Perhaps it was an extra slap in the face that the UFC decided to announce Anderson Silva would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on the same night Kamaru Usman tried to get his title back, even if Dana White is the official spokesman for slap. Usman came up one short of Anderson’s record for most consecutive victories (16) last time out against Leon Edwards, and the cruelties of the fight game never cease to amaze.
Usman was winning the fight handily heading into the fifth round, and then…head shot.
In London this weekend, at UFC 286, Edwards backed it up with a low-key brilliant performance. He just sort of thwarted Usman’s wrestling, and subtly picked him apart in the exchanges. It wasn’t a barnburner, but it didn’t need to be. It was a slow dismantling of a former champion who was beginning to have words like “all time” and “generational” attached to his name. It turns out the Rocky moment from the sequel in Salt Lake City wasn’t a fluke after all. It was a precursor of things to come. It was a movement.
But it all got me to thinking about Anderson Silva — the man being celebrated in the interstices on Saturday. Moreover, about how very few champions create the kind of electricity that Silva did during his heyday in the UFC. It seems kind of silly that we’re talking about 2006-2013 — the date range when Silva ruled the Octagon — as ancient history, but a decade passing in MMA is like throwing back to the days of radio.
It’s hard for people to understand the kind of atmosphere I’m talking about. Each time he defended his middleweight title down the stretch was like an emotional Jenga puzzle. Would this be the time the whole damn thing toppled? In some ways, though everyone understood it was an irrational thought, it was somewhat inconceivable that he would ever lose. He played with his food. He danced. He got weird. At times, he confounded Dana White, like when he went in for interpretable performance art against Demian Maia at UFC 112. That was an honest anomaly. Usually, he bedeviled poor souls like Forrest Griffin into sprinting away from his proximity or turned Dan Henderson into a gasping, panic-eyed mortal.
Like Usman, Israel Adesanya was a cool champion. He had the aerodynamics and the no-fucks charisma, but I’m not sure he ever compelled an audience the way Silva did. Silva would show up to events with an entourage, whether he was fighting in Vegas, Columbus, or Philadelphia. I remember seeing him before the fateful Chris Weidman fight in 2013 with a snaking faction that had blackjack dealers stopping the action. People gravitated towards him. Steven Seagal wanted to take credit for the kick that evaporated Vitor Belfort. Usher would come in and try to impart advice to Silva, but honestly, he just wanted to get close.
The stakes of an Anderson Silva fight were immeasurable. He was in that sweet spot before Ronda and Conor, and right on the heels of the breakthrough TUF 1 finale. Alongside Georges St-Pierre, Silva was a ghost writer of MMA’s boom period. People didn’t know what to do with a history-making champion. They hadn’t seen enough of MMA’s overall mortality rate to taper expectations. In fact, Silva didn’t just make expectations soar before a fight, he would routinely exceed them. There was the air of an unknowable presence that he kept throughout, because people weren’t yet ruining their own mystique on social media. It carried over to the cage, too.
At UFC 117, when Chael Sonnen turned the universally revered Silva into a punching bag both before the fight and through the first 22 minutes of the bout itself, Oakland was watching the Miracle on Ice for MMA. So, the wrestling was his downfall. This was how Silva was going to lose. Yet there wasn’t any resignation that way. There was something else. There was the hysterical belief that he’d pull something out, a Hail Mary, because Silva simply didn’t lose. It was unthinkable. What’s crazy is he didn’t. He got the triangle armbar and part of the Brazilian representation on media row stood up and shouted. Objectivity? No, grown men were shaking.
Some were even crying. The charade of media indifference suffered a mighty blow that night. What Silva did was send people home in awe. When he said the only man to challenge him would be his own clone, the most delusional among us were asking the UFC to book it. He captured the imagination that way.
I know a lot has happened since then. He lost to Weidman clowning around, a knockout that haunted him for years. He broke his leg in the rematch. He got popped for PEDs in the fight with Nick Diaz, in a fight most famous for a picture of Nick reclining on the ground like he’s picnicking mid-fight. He lost and lost. The asterisks piled up. Izzy beat him in what was viewed by some as a passing of the torch fight. Jake Paul beat him and people called for the fix. Not much as gone his way, though he did reignite a little of that old Spider flame in boxing matches with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Tito Ortiz.
Overall, he hung around too long.
But if you’re looking at how things ended as the story of Silva, you are seeing the Stones as they are in 2023 rather than how they were in 1969. Though he’d been around for years before, it started with the ballet of violence, as Joe Rogan called it in his UFC debut against Chris Leben. It ended with Weidman in 2013. What happened in between is legendary, and likely never to be duplicated again. The gravity of the fights was unreal. Sonnen. Belfort. The homecoming to Rio against Okami, when he was at the height of his powers. Griffin. Marquardt. Franklin. Thai plum. Knees. Elbows. Jaws dropping.
These days it’s convenient to compare fighters to Silva, and in most cases, he is the gold standard — but I’m telling you, you had to be there.