen scream in pain as he levered an armbar. Eleven months later, Filho listlessly wandered about the cage like a zombie, not fighting, not doing much of anything, essentially handing his World Extreme Cagefighting title over to the wrestler. He failed to make weight by four pounds the day before the rematch. Back in his locker room afterwards, Filho barely acknowledged what had just happened. Not because he was in denial. He really seemed not to know.

After stepping to the top of the division with 16 wins in as many fights, the rematch with Sonnen kicked off a stretch of odd outings. He was released from Zuffa, never to return. Bouts in Japan and Brazil and Australia followed, but he wouldn't get a sniff of the U.S. fight scene again. His performances were mixed. Raw ability brought about wins, yet personal and professional demons made them harder to come by.

Any mention of Filho conjures up images of a powerful fighter. In reality, he's a lost soul, going so far as to get himself a facial tattoo like his hero Mike Tyson. He seemed to be always searching for something, and from the outside we could never get a sense what that was. Even those closest to him can't say for certain. Did he really want to find his way back to the top? They never knew. If that desire still existed, his performances and results suggested otherwise.

The timing of his troubles couldn't have been worse. Filho might have been champion at 185 when Zuffa folded WEC into the UFC. Who's to say what could have happened against Anderson Silva? Stylistically, he seemed like he would have been hell to handle for the UFC champion.

This was a fighter with the talent and game to be No. 1. He was never exciting, but that doesn’t matter when all you do is win. After that facade was lifted, nothing went right for Filho. As the cautionary tale goes, talent alone isn't nearly enough, especially when stacked against counter forces the likes of which he’s required to deal with.

Though it appears to be the case right now, here's hoping Filho’s mixed martial arts experience won’t define his life.