When the UFC signed Anderson Silva in 2006 one could have scarcely predicted how monumental the move would become. The thirty-something Brazilian had certainly had a solid professional international fighting career up to that point and was almost always exciting to watch but he was also just 3-2 in his prior five fights.
In fact, Silva had recently almost retired because he was so disappointed with where his career was headed after a submission loss to Ryo Chonnan on New Year’s Eve, 2004 in Pride. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira talked Silva out of it and helped support him as he worked to get back on track.
To say that Silva rebounded would be a huge understatement. The flashy journeyman, who had been susceptible to submissions and was overshadowed by teammates like Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, stayed with it, improved immeasurably and hit the UFC running.
In his UFC debut, Silva dismantled the granite-chinned Chris Leben, who up to that point was undefeated in the promotion. After that, Silva went straight to a shot at middleweight champion Rich Franklin.
Pundits won’t admit it now, but many of us thought that Silva was being rushed into a fight he wasn’t ready for against Franklin. Sure, Silva was dynamic but the strong, well-rounded Franklin seemed like a leap up in competition for the Brazilian after Leben.
As it turned out, somewhere between Japan, England and the United States, Anderson Silva became “The Spider” – an unstoppable force of fighting nature that wouldn’t lose for the better part of a decade. Silva brutalized Franklin with ease, took the middleweight title and did not look back for nearly seven years.
From good to great
Silva would go on to defend the middleweight title a record 11 consecutive and successful times (yes, we’re counting his submission win over Travis Lutter, who missed weight the day before and turned the fight into a non-title affair, because it only makes sense to in the spirit of the term, “title defense”). Silva also moved up in weight three separate times to dominate three light heavyweights, including the first ever unified 205-pound champion, Forrest Griffin.
By the time his first fight against challenger Chris Weidman came around this past summer, Silva had long been the most dominant champion in MMA history. He would go on to lose to Weidman, nearly ten years his junior, twice in a row.
Those wins certainly established Weidman as the undisputed best middleweight in the world at this point in time, but the devastating losses for Silva can’t change his place in history.
From 2006 to 2013, Silva was fighting greatness personified. He was good enough to bully lesser opponents and great enough to come from behind and beat back legitimate threats to his reign.
Many opponents like Lutter, Demian Maia , Dan Henderson and Vitor Belfort seem like also-rans in retrospect. At the time, however, each looked like potentially bad match ups for Silva.
Lutter put Silva down, mounted him and threatened with submissions before the champion rallied and finished the Jiu Jitsu ace with his own triangle choke. Maia had dominated virtually everyone in the middleweight division leading up to Silva, using his takedowns and world-class submissions to win.
Surely the world submission grappling champion posed a serious threat to Silva, whom we thought had problems with takedowns and submissions. Instead, Anderson toyed with his countryman en route to a punishing and effortless-looking decision win.
When two-division Pride champion and former Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson faced Silva in 2008, most assumed that he was a nightmare matchup for “The Spider.” Henderson possessed just as much striking power as Silva and could likely take him down at will.
In the first round, Henderson played his game – took Silva down – but the champion survived. In the second round, a glancing shot from Anderson dropped Hendo and Silva finished with a rear naked choke, forcing the tap out submission.
Belfort had won titles at heavyweight and light heavyweight, possessed all-around skills and lightning fast strikes. It seemed as if Silva would finally face an opponent his equal in speed and athleticism who also would feel comfortable wherever the fight went.
Not even close. Silva front-kicked “The Phenom” in the face and knocked him out in the first round. Belfort has not lost a fight at middleweight since then but Silva showed that he himself was in another class.
Silva provided perhaps the most dramatic come from behind victory we’ve ever seen in MMA when he submitted Chael Sonnen in the fifth and final round of their 2010 title bout after getting beaten on everywhere for the entire fight. Turns out Sonnen also violated performance enhancing drug regulation to achieve that performance.
In their 2012 rematch, Silva looked on his way to facing serious trouble from Sonnen again when he was taken down in the first round with ease and controlled on the ground. In the second round, however, Anderson made quick work of “The American Gangster,” with a deft weave, sidestep and laser-precise knee to the sternum of Sonnen.
Silva, it seemed, could take anyone’s best shots, remain calm, shrug them off and deliver one shot that would make them crumble.
Even Silva’s perceived career lows – his incessant taunting of opponents like Thales Leites, Maia, Forrest Griffin and Weidman – are, in the long view, simply reminiscent of other great sporting competitors of the past two centuries like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Ali was quick to taunt, quick to boast, regularly hurled racially insensitive remarks at opponents like Joe Frazier and George Foreman and wasn’t above literally and physically stalking and harassing opponents at their homes like he did to Sonny Liston.
Jordan, of course, was one of the worst trash talkers and in-competition taunters in history. He also screamed at and abused opposing coaches during games and punched teammates during practice.
Sometimes the great ones are jerks on their path towards greatness. As we have with Ali, Jordan and countless others, we will ultimately remember Silva for the great things he accomplished, and not nit-pick and parse his career for the sometimes unpleasant methods he used to get there.
Ambassador for the sport
Anderson Silva’s in-ring exploits were key in pushing the UFC and sport of MMA as whole to grow exponentially. Anderson Silva’s first UFC fight was in the small Hard Rock Hotel and Casino venue. Within a few years, he and the UFC were selling out stadiums for his fights domestically and abroad, with television audiences numbering in the tens of millions, globally.
Silva became such a star that he helped open up perhaps the UFC’s biggest market – Brazil. In his home country, Silva graced the cover of Rolling Stone, secured sponsorships from Nike and Burger King and sold out arenas. Back in the United States, Silva proved to be one of the very top pay per view draws for the UFC.
Incredible longevity & legacy
Anderson Silva lasted way longer than most counter-fighters who rely on quickness, timing and an impeccable sense of range do. His boxing idol, Roy Jones Jr., who shared those attributes with the MMA champ, certainly did not.
Silva long insisted, perhaps in jest and perhaps in seriousness, that he wanted to fight Jones Jr. That fight never happened and that’s fine.
As a public endeavor, it would have been a sad spectacle. Jones Jr. has sustained too much damage in his career and should have retired long ago for his health. If the men, who seem friendly with one another, want to spar in private, they can.
Silva had and has nothing left to prove, against Jones or anyone else. There’s nothing left of substance that the pound for pound great could add to his legacy.
There will always be the next challengers and the next champions – guys like Chris Weidman.
Weidman is a beast and who knows what other great things he will go on to do and for how long. It certainly seems like he can be champion for a long time.
Perhaps Silva will recover from his traumatic leg injury and try to make another run. We certainly hope he’ll be healthy enough to do so.
Silva can’t become more of a giant than he already is, though. There will always be the next big, strong, young guy who Silva could take on.
Safe to say, however, that there will never be another Anderson Silva.
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