The mysterious matchmaker who helped boost UFC's success is retiring

Joe Silva (center) played a big role in the UFC's boom in popularity. (Getty)
Joe Silva (center) played a big role in the UFC’s boom in popularity. (Getty)

Joe Silva is probably the most significant non-fighter figure in mixed martial arts history other than Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta.

No one outside White and Fertitta did more to turn the UFC from a one-night event that was essentially created to prove which fighting style was superior into a self-sustaining multibillion-dollar business.

Referee John McCarthy and UFC co-founders Rorion Gracie and Campbell McLaren also belong in that discussion, but few have had the impact upon the product you see on television today or in the arena than Silva.

Silva, the UFC’s vice president of talent relations, plans to retire after earning millions as part of the company’s $4 billion sale to a group headed by WME/IMG. originally reported the news of Silva’s pending retirement.

He went from winning a contest that dubbed him the UFC’s “SuperFan” – and which earned him an all-expenses-paid trip to UFC 3 – to the man whose vision made the sport what it is today.

McLaren, whose title in those early days was vice president of programming, is a brilliant marketer who created the outlaw image that defined the UFC from its inception in 1993 at least through the end of the decade and perhaps longer.

He created such over-the-top slogans as “Banned in 49 states,” “Two men enter. One man leaves,” and “There are no rules,” that were used to great effect to position the UFC as the roughest, toughest combat sport of all.

McLaren was about making it into a big event. The first card, which was won by Royce Gracie on Nov. 13, 1993, when he submitted Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau, attracted about 7,500 fans to Denver’s McNichols Arena and sold about 75,000 on pay-per-view.

Pay-per-view sales jumped to just under 300,000 for UFC 2, in large part because of all the noise McLaren created in the marketplace.

“I was the guy who saw this as a spectacle,” McLaren said. “And I did what I could to make it the biggest and baddest spectacle there was. Joe saw it as a sport. He absolutely had that vision from the first time I spoke to him about what this could become.”

Silva referred an inquiry about his retirement to UFC public relations. The UFC declined comment.

Silva is little known to the sport’s large casual fan base because he wasn’t permitted to speak publicly by White, the UFC president, and Fertitta, the now-former CEO whose money saved the UFC – and probably the sport – from extinction as the 21st century dawned.

After UFC 1, McLaren was inundated with notes from fans who’d watched it and had ideas of how to make it better. Some of them, he said, were good, and many were over-the-top ridiculous.

Silva was one of the ones who wrote. McLaren noticed that Silva’s thoughts were vastly different than the others. He kept up a dialogue with him about how to make improvements.

Prior to UFC 3, which was held Sept. 9, 1994, in Charlotte, N.C., McLaren held a contest to determine what he called the UFC’s “SuperFan.” Fans were encouraged to write in and explain why they were the biggest fan.

Silva won the contest.

That didn’t surprise McLaren: He’d already received a lengthy list of suggestions in the mail to improve the product from Silva prior to UFC 2.

“He filled an entire yellow legal pad with notes,” McLaren told Yahoo Sports. “Joe was amazing, relentless, insightful and full-on crazy for the UFC long before anyone else.”

By UFC 5, Silva was on the payroll. By UFC 6, he was indispensable. He understood how to match fighters to make an entertaining fight and how to turn it into a sustainable business.

Silva was not shy about sharing his opinion and was always, as he remains, brutally frank.

He was the only employee the White-Fertitta regime allowed to work from home, which was a good thing because he intimidated so many of the employees with his intensity.

Silva is an erudite, well-read man who can conduct a conversation on just about any topic and not embarrass himself.

His impact upon the UFC has been profound. The fighters are the true stars of the show, and time and again they signaled their respect for Silva with comments in the cage after fights, as well as in the media.

Nobody is irreplaceable, but White has a massive challenge in front of him. Without Fertitta, his best friend and long-time confidante at his side, White has had to take on much more responsibility himself.

Silva’s departure only adds to White’s burden.

The UFC will survive his retirement, just like it survived the retirement of Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture and Matt Hughes and many other stars.

Silva’s loss hurts, though, and not just a little bit.

Though he wasn’t widely celebrated for it, Silva was a superstar whose efforts made the sport he grew to love a far better one than it was before he joined it.

Someone sometime soon will sit in his seat, but no one can ever replace Joe Silva.

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