LAS VEGAS – For many years, Wanderlei Silva was regarded the same way at Zuffa headquarters that Derek Jeter is at Fenway Park.
UFC president Dana White, who for years had been eager to see Chuck Liddell knock Silva unconscious, makes no bones about his feelings toward the man who was the face of the rival PRIDE Fighting Championship.
"He was my enemy," White says unhesitatingly.
No longer is that true, however. Because on any given day, White will saunter downstairs from his office into the tiny gym located in the bowels of UFC headquarters to find Silva preparing for his fight with Keith Jardine at UFC 84 on May 24.
They greet each other with an embrace and a smile and while away the time discussing their mutual passion for mixed martial arts.
Silva is such a fan of the sport, he said he's pleading with White to make a match between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who currently are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Yahoo! Sports poll of the world's best fighters.
"If Dana can make that fight, I'll be in the line to buy a ticket," Silva said, beaming. "What a great fight. I am a fighter, yes. It is my job, and it is a job I love. But before I'm a fighter, I am a fan. I love this sport."
And that's why White has fallen for Silva the way a high school football star might for a sultry cheerleader.
White is making money, and lots of it, in the UFC, but it's a double bonus to him because he's indulging his passion.
"The reason I got into this (expletive) in the first place is because I love it so (expletive) much," White said. "Part of the way I run the company is from a fan's perspective. If I want to see a fight as a fan, then I know it's a fight that we should make and that's what I do.
"Well, Wanderlei is the same way. You see the passion he has for this sport. He told me once that he'd rather lose a fight and have the fans going crazy instead of winning a fight where the people are booing. That's the kind of guy I want in my company fighting on my shows."
After a recent workout at the UFC gym, Silva was talking of his love for MMA and for pleasing his fans. He's a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and probably could have won a lot of his fights much easier by doing more work on the ground.
Grapplers tend to have longer careers than strikers and Muay Thai fighters because it puts less strain on the body.
But Silva rarely uses his jiu-jitsu, largely because he's aware that he's an entertainer when he walks into the cage.
"The people love to see a fight between two guys who are standing up and trying to knock each other out," Silva said. "Go to any fight card and you can see that. That's why I fight that way. Give the people what they want."
He has done that even during his current three-fight losing streak, which began in 2006 when he was knocked out by a kick from heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop.
Silva later was stopped by Dan Henderson and then lost a unanimous decision to Liddell at UFC 79 in December.
Most UFC fighters on a three-bout losing streak would be in serious jeopardy of being cut. White recently released a number of fighters from their contracts, including high-profile men such as Travis Lutter.
The company's roster of fighters had swollen to much more than its normal 250, White said.
"We need to give these guys three fights a year, and we just had too many guys and it was getting harder and harder to give them the fights we owed them," he said. "So we started to let some guys go."
And have no doubt that the ones let go were ones whom White wasn't particularly fond of watching. The majority of those the UFC has cut were ones White felt weren't regularly producing exciting fights.
Win or lose, all of Silva's fights are edge-of-the-seat heart-pounders.
But Silva concedes the fight with Jardine is a significant one in his career. He's not interested in losing yet another stirring battle and is desperately trying to find a way to win again.
He hasn't had his hand raised in triumph since July 1, 2006, when he defeated Kazuyuki Fujita.
"I don't feel like there is pressure for me to win, but I want to win so I am training so much harder," Silva said. "This is the hardest I've ever trained."
A loss to Jardine would all but force Silva to drop to the middleweight division. White said, "If you can make the weight, that's probably the division you should be fighting in," but he respects Silva so much that he'll let him make his own decision.
Silva is mulling it around and said he walks around between fights at 210, just five pounds over the light heavyweight division's limit of 205. He seems a perfect fit for middleweight and would add considerable spice to a division in desperate need of a jolt.
But Silva also knows he's capable of beating anyone at 205. "I have two wins already over the champion," he says, referring to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, "and so maybe it would be good to stay here and try to get a fight with him." But he also is realistic enough to know that as the sport evolves, it's going to get progressively more difficult for guys his size to compete at light heavyweight.
Ultimately, he says, the move will be dictated by where he can put on the best fights.
"He just wants to be able to blow your mind every time he fights," White said. "That's how he is. I just wish I had 250 other guys like him. If I did, this sport would be so far in front of everything else, it would never get caught."
- Wanderlei Silva
- Anderson Silva
- Dana White