Anderson Silva created some of the most indelible images we have seen in MMA. His masterful destruction of Forrest Griffin seemed like proof he'd entered The Matrix. His front-kick knockout of Vitor Belfort blew up long-held martial arts misconceptions. His final-round, snatching-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat submission of Chael Sonnen was transcendent.
All of those moments seem like ancient history now.
That Silva is never coming back. Even if he has yet to abandon his dream of reclaiming the UFC middleweight title, even if he is arguably the greatest to ever do it, he has been frayed, both by time and his own actions. He is 40 years old now, just two months shy of 41. His chin has been compromised, he's coming off two failed drug tests, and he's a year removed from in-cage action following a suspension.
The man used to be discussed in hushed tones, but these days, his aura of invincibility is mostly gone.
"I'm not going to lie: Of course this isn't the best version of Anderson Silva there has been," his upcoming opponent, Michael Bisping, said in a recent interview with Fight Network. "But that said, he's still a tough challenge."
Even from the admittedly mouthy Bisping, the qualifier seemed less like an insult and more like a sober admission.
The fact is, both of his sentiments are true. Even at 40, Silva is not a pushover. Any objective analyst must admit that. He was too great, and still is too proud, to fall away with a whimper. In fact, he's listed as a 3-1 favorite on most sports books at Odds Shark, despite fighting on enemy soil in Bisping's backyard. But the first part of the Brit's statement—the qualifier—contains an unavoidable truth that must be faced whether you are fighter or a fan.
At 40, Silva is old. That cannot be hidden away.
And in a young man's game, age does not perform well. While official statistics for the performance of 40-year-old-plus fighters are not kept, Bleacher Report's analysis of UFC records shows that the senior sect has a record of 22-37—a win rate of just 37.3 percent.
The only fighter to buck the trend in any meaningful way was the patron saint of the old-timer's tour, Randy Couture, who went 8-6 after turning the big 4-0, winning three championships in that time frame.
While it's possible Silva (33-6, 1 no-contest) may find further success in the Octagon, Couture's grind-'em-down approach was more favorable to a late-career push than Silva's style, which is largely predicated on speed and reflexes. Both of those things deteriorate as we age, and according to one study, begin doing so as early as age 24.
There are outliers of course, but the aforementioned record shows they are the rarest of the rare. After all, to compete in the UFC after age 40 at all, you have already beaten the odds once. According to Bleacher Report research, when Mike Pyle faced off with Sean Spencer earlier this month, he became only the 20th man to fight in the Octagon after his 40th birthday. Of them, 10 never won in the UFC cage again.
If there is any solace to be found, it is that at least this segment of Silva's swan song will reach a limited number of eyeballs.
What further evidence is necessary to prove that Silva is on the way out beyond the inability to push his fight with Bisping in any meaningful way? With Conor McGregor's recent opponent switch sucking up nearly every ounce of MMA attention, it seems like all of the headlines and interest have abandoned the Brazilian great for the Irishman.
The UFC sees him as a depreciating asset too; after headlining nine straight pay-per-views, he's now headlining an event on UFC's digital service Fight Pass. While the move is part of a strategic plan to boost content with more meaningful bouts, UFC clearly made a calculated business decision based on revenue expectations.
The public attention and financial elements are tertiary elements to Silva's decline, which began in earnest when Chris Weidman knocked him out in July 2013. Though the finish was quite definitive, many onlookers, perhaps even most, were not willing to accept the outcome as legitimate, mainly because Silva was finally caught during one of many moments spent clowning his opposition.
That final sequence became the lasting memory, allowing people to conveniently forget that Weidman captured the first round before it, landing 26 strikes and a takedown that proved the final result to be no mirage.
The rematch between them was no less definitive, even though the aftermath was again clouded, this time by Silva's broken leg. Again, forgotten was the early action, when Weidman knocked Silva down early in the first and nearly finished him prior to the unfortunate ending.
After recovering from his injury, Silva beat Nick Diaz on points until his win was overturned to a no-contest after two positive drug tests flagged him for drostanolone, androstane, oxazepam and temazepam.
That ugly episode and his ensuing bizarre defense strategy tainted his legacy far more than any late-career losses would have. They are now part of the narrative of how his story ends.
If there is any silver lining for his hopes, it is that the division is aging along with him. Of the Top 15 middleweights, only eighth-ranked Robert Whittaker is younger than 30. Five other Top 10 middleweights (Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Vitor Belfort, Tim Kennedy, Lyoto Machida and Bisping) are, like Silva, over 35, and another, 38-year-old Yoel Romero, is provisionally suspended pending the adjudication of his case.
That means there may be opportunities for wins ahead for Silva, even if he hasn't officially won a fight since 2012, and even if the very top will always be blocked by someone younger, hungrier or, at this stage, simply better. Maybe it will be Bisping, or maybe it will be the next fighter. Either way, the last chapter is already underway for Silva. And either way, it has already been a long and sad one.
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