The first time I really felt I understood Anderson Silva was almost four years ago at UFC 90. I was in Chicago to cover the UFC as it hit the Windy City for the first time. Silva, it seemed, was well on his way to being a star; a legitimate box office draw in the days the UFC needed a star badly, when Brock Lesnar was still an experiment and not an automatic million buys on pay-per-view.
Silva had absolutely annihilated everyone and every thing in his path, including the UFC's middleweight poster boy Rich Franklin (twice) and Pride champion Dan Henderson. He had even taken a journey to light heavyweight where he made short work of James Irvin.
It was that night in Chicago where the wheels fell off Silva, at least as a box office attraction. Against Patrick Cote, a Canadian fighter who had won four consecutive fights in the UFC but who no one mistook for a legitimate challenger to a man like Silva, the middleweight was clearly bored. As a dance display, I gave it high marks:
He sashayed around the cage gracefully, but the fans were hoping for more fisticuffs and less lambada. Cote was the only one in attendance who was happy with Silva's game plan—he was happy just to survive.
It was fairly clear from the start that Cote was no match for Silva. But rather than look to make an early night of it, Silva danced. It was almost like he felt disrespected at Cote's mere presence across the cage from him. The titular challenger was a challenger in name only.
"What was he doing?" a reporter for one of the local dailies asked me after the fight. Dana White didn't have an answer for that, telling us after the fight that, "I think I'm living in an alternate universe. That was Bizarro world...normally he annihilates people."
But I thought I understood.
"He was having fun," I told one of what was then a new breed of mainstream reporters following the sport. "Like a kid pulling legs off a helpless bug."
If White found Silva's display against Cote bizarre, he was in for a rude surprise. The champion was just getting started. He gesticulated and clowned throughout a title defense against Thales Leites, and did so little in his fight with Demian Maia in Abu Dhabi that White furiously stalked to the back before the fight was over.
Silva didn't seem interested in fighting Maia at all, passively watching for much of the fight's 25 minutes, occasionally exploding in furious bits of violence, screaming "Come on, hit me in the face, playboy."
The uproar over the Maia fight seemed to dampen Silva's instincts to tantalize and taunt his overmatched foes. He focused on business in his next few bouts, saving the shenanigans for before and after the fight.
He seemingly delighted in pretending that washed-up action star Steven Seagal was teaching him special techniques for his fights, and had a glint in his eye while inviting arch nemesis Chael Sonnen to a post-fight barbecue. Silva was still having fun, but in the cage he was as serious as anyone could ask him to be.
That mask slipped a little against Stephan Bonnar in Brazil. Bonnar, who had never beaten a top-10 opponent and was given the fight as kind of a gold watch, commemorating a career that helped kick off the UFC's golden era, was in deep waters and treading hard from the very beginning.
Bonnar's game plan was to push Silva into the cage, using his bulk to try to get the better of the champion in a war of attrition—trench tactics. Silva made that easy, pointedly planting his back into the cage and daring Bonnar to come forward. The champion fought his opponent using the absolute worst strategy, giving the underdog every possible chance at beating him.
In many ways that was worse than even the most cutting trash talk. Silva's opinion of Bonnar as an athlete were made stark right there in the cage. He would give his opponent exactly what he wanted—and still destroy him.
When I see moments like that, I always smile. It's what makes sports fun. Essentially, anything that would make Bob Costas deliver a long rant at halftime on Sunday Night Football, or that would make aging newspaper columnists decry a generation's lack of civility and class, makes me enormously happy.
Anderson Silva, for all the time he spends in pre-fight workouts doing kata or bowing, complete with traditional gi, is the anti-martial artist. Silva's instincts are to taunt, to trash talk, to show everyone how much better he is than his opponent. The tenets of respect, integrity and discipline? Not really a part of his game.
Anderson Silva is an amazing fighter, but he's a lousy traditional martial artist. If you're looking for elaborate displays of respect, even a hint of humility, or anything that resembles the traditional fighter's code, you'll find none of it here. Anderson Silva doesn't respect his opponents. He wants to humiliate and embarrass them before separating them from their senses.
None of this makes Anderson Silva a bad person. He's an entertainer and a cage fighter, not a choir boy or McDojo sensei. His job is to make fans happy and beat people up. He's great at it. The best of all time. But as a role model, he fits squarely in the Charles Barkley camp; an athlete to marvel at and admire, but not one to emulate.