Anderson Silva is a fighter. It seems a rather obvious and unnecessary thing to spell out in words—yes, man who punches people in the face for a living is indeed a fighter, smart guy—but it's an important distinction that separates Silva from other athletes.
Quitting is a taboo phrase for all athletes, but it's an especially recoiling turn of phrase for a boxer or mixed martial artist. In other sports, you're conditioned to give it your all but another opportunity will come. Fighters are conditioned to know that every time they step inside the ring or octagon that this time could be their last.
It's why "No Mas" is one of the most memorable sports moments of the 20th century. Even in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on the bout, some folks who were around in 1980 (I was not) remained incredulous to this day. There is no quitting, no saying you've had enough. Unless you are knocked out cold or forcefully held out by an authority figure (trainer or referee), you do not quit.
Silva didn't even get to decide what came next. Facing Chris Weidman at UFC 168, Silva went for a simple-enough leg kick, only to have his leg shatter in perhaps the most gruesome injury in the sport's recent history. Thanks to a failure of his body—and a pretty good block from Weidman—Silva could not re-establish the stranglehold he once held over the sport.
It should come as no surprise that he's already thirsting for it back. Silva's broken leg, which required emergency surgery, is expected to keep him from training for at least six and possibly up to nine months, per Matt Erickson of USA Today.
Pedro Rizzo, Silva's coach, has already indicated his fighter is ready for a return.
"At the hospital, Anderson told me ‘I will be back, master. I will be back,’" Rizzo said, per Guilherme Cruz of MMAFighting.com. "I told him ‘yeah, you’ll be back home to recover and rest'. And he said 'I will be back, master.’ He's a fighter. He has six months to recover, heal and then decide what he’s going to do next."
Before reacting to that quote, let's make one thing clear: No one outside of Anderson Silva's immediate family has the right to tell him what to do with his life. He's a grown man. Imploring someone whose financial situation to which we are not privy is one of the dumbest things we do in sports. If the checks keep coming and the money is good, keep on rockin' in the name of cash.
That said, it's hard to not look at Silva's situation and see the "no quit" fighter's mentality driving him arguably past the point where he should be in the ring. It's perhaps the oldest story in all of professional sport: Past-his-prime fighter hangs on for a few extra checks, takes a few too many blows to the head and winds up regretting it later.
This phenomenon typically gets attributed to boxers, with the lack of a centralized governing body leading to fights being sanctioned that shouldn't. Because it is so relatively young, especially as a mainstream sport, it is difficult to discern the long-term ramifications of mixed martial arts. UFC president Dana White has done a nice job thus far of massaging players into retirement or even putting it in no uncertain terms that they could not return.
As for Silva, White seemed ready to write him off after UFC 168.
"Anderson Silva has been amazing," White said, per Matt Erickson of USA Today. "He's one of the greatest of all time, if not the best ever. It's a (expletive) way to see him go out, but it's part of the game."
Even if White refused to lay it out in black-and-white, all logical signs pointed toward Silva being at the end. At age 38, he's accomplished arguably more than anyone in MMA history. His nearly seven-year reign as the middleweight champion is a UFC record, and his combination of speed, athleticism and power is unmatched on a pound-for-pound level.
In two fights against Weidman, Silva has been knocked out cold and completely shattered his leg. He may still be a damn good fighter—he certainly looked it in the first round against Weidman. But bodies don't heal at 38 the way they did at 28, so it's nearly impossible to see him coming back and even approaching his former greatness.
"I hope he doesn't [come back] because why?" UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis said, per Yahoo! Sports' Marcus Vanderberg. "His legacy is already fulfilled. What’s he going to come back and win the belt? He’s done what he’s going to do in the sport."
There is really only one thing Silva has left to prove: that he can beat Weidman. Only Silva is no longer in a position of power that demands an instant rematch. Assuming Weidman retains the UFC Middleweight Championship through Silva's recovery, the Brazilian will need to get through at least one bout to return to top contender status.
Should Anderson Silva return to UFC?
The situation requires so many variables—Weidman retaining the belt, a lack of complications and victory for Silva, etc.—it almost seems like a lost cause. It's understandable to want to go out on top, but no smart human being would dock Silva's legacy if he hung it up now.
And yet...Anderson Silva is a fighter. He's dedicated his entire adult life, starting in 1997, to this sport. Silva has watched as MMA has evolved from a bunch of pot-bellied dudes pounding Coors Lights ruled the world to true athletes, Silva acolytes, who have helped spearhead a charge so strong that it's threatening boxing. Silva once fought when they were offering dimes; why not fight when they're offering millions?
It's a fair question. And I'm certainly not faulting him for strutting right to the bank and toward a final ending that he, not an injury, gets to write.
But given what we know now and what we'll know years from now, is it not at least somewhat fair to wonder whether any of this is a good idea?
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