Wanderlei Silva's bizarre heel turn on 'TUF' offers cautionary tale to veteran fighters

Maybe Wanderlei Silva should have called it a career after his last fight.

For one magical March night last year, one of the most beloved fighters who ever stepped into a cage turned back the clock.

Wanderlei Silva, whose five-year reign as the PRIDE 205-pound champion remains the third-longest in major mixed martial arts history, had a classic evening against Brian Stann. The two engaged in a nine-minute brawl at Japan's Saitama Super Arena, the scene of so many of his greatest battles, before Silva emerged with a TKO victory.

It would have made a storybook ending, a final night of glory for a fading legend in a business that provides so few of them.

But "The Axe Murderer" didn't walk away at that point. Instead, improbably, just over a year later, a future Hall of Famer with a worldwide following is suffering through a precipitous drop in popularity, all while his rival picks up steam.

Silva and notorious motormouth Chael Sonnen are opposing coaches on the current season of "The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil," which airs on Brazil's Globo television network. The show can be viewed with subtitles on the UFC's online Fight Pass service.

The program seemed a slam dunk of a storyline – a national hero white hat vs. foreign black hat setup. Britain's Michael Bisping, for example, is still disliked for his role as Team U.K.'s coach while facing Dan Henderson of Team USA in a 2009 incarnation of TUF.

But one incident caused the improbable double turn in opinion this season: An impromptu melee on the set. Silva took a swing at Sonnen, who, despite wearing flip-flops, ducked the punch and effortlessly took Silva to the floor with a double-leg takedown.

As the melee went on, one of Silva's assistant coaches, Andre Dida, sucker-punched Sonnen several times in the back of the head.

[Related: Chael Sonnen explains his role in 'TUF' brawl]

The reaction throughout Brazil was swift. Despite the fact the show airs in a late-night timeslot in Brazil, TUF has drawn audiences as high as 12 million viewers.

And while it seems as if Brazil was suddenly rooting for Lionel Messi while he played against its own national soccer team, a Globo poll showed that 70 percent of viewers are now rooting for Sonnen in his coaches fight against Silva, which will be held at UFC 175 on July 5.

For his part, Silva, whose fighters have taken four of the six tournament fights which have aired thus far, claims he's the victim.

"They edited a lot of things, and unfortunately, the production decided to paint me as the villain," Silva recently told MMAFighting.com. "But that is not right, because he said horrible things about us, and disrespected me at every moment during filming. This good guy you're watching on television is not how things are for real. He said and did a lot of things that aren't being shown."

Further, Silva went on to tell MMAFighting that the incident which turned public opinion against him lacked context.

"What was shown on the show is not everything that happened," Silva said. "Behind what happened there is the motives and the reason why I was mad that day. Beside the absurd [things] that he has said about all of us, he had been provoking me and disrespecting me. Right on the first episode, he called me stupid. Not at any moment did I go down to his level."

The bout was originally scheduled for May 31 in Brazil. It was shifted to July 5 in Las Vegas, in part, because Silva claimed a back injury based off the now-infamous incident.

Never shy with his opinions, Sonnen says he can't trust whether Silva will be in shape to fight.

"I was with him on the set of 'The Ultimate Fighter,' and I watched him every day not practice," Sonnen said after a recent training session at Reign MMA in Orange County. "It seemed like he watched me every twice-a-day practice. I'd see him in the hallway and he'd see me covered in 5 or 6 pounds of sweat and he'd be walking in with fruit, he was always eating pears. He'd be walking around with a pear in his hand as dry as can be and I thought 'You don't look like a guy who's getting ready to fight,' not a five-round fight, particularly not when you've been out of the ring for a year. This just doesn't make sense."

Who knows how to make sense of everything that's gone down? Maybe by the time July 5 rolls around, the fans will be back on Silva's side. After all, Silva calls Las Vegas home these days, and the fans who will shell out high ticket prices are more likely to be familiar with Silva's long and glorious history in the sport than your casual TV viewer.

But what if this is the turning point? What if Silva has stayed around a year too long? Sonnen goes into the fight the favorite, and while Sonnen's not known as a finisher, Silva's wide-open style has led to several bad knockout losses in recent years.

For the sake of his image and his own health, perhaps Silva would've been better off walking away after the Stann fight.

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoylemma.

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