Anderson Silva is the greatest fighter in UFC history. Few, at this point, would dare dispute that. It's hardly worth arguing—seven years and 17 wins speak plenty loudly all on their own in response to naysayers.
And more than mere victories, it's the manner of those triumphs that make Silva special. Few have even been competitive with the longtime middleweight champion. He didn't just win fights. He won souls, leaving opponents broken in mind and spirit as well as body.
Frankly, that's exactly what it looked like was about to happen to challenger Chris Weidman. When he missed his first takedown of the second round, the ending felt like it had already been written. Silva just needed to go about putting the ink to paper to make it a reality.
Instead, the most stunning upset in UFC history sent the entire sport into convulsions. The king was dead, his grace, elegance and playful foolishness replaced by a grinding, business-first steadfastness, the earnestness of an American wrestler personified by New York's Weidman.
It was a fascinating fight, one worth re-watching in its entirety in the days leading up to their highly anticipated rematch. Luckily, the UFC has provided it free of charge. So click "play" and join me as we relive one of the most remarkable fights ever.
Coming out of a deep crouch, Silva takes the middle of the cage as the crowd cheers, bowing to his opponent and the audience.
The two don't touch gloves—in fact, there's no contact for 27 seconds as Silva moves, changing stances, dancing, a blur that can explode into action as fast as most people blink.
And then Weidman shoots, a double-leg takedown from distance, the kind of shot Silva should stuff and stuff easily—at least if he wants to have a fighting chance. Instead, he doesn't commit to the sprawl. Weidman gets in deep and drops the champion to the mat, punches immediately following, no wasted motion, no hesitation. Weidman is here to fight.
Silva is active in with his guard, but Weidman is no Chael Sonnen, an easy mark who can still be tricked and conned into a submission. Weidman understands the ground, and when Silva gets cute, he makes him pay with a blistering right hand.
Less than a minute into the fight, the champ is already looking quite vulnerable. While announcer Joe Rogan is talking up Silva's ground game, Weidman is going about his business, passing the guard and setting himself up for better strikes and more potential submissions from the top. So far it's a clinic—but the vaunted Silva is not in the instructor's role.
Body, body, head. It's an MMA mantra; a succession of punches designed to make the most of your position on top of an opponent. Weidman delivers it as if he's done so in dozens of fights instead of the mere nine professional bouts that have gotten him here, inches from the summit of the entire sport.
"He's not landing clean shots, but he's landing shots," Rogan says.
More than in any other sport, the UFC's announcers play a bizarre political game. Employed by the promoter and not an ostensibly independent television network, their agendas are often laid bare as a result of their words, and the moving picture those words accompany, being so widely divergent. That's certainly the case here as Weidman is cleverly sneaking in a variety of clean blows, both elbows and punches with both hands.
Whether Rogan is instructed to talk up company stalwarts like Silva is unknown. More likely, like the rest of us, he's seen the greatest fighter in UFC history do so many remarkable things that it's hard to really process the fact that he's struggling so badly with a relative neophyte.
At 2:42, just as the ground-and-pound has settled into a comfortable rhythm, Weidman, perhaps tiring of playing the long game, goes for the quick fix. Turning his back to Silva, he quickly drops down and searches desperately for a leglock.
This is a gambler's play, no doubt. The potential payoff is enormous—a quick, dynamic and memorable victory. The potential pitfalls are there as well, namely losing the dominant position and devoting both hands to a hold, leaving your head vulnerable to strikes.
"Oh," Rogan says, as a kneebar attempt morphs into a heel hook. "That's nasty."
|Round 1: By the Numbers|
|Fighter||Significant Strikes||Total Strikes||Takedowns||Sub attempts|
The hold, once banned by the Japanese Pancrase promotion because of the high rate of injury attached to its victims, can turn deadly in an instant. By the time your body processes the pain, it's almost too late. Ligaments, by then, are already being stretched to their limits, bones beginning to creak.
Silva, beaten once by a flying heel hook in Japan, is no stranger to the hold, nor its defenses. He spins his way free, and just a little more than halfway through the first round, he's back on his feet, the past minute-and-a-half immediately forgotten. It's here, standing, that he blasted Vitor Belfort in the face with a front kick, kneed former champion Rich Franklin right out of the division and broke many men's wills.
"Interesting start," was all play-by-play man Mike Goldberg had to say, saving his words and his breath for the amazing thing Silva was likely to do next. When Anderson fights, there's no time to waste with retrospection. The next moment that we'll never forget is never more than an instant away.
Silva, hands down by his knees, practically dares Weidman to hit him. A slow jab comes, but it doesn't come close. Silva nonchalantly circles off the cage, then thinks better of it, moving back to it, waving Weidman in to play.
As a wrestler, Weidman wants Silva's back against the cage. It allows him to clinch or to shoot without fear of Silva sprawling. It's the worst thing in the world for Silva short of simply flopping on his back.
