COLOGNE, Germany – There is little doubt that Wanderlei Silva is, physically at least, nowhere near the fighter he was three or four years ago, when he was dominating the PRIDE Fighting Championship's middleweight division.
He's long been among a handful of the most popular fighters in mixed martial arts, but his popularity may be at an all-time high despite losing to Rich Franklin in a 195-pound catchweight bout Saturday at Lanxess Arena in the main event of UFC 99.
The crowd of 12,854 roared its approval when Silva walked to the cage and then cheered him vociferously throughout the back-and-forth slugfest.
Franklin, the former UFC middleweight champion, used movement and more accurate punching to pull out the win in the entertaining fight. But as he spoke to in-ring interviewer Joe Rogan after the bout, the crowd booed lustily.
It is rare to ever hear Franklin booed, as he's long been one of the UFC's top attractions and entertaining fighters. Such was the love the crowd had for Silva, who has now lost five of his last six, that it scorned Franklin in favor of the Brazilian.
Franklin said it didn't bother him and that he actually half-expected it, given Silva's rock star status among MMA fans.
"Wanderlei has done more in this sport than I have," Franklin said. "I have a lot of respect and admiration for him as a fighter, much like the fans."
Every now and then, Silva rocked Franklin with one of the powerful rights than helped him score some of the most dramatic knockout victories in the sport's history. Too often, though, Silva threw only one punch at a time and Franklin, using his lateral quickness and cage awareness, would dance easily out of range.
If Silva were a two-fisted puncher, he may have had a chance to change the outcome. Instead, Franklin was able to circle frequently away from danger and, except for brief moments when he was on queasy street, he was never in serious jeopardy.
Silva at one stage said he wanted a rematch with Franklin, though he later said he wasn't sure what the future would hold for him.
"I don't know about my future," he said softly, picking at welts and abrasions that covered his face. "My fans are the reason I fight. I love it. The emotion inside the octagon is unbelievable. I love it and I love to share the emotion with the fans. The fans understand this and because of that, the fans respect me."
So, too, do his opponents. Franklin agreed to meet Silva at a limit of 195 pounds on Saturday as Silva is transitioning from 205 pounds to 185.
Franklin conceded he felt the power at 195 and said he thought Silva could make a major impact at 185.
"He's always coming forward and once his arms start moving, he's quick, he's explosive and he's dangerous," Franklin said. "I got caught up in it in the second round and he rocked me a little in there.
"I'll tell you what: Wanderlei's been fighting at 205 pounds and he's a strong fighter. Moving down to 185, he's going to be strong in that weight class. He's dangerous. He has knockout power for the 205-pound weight class. When he gets down to 185, it's going to be even that much worse [for Silva's opponents]."
Whether he'll ever make it into the cage for a 185-pound match remains a question, however. Unlike in April, where he said at the postfight news conference following UFC 97 that ex-light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell would retire, UFC president Dana White wasn't willing to end Silva's career on Saturday.
He said he'd have a conversation with Silva soon in Las Vegas, where both men live. Silva is one of the sport's treasures and White needs to do right by him.
What the right answer is, though, is ticklish. No doubt, when he recovers from Saturday's bout, Silva is going to want to fight again.
One of the reasons he's so beloved is because he's always ready to go to battle.
Occasionally, though, fighters like that need to be saved from themselves. He's been knocked out hard three times in his last six fights and has lost all but one of those.
He's a wealthy man and said he won't have to work again once his fighting career is over. Fighters take a risk every time they step into the cage, but the risk increases after a lengthy career and a fighter ages. Silva has lost at least a half-step of quickness and is now getting hit more flush than ever.
With the quality and precision of strikers at an all-time high in the sport, that's not a good sign for a guy who makes his living standing in front of an opponent and throwing knockout blows.
If Silva opts to fight again, which I suspect he will, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva (no relation) will have to choose his opponent very carefully. And he'll have to pay particular attention to Silva's reflexes.
Silva has done far too much for the sport to be trotted to the gate just because he's a draw. The minute the UFC brass sees the signs of deterioration, they need to go to Silva and pull the plug on a wonderful career.
That night may not be here, but it's clearly near.