With a win Saturday night, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva will add yet another highlight to a résumé that one can argue makes him the greatest all-around fighter in the sport's history.
He would become the first UFC champion to hold the title for five consecutive years, a milestone he'd reach Oct. 14. He'd also be extending his other major records that include most consecutive UFC wins (he goes for No. 14) and most consecutive title defenses (he goes for No. 9).
When Silva (30-4) faces Yushin "Thunder" Okami (26-5) at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, it's not only the first fight in his native country in eight years, it's also the opportunity to avenge his most recent loss.
He also gets to return home to be part of the most heavily promoted event of its type in a country with an 80-year history of the sport. But even with the overwhelming demand for tickets, and Lorenzo Fertitta's talk earlier this week of running the second show in Brazil at a 100,000-seat soccer stadium, Brazil native Silva notes that UFC is still controversial.
"The problem too in Brazil is the people [who] like it, like it," he said. "The people who don't like it, they don't like it. But fine, I'm ready for the fight."
Mixed martial arts and vale tudo (anything goes) fighting has been banned several times in Rio de Janeiro over the years, but some see this latest boom period, brought on by televised UFC fights and so many top Brazilian fighters, as a long-term phenomenon.
Interest peaked earlier this year when Silva knocked out Vitor Belfort in what was, by far, the most hyped UFC event in Brazil since the inception of the company in 1993. The fight was talked about in Brazil as "The Match of the Century," and the amount of Brazilian media at the show was unprecedented even though UFC has had Brazilian stars dating back to the initial UFC champion, Royce Gracie.
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"The UFC is getting very huge in Brazil," Silva said. "They called the Vitor fight like the Ali vs. Frazier fight in Brazil. It is the new thing to be excited about in Brazil, and it is exciting for myself, for all the team, and other Brazilians to be recognized as top athletes in Brazil.
"There are some people who don't know what this sport is and don't like it, but that is fine if they don't like it."
But he's played down the aspect of looking for retribution from a prior loss, feeling Okami never really beat him in their Jan. 20, 2006, fight in Honolulu that ended with a disqualification on Silva for an illegal kick.
It's Okami's first title shot, even though the two were scheduled to face off three years ago. The match was announced for UFC 90, but Okami had to pull out due to a broken hand. He lost his spot as top contender, partially because he wasn't so big of a star that the company was apt to give him a title shot upon his recovery. And then his path to getting a shot slowed when he was outwrestled in a decision loss two years ago against Chael Sonnen. But he's come back with three straight wins, most notably one over Nate Marquardt in November, where the winner was to get a shot.
"When we first fought, I knew he was from Japan and was supposed to be a very good fighter," remembered Silva. "But I didn't have any real information about him, or what he was capable of. I was coming from Pride [the Japanese promotion], where you could strike with the feet in many situations, and I was the champion from Cage Rage (a U.K. promotion) where you could up-kick on the ground with the feet as well. I wasn't as familiar as I could have been with the rules in the U.S. We had no rules meeting like you do in the UFC. I don't know why I should consider it a loss. I didn't lose a fight. I wasn't knocked out. I wasn't submitted or got beaten by the better man."
The fight lasted only 2:33 and Okami did not get in any meaningful offense. Silva kicked Okami when he was down, a move that was legal in some parts of the world and illegal in others, when the sport was still in a formative stage. Silva was called for the foul, and then Okami stayed down and couldn't continue in the fight. Because it was an illegal blow, Silva was disqualified. Silva had some bitterness over the fight, and would roll his eyes at the suggestion of facing Okami. Silva felt Okami took the easy way out, knowing that if he didn't get up the referee would have no choice but to disqualify Silva.
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But days before this fight, his attitude seems to have changed.
"Okami is the one I've wanted to face for a long time," he said. "He is the No. 1 contender. It is important not to look backward in your career and important not to look forward too far either. I have never said I was the best. What I am is the middleweight champion, and I have to prove that in every single fight against the best fighters in the division.
"Everyone has something they bring to a fight which is dangerous. There are some very good fighters in the division. And, as well, a fight is a fight and anything can happen every time you fight."
Okami is a 5-to-1 underdog. Silva has to be the favorite, but those odds look long, particularly since Okami is stylistically a similar fighter to Sonnen, who won four straight rounds against Silva before falling prey to a triangle in Round 5. Okami has worked extensively with Sonnen in preparing for the fight and claims he's learned a lot, both from Sonnen, and from last year's epic fight. While aspects of their styles are similar, Okami's takedowns aren't as strong as those of Sonnen. But Okami's submission defense is at a different level from that of Sonnen. If he can turn it into the match Sonnen did, it's unlikely Silva can pull it out at the end, at least in the way he did with the triangle with two minutes left. Okami has never been submitted in his long career, and never even been threatened since he came to UFC five years ago. But he is also not aggressive in finishing opponents on the ground, and Okami can't match Silva standing.
For his part, Sonnen has predicted an Okami win, and has stated he wants Silva next, win or lose. Sonnen had been undecided whether to corner Okami in the fight, but in the end did not go to Brazil, largely because of his insults against Silva and other big-name Brazilian fighters.
Should Silva win, the Sonnen vs. Brian Stann winner Oct. 8 in Houston becomes an obvious next opponent. There has also been talk of Silva facing Dan Henderson once again should Henderson be signed as a UFC fighter instead of a Strikeforce fighter. Silva vs. Henderson II (Silva beat Henderson via submission in 2007) was on deck when Henderson left UFC for Strikeforce after a contract dispute in 2009, and Henderson is right now at his all-time peak of popularity after knocking out Fedor Emelianenko.
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