The arrogance, or confidence if you prefer, is breathtaking, but it's exactly what you'd expect from Silva. He played similar games with the overmatched Stephan Bonnar, allowing the journeyman to put him in vulnerable positions just like this one and then working his way out of them.
Weidman, to his credit, never even pauses, scoring with a combination, including a left hook that landed with some gusto. The two clinch, and Silva plays defense expertly. Underhooks in place, knees ready for delivery at the first sign of an opening. Weidman, rather than stall on the fence, disengages completely and resets.
Silva, disdain written in his body language, puts his hands on his hips and again dares the challenger to hit him in the face.
"He's one of a kind, Joe," Goldberg says. And while Silva sneaks in a knee, Weidman connects with a solid right hand, causing Silva to shake his head and laugh, slapping himself in the face as if to say, "Is that all you've got?"
"This is crazy," Rogan says, but there's a nervous energy now, not just in the broadcast booth and the arena, but anywhere people are gathered to watch this fight. Cage fights are unpredictable even at their most orthodox. But when Silva is in a mood to play? The possibilities become infinite.
Silva takes control with hard leg kicks, but Weidman answers back with a jab. Silva's taunts continue, but Rogan cautions him not to be sucked into Silva's madness.
"He does not want to get into a kickboxing bout for his ego," Rogan says, as Silva calls Weidman forward, clapping his hands in applause that may actually be sincere. "He's got to be very careful with this game he's playing here. If he can take Anderson down, he should."
Silva continues to do his best work with leg kicks, then pats his own leg, encouraging Weidman to give tit-for-tat. It's unlike anything I've seen, a bravura performance of ego, vanity, skill and a madness born in method.
As the round ends, Silva kisses Weidman on the cheek. But no amount of gamesmanship makes this the champion's stanza. Silva landed a higher percentage of his strikes and arguably the harder strikes, but Weidman had him beat in pure volume. When you factor in his ground control and submission attempts, it's hard to justify any score other than 10-9 Weidman.
"Punch a hole in his chest," Weidman's cornerman Ray Longo says, encouraging his fighter to aim for a target that will be a bit more stable than Silva's bobbing head.
"Come on, man," Silva screams from his corner, encouraging both the crowd to cheer and Weidman to engage him. The two touch gloves in the middle, and then the dance begins anew. Weidman lands a punch, and Silva pretends to wobble, then corrects his posture and lands a legkick, all in the time it takes the clock to tick from 4:49 to 4:48.
"Anderson looks like he's having fun in there," Rogan says. The champion, as if hearing him, breaks into his best Muhammad Ali impression, albeit an Ali who also had a front-leg sidekick in his arsenal.
Weidman attempts a shot, but this time Silva is ready. The dance continues, with Rogan commenting on the speed difference between the two. But what Weidman lacks in quickness, he makes up for in perseverance. He never stops stalking, never once loses his technical bearings.
And then it happens.
Weidman lands a left hook, and Silva pretends to be hurt. But while Silva plays, Weidman continues forward. Another left glances off Silva's head as he backpedals, hands down at his waist. A right hand follows, and misses. But it's the next right hand, almost a backhand blow, that pays major dividends.
It's a punch that would have meant nothing if it landed. Rather than take it or counter it, however, Silva dodges his head backward to avoid it. He succeeds in making the right hand miss—but his body has no where left to move, no way to avoid the left hook that comes immediately crashing into his chin.
Despite having seen it literally thousands of times in the buildup to this rematch, it still never fails to amaze. You can, with the blow slowed down, almost pinpoint the moment Silva stopped being a thinking fighter, father and champion and became instead a meat husk, falling with a thud to the mat where Weidman delivered the coup-de-grace on the ground.
"You can't play games in the Octagon," Rogan says, the first of many to publicly shame Silva for a performance that mere moments earlier he had been in the midst of lauding. "You can't get cocky, even if you're Anderson Silva."
With that left hook, delivered by a wrestler whose best chances were thought to be on the ground, the Silva era came to an end. Or if he has his way Dec. 28 at UFC 168, a temporary hiatus.
It's a hard fight to predict. Everything we know about combat sports tells us to bet against a 38-year-old fighter coming off a brutal fight. Not just bet, but mortgage the house, then bet. But tape doesn't lie. When he wasn't playing a dangerously stupid game, Silva was faster, crisper and even able to defend Weidman's takedowns.
There was no reason he couldn't have won the first fight. Despite being knocked out in brutal and embarrassing fashion, he still looked every inch the superior fighter—except in the final moments when he was staring blankly into nothingness, a dark void robbing his brain function until the rattling ceased.
My prediction? Silva will resume his reign, this blip eventually dismissed as a fluke, a momentary roadblock on the winding path to the Hall of Fame. Weidman may eventually earn his place at the top of the middleweight division. But it won't be against the great Silva.