LAS VEGAS – Don't be surprised if Tim Sylvia takes a swing at UFC president Dana White or matchmaker Joe Silva if either suggests he face a jiu-jitsu fighter any time soon.
Sylvia had the UFC's heavyweight title – the interim belt, to be exact – within his grasp on Saturday at UFC 81 before 10,583 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
But like other high-profile spots in his star-crossed career, one mistake led to a loss by submission.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira lived up to everything he was while he was in the PRIDE Fighting Championship. He took a battering from Sylvia for the better part of two rounds, but took advantage of the first opening Sylvia gave him and slapped on a guillotine choke that forced a submission at 1:28 of the third.
The choke made Nogueira the first man to win both the Pride belt and the UFC belt.
Sylvia, though, came out of the bout nearly as much a winner as Nogueira. He has for most of his career been the man the UFC fans love to hate, both for his frequently snarly personality and for his less-than-exciting fights.
On Saturday, though, Sylvia seemed to clear both hurdles. He wasn't cautious and tried to finish Nogueira when he had the chance. And, unlike after UFC 68 when he lost the belt to Randy Couture and drew the wrath of a sellout crowd in Columbus, Ohio, by seemingly taking away from Couture's win by talking about a back injury, he was witty and classy post-fight on Saturday.
"I hate jiu-jitsu," Sylvia said, deadpan, after the bout.
Understandable, given that three of his four losses were by way of jiu-jitsu submissions. He had his right arm snapped by Frank Mir at UFC 48, submitted to an Achilles lock by Andrei Arlovski at UFC 51 in an interim title match and then tapped to a choke to Nogueira on Saturday.
He praised Nogueira as the best heavyweight at jiu-jitsu and Mir as the second best. And, sitting next to former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar at the post-fight news conference, he was able to joke about Lesnar's pre-fight comments.
Asked about the Mir-Sylvia fight, Lesnar said, "So he broke Tim Sylvia's arm? Who cares?"
On Saturday, after both men lost to jiu-jitsu experts, Sylvia managed to have a bit of fun at Lesnar's expense.
"You said, 'Who cares that he broke Tim Sylvia's arm,' but he almost broke your leg," Sylvia said to Lesnar before cracking up.
Nearly everything went Sylvia's way on Saturday. Early in the third round, shortly before he was submitted, a part of the crowd began to chant, "Let's go, Tim!"
UFC president Dana White was on the opposite side of the arena and couldn't hear it, but he said Sylvia's determination to attack Nogueira lifted his stature even in defeat.
"He was trying to finish and he came out and wasn't just trying to fence hump for five rounds," White said. "I totally do (think he helped himself). He came out and was aggressive and tried to finish. Before this fight, he fought (Brandon) Vera and (Vera) had a broken hand the whole fight and Tim never pressed the action and tried to stop him.
"Tonight, he was in there against a dangerous guy – Nogueira's standup is awesome, too – and Tim went after and tried to finish him."
Finishing Nogueira is kind of like trying to stop Tom Brady. Nogueira has been notorious for his ability to take vast amounts of punishment. Mirko Cro Cop was brutally punishing him in 2003 but hung in and then submitted him with an arm bar.
"He has very heavy hands and a long reach," Nogueira said of Sylvia. "I could see his hands coming and he has heavy, heavy hands. He hits hard. His standup is amazing."
Nogueira hasn't been known for having great takedowns and the only way he was going to win on Saturday was by getting Sylvia to the canvas.
Sylvia was able to block most of Nogueira's attempts to get him down and most of the time when he did hit the mat, he quickly scrambled back up. He wasn't able to in the third, though, and that cost him a chance to become only the second man to win the UFC heavyweight belt three times.
He prepared more on his submission defense than he did on his striking, but it still wasn't enough.
"I'm going to go hunting and kill some pigs and then I'm going home and getting back in the gym and work on my jiu-jitsu," Sylvia said.
He'll have to, because he may wind up facing Mir in his next outing. Mir is going to make a bid to fight Nogueira next, but if that fight doesn't materialize, a Sylvia-Mir fight would be big business based on their history with each other and their performances on Saturday night.
Mir wasn't willing to commit to taking on Sylvia, even though he knew a rematch would be a top-of-the-card attraction.
"If it makes sense to the UFC, OK," Mir said. "I go to the gym and train how to choke people and throw punches. That's what I consider myself good at. Dana, Lorenzo (Fertitta) and those guys wear suits and they know business. Look at what they did with this fight. Look at the draw we had.
"My last fight, I was on a prelim. This fight, I was in the main event with Brock Lesnar. He was a guy who was 1-0 with all his credentials and they were able to work this into what we have now. I didn't pull that off. It was them. It was the marketing and the genius behind the UFC. I have learned that if they call my manager and say, 'We want you to fight so-and-so, I say, 'OK,' and get ready, because that's how it goes."
But White has to know that the bitter feelings between Sylvia and Mir would lead to another big event. And the winner of that fight would once again be in line for a title shot.
Some of the Sylvia haters may cringe, but there's nothing wrong with the Sylvia who was fighting on Saturday.
"That guy is a tough, tough guy," Nogueira said. "He hits hard. He is big. He is as tough as there is."
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