This weekend in Saitama, Japan, the UFC will trot out Wanderlei Silva to the cage to fight Brian Stann on Fuel TV. Fans, no doubt, will roar their approval.
The usual enablers in the MMA media will talk about getting "goose bumps" and how much Silva deserves the applause. And no doubt he does.
But for me, the excitement and anticipation that usually accompany a cage fight will be dampened by another emotion. It's one fight promoters should dread, but one they also often miss while focusing so intently on the bottom line.
Wanderlei Silva is one of our sport's true icons. In his prime, they called him "The Axe Murderer," and for good reason. If anything, the nickname was too subtle for what he could do to his opponents.
Imagine bathing in pig's blood and then climbing, of your own volition, into the cage to fight a lion that hasn't eaten for a week and a half. That's what it was like to fight Silva at his best.
No striker in MMA history has ever harnessed his rage as effectively, combining it with solid tactics and fantastic technique to become a human weapon of the most dangerous kind.
At age 36, however, Silva is spent. Once unbeaten for four years, he's now lost four of his last six fights. He's Mike Tyson against Kevin McBride, only worse—by that point, Tyson clearly didn't care.
What's so sad about Silva is that he doesn't seem to realize he isn't "The Axe Murderer" anymore. And so he returns, again and again, to the cage. Each time it's to diminishing returns.
His body, and no doubt his brain, have been battered. Hopefully not beyond repair, but we've all seen what happens to aging fighters who have been through the gauntlet. It isn't pretty.
Here's our new colleague Jack Slack at Bloody Elbow.com describing Silva's inability to eat punches they way he once did:
Wanderlei has never had a strong jawline. Even in his prime he was dropped by Kazushi Sakuraba and numerous other fighters who were not known for their knockout power. His ability to recover, however, was always world class. In recent bouts, however, Wanderlei has looked more vulnerable than ever before. Famously pillow fisted Brit, Michael Bisping, was able to stun him with a strong right hand. The similarly light punching Cung Le was also able to put the Brazilian in trouble. These are men who would simply be padding to Wanderlei's resume in his PRIDE days, but who now can make him seem a sub standard fighter.
Brian Stann is a great guy, but he's no great shakes as a fighter. He's never beaten a single fighter in the top 10 of his weight class. Yet, likely, he will soon have Silva's legendary name on his resume.
A man who once wouldn't have dared glance in his direction will be able to tell the world he's beaten a legend. All because we couldn't let Wanderlei go—with Wanderlei himself hanging on for dear life.
I'm as guilty as anyone. After his performance against Rich Franklin, himself a mere shadow of what he once was, Silva struggled badly, eventually resorting to a bar-fight mentality in a desperate attempt to win. Of course, I cheered him the whole way:
It was vintage Wanderlei Silva—glorious violence personified. It was beautiful—beautiful and amazingly stupid. His fans, whether he wins or loses, wouldn't have it any other way. We can live with Silva going down, with him being outgunned, so long as he expends all his bullets on his way to the mat.
I'm part of the problem. We all are. It's our reaction to Silva that has led to this.
In 10 years, when the idols of our youth, the pioneers of this sport, are paying the price for staying too long in the spotlight, left to drift with no fighter's association, no pension and no future, we will deserve a fair amount of the blame.