UFC 126 Preview: Silva vs. Belfort Biggest Middleweight Championship Bout Ever?
If you know what MMA stands for, you know that UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva is set to face arguably his stiffest challenge since ascending to the 185-pound throne at UFC 126 on Saturday night.
When the champ enters the Octagon at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, he will share the eight-sided space with one of mixed martial arts' most explosive gladiators in fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort.
The engagement will also mark an opportunity for "The Spider" to extend his UFC record with an eighth consecutive title defense.
Needless to say, the hype for what might be the tastiest Super Bowl appetizer ever concocted has been off the charts.
Neutral observers, adoring fans and skeptics alike eagerly anticipate Silva's upcoming date with a genuinely dangerous antagonist in "The Phenom."
Whatever your opinion of the recent insurgents to Anderson's reign, few would argue the 35-year-old Silva has seen as elite an artist in the discipline of striking as his 33-year-old adversary.
Well, the weigh-ins on Friday afternoon did little to defuse the ticking time bomb that's set to explode tomorrow evening.
Both men appeared to be fueled by serious sporting animosity and Silva, ever the showman, broke out a special treat from his bag of tricks. He was rocking an eerie Phantom of the Opera-type mask for his stare down with Belfort and The Phenom didn't look like he was in the mood for the shenanigans.
But that's to be expected.
What was shocking—OK, maybe not, but work with me here—was Joe Rogan's proclamation that Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort is the biggest middleweight championship bout in the history of the organization.
The comedian has been more prone to "holy hyperbole, Batman" sound bytes since moving to the fore of the UFC's promotional machine, but is this one them?
Take a look and decide for yourself.
No. 10—Frank Shamrock Defeats Kevin Jackson at UFC 15.5 (Ultimate Japan)
The first UFC Middleweight Champion was Frank Shamrock...kind of.
Back in the early days of the organization (not the earliest), there were only two weight classes—heavyweight and middleweight. The heavyweight division was 200 pounds and above, and the middleweights consisted of anyone smaller.
Consequently, the title Shamrock won against Kevin Jackson would eventually become the Light Heavyweight Championship. However, back in 1997, it was called the Middleweight Championship and that means the Legend was the UFC's first "middleweight" champ.
And he needed all of 16 seconds to secure the honor by armbar.
Not too shabby when you recall that Jackson was undefeated at the time, had claimed victory at the UFC 14 middleweight tournament five months prior and won Gold at the 1992 Olympics in freestyle wrestling.
Plus, trailblazers deserve a holler and Frank was most certainly that.
No. 9—Frank Shamrock Defeats Tito Ortiz at UFC 22: Only One Can Be Champion
Last time, I promise.
Again, this isn't technically a middleweight scrap by today's standards. In 1999 though, it was as big a bout as you could imagine in the division.
Shamrock was looking to defend his belt for a fourth consecutive time against a young and onrushing prospect by the name of Tito Ortiz.
The brash challenger was a former training partner of Tank Abbott and went by the moniker, "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy."
The sparring session featured two athletes with incredibly well-rounded fight games for that era and, of course, it had a little extra sizzle because of the flamboyant personalities involved.
"The Legend" was thought to be in trouble since Ortiz cut a significant amount of weight prior to weigh-ins and was expected to be roughly 25 pounds heavier than Shamrock by the time the gloves dropped.
Contrary to popular opinion, Frank came out and gave the bigger, younger challenger all he could handle. The champ eventually retained his belt, stopping Tito in the fourth round with a savage flurry of fists and elbows.
No. 8—Murilo Bustamante Defeats Dave Menne at UFC 35: Throwdown
There have only been five middleweight champions in the history of the UFC and you're looking at two of them.
Though neither Murilo Bustamante nor Dave Menne will conjure images of greatness in the minds of new MMA aficionados, both men were gnarly in their time.
The Brazilian Bustamante entered this bout off a loss to Chuck Liddell and would go on to battle with (and lose to) some of the most respected names to ever grace the sport—Quinton Jackson, Dan Henderson (twice), Kazuhiro Nakamura and Matt Lindland (who he actually beat in defense of this very belt) to name a handful.
At UFC 35, Bustamante would need less than six minutes to dispatch "The Warrior" and become the organization's second genuine Middleweight Champion via sudden technical knockout.
There were also flu-like symptoms laying much of the card low with vomiting and diarrhea, but the participants powered through nonetheless.
So there's also that...
No. 7—Anderson Silva Defeats Demian Maia at UFC 112: Invincible
I don't imagine this will be a popular choice since "The Spider" spent the majority of the five rounds either taunting or refusing to engage with the challenger.
Nevertheless, Silva dismantled Demian Maia for the first couple stanzas before suffering a common-sense meltdown the likes of which we've rarely seen in the Octagon.
Yes, the charade was ugly and embarrassing and all those other colorfully negative adjectives.
But it also set a record for most consecutive title defenses in the history of the UFC, giving Anderson six straight stiff-arms to would-be thieves of his hardware.
On that merit alone, it deserves to be on this list.
With sincere apologies to Maia, who's about as classy an individual as you'll ever find.
No. 6—Anderson Silva Defeats Rich Franklin at UFC 77: Hostile Territory
The rematch didn't quite have the same feel to it as the original exchanging of pleasantries between Silva and former champ Rich Franklin.
Although the UFC brass tried to make it an uncomfortable affair for Anderson by plopping the title bout down in Cincinnati (Ace's backyard), the plan didn't work. What was worse for the aura heading into the tilt was the fact that very few people expected the plan to work.
The first serving of this matchup was simply too one-sided for any but the staunchest of Franklin supporters to give the now-challenger a shot.
And we were all right.
The Spider used virtually the same strategy—an eviscerating assault from a devastating Muay Thai plum—to secure a similar outcome. It would've been identical had Silva been able to finish in the first round.
Instead, he needed an extra 67 seconds of the second round to do the deed.
No. 5—Anderson Silva Defeats Chael Sonnen at UFC 117: Silva vs. Sonnen
Ah, unpopular choice No. 2.
This was another uneven affair from the champ, as challenger Chael Sonnen basically had his way with Silva for about 20 minutes.
Though Anderson mounted some of his characteristically maniacal offense at various junctures, the mouthy Oregonian had this baby won in a romp.
Until he didn't.
Buoyed by chemical enhancement and an injury to Silva's ribs, Sonnen utterly dominated the first four stanzas and was on his way to yet another clear round in the fifth when the Spider spun a fatal web off his back.
A powerful straight right hand catches Chael as he sits in the Brazilian's guard, the head-whipper causes Sonnen to cover up and then a series of near-miss elbows perhaps causes him to panic a bit. In the process, the American leaves his head/arm in a vulnerable position and voila!
Title defense No. 7.
No. 4—Rich Franklin Defeats Evan Tanner at UFC 53: Heavy Hitters
This is approaching the rarest of rarefied air so it's about time to pay appropriate homage to Rich Franklin.
Though I've never been one of Ace's biggest fans and have always thought he's a bit overrated, the man is rightfully a UFC luminary and this is the tussle that started his legacy.
Franklin was the greatest middleweight champion in the history of the organization before Anderson Silva arrived and rudely took the belt from Rich's unconscious body. Prior to that fateful scrap, Ace had enjoyed eight straight victories and two successful title defenses.
The winning streak also included the battle that delivered Rich to the top o' the middleweight heap—a four-round mauling of the late Evan Tanner at UFC 53.
Although Tanner might not have had the most storied MMA career, he was tough as nails and a serious predicament for anyone standing across from him. So Franklin's evening of demolition at Evan's expense was no small feat.
Especially since it earned him a brand of immortality as the fourth middleweight king in the UFC's history.
No. 3—Anderson Silva Defeats Dan Henderson at UFC 82: Pride of a Champion
Yes, Dan Henderson was at least a few holes into the back nine of his MMA career.
That entirely accurate statement doesn't mean Dangerous Dan was a pushover at UFC 82. In fact, this was probably Anderson Silva's most rugged trip to the Octagon until his meeting with Chael Sonnen. Hendo seemed