Joe Silva doesn't like attention. After 21 years spent crafting the UFC into a promotional machine beyond compare in the world of combat sports, the brains of the operation wanted simply to disappear into retirement by the end of the year.
When I told him my intention to share his story with the world, he texted back immediately.
"Please don't. I would prefer to quietly ride off into the sunset."
For once, Silva isn't going to get his way. He may not like it, but he deserves a spot in MMA lore.
You may have never heard of Silva, the UFC's vice president of talent relations, and that's just the way he wants it. While a spirited conversationalist and forceful personality behind the scenes, Silva doesn't talk to the media. As a result, many of his contributions to the sport he loves have been lost or, more often, credited to his boss, UFC President Dana White.
Before Silva joined the company in 1995, the UFC was in the freak-show business, a bloodsport that had lost its way once it determined which martial arts were superior in a real fight. Silva, who entered a "UFC SuperFan" contest prior to the promotion's third event, had a different idea for the future of what was then called "no holds barred" fighting.
Campbell McLaren, the maverick pay-per-view visionary who helped launch the UFC, had no intention of creating a sport. Silva helped convince him and then-owner Bob Meyrowitz otherwise, providing a legal pad filled with ideas. When you think about a UFC card and the top-to-bottom, evenly matched fights that have come to define them, you're looking at Silva's grand vision for the sport of MMA.
McLaren likes to tell people he discovered Silva "handing out quarters in an arcade." Though he was actually a manager at a video game shop in the mall, it's close enough to the truth not to matter. Soon enough, however, superfan Silva was on the UFC payroll, providing feedback in his trademark direct and unflinching style.
Silva made himself an integral part of the promotion—so important, in fact, that he is one of the few employees to survive Zuffa's purchase of the company in 2001. The official matchmaker at the time was John Perretti, a bad fit for the new regime for any number of reasons. It was former UFC champion Tito Ortiz who told new owner Lorenzo Fertitta about Silva, inadvertently saving his new boss a number of potential headaches.
"Tito said, 'There's this kid nobody really knows about—his name is Joe Silva. He's smarter than anybody in the business. You should talk to him,'" Fertitta remembered. "We flew Joe Silva out and had an instant connection. We couldn't believe how smart he was. He was like a walking encyclopedia of the history of the UFC. He's a very strategic thinker and he puts on great fights."
Silva was a firm believer in logical, merit-based matchmaking. While boxing promoters are famous for manufacturing impressive-looking records that are made of little more than papier-mache, Silva insisted on matching everyone hard. No one was going to advance to the top of the UFC in any weight class without running a gauntlet of the sport's best.
"You match two talented fighters up," Silva's protege Sean Shelby explained to me in a 2009 interview. "The best fighter wins, and you match him with another talented fighter who won. It's a natural progression for the fighters. They, essentially, make their own destiny. We're just giving them the platform. If you give talented fighters enough opportunities, at some point in their careers they tell you by their fighting that they are ready. And in my mind it's easy to see which fighters are one shot, two shots or some time away."
It sounds simple, but running a promotion as big as the UFC required endless hours tracking a roster that soon numbered in the hundreds. While many amateur matchmakers attempted to wear Silva's shoes, they weren't required to manage the delicate personalities of prickly fighters and aggressive managers always looking for a leg up. Silva juggled it all from his home in Richmond, Virginia, keeping track of every fighter above 155 pounds on the UFC roster.
"There's so much more that goes into matchmaking than just throwing darts at a dartboard," Shelby said. "The easiest part of the job is deciding who should fight who. It's like you are playing chess 24 hours a day in your head. But you don't just get to move the chess pieces where you want to. Like in life, there are so many other factors involved when you try to make moves. And the chess pieces are moving on their own, too. They are alive and have emotions and families. Money is involved. There are so many variables."
Much of a matchmaker's job involves getting alpha personalities to bend to your will. Silva was seemingly born for the fray.
Although rarely seen without a smile on his face, he had a fierce intellect, bordering on fearsome. I once answered the phone to be greeted by Silva in mid-rage.
"You are the stupidest motherf--ker in the sport," he said by way of hello, debating the finer parts of an article he believed had gone awry.
That hardly makes me exceptional in the world of MMA. Silva could and will argue about anything, from the existence of God to the faux science that informed herbal medicine. Around the Zuffa offices he was known as Mr. Sunshine for his constant predictions of doom and gloom.
Silva doesn't like to lose, and that bled over into his professional life, where managers soon learned to dread any interaction with the UFC's consigliere. Making fights was just a small part of his job. Managing the UFC's roster and keeping costs to a minimum was key, and Silva did his work with brutal efficiency.
"He knew that there weren't many options for fighters," one manager told Bleacher Report. "And he took ruthless advantage of that fact. If you rejected one of his fights, he would find an even tougher opponent instead. If you didn't want to fight when he called, it was made clear he would make you wait months for another opportunity. Silva played hardball every time. It's the only way he knew how to play."
While that didn't always make him a fighter's best friend, it did help the UFC turn an incredible profit year after year. The company sold for billions earlier this year, and Silva, according to a source close to him, made seven figures when the UFC changed hands.
That made retirement an easy choice. While his passion for MMA never entirely faded, his energy did. I used to talk to him weekly, and every week, invariably, he would be on the verge of quitting. Each day was filled with dozens of small battles, with Silva often cast in the villain's role. It wore on him, and he seems happy to walk away.
Silva is the most important employee in UFC history. His imprint was felt all the way down to the company's DNA. Though he's never pushed for more recognition, he certainly deserves it. While the sport will move on, it will never be quite the same.
Someone will try to do Silva's job—but no one will ever manage to fill his shoes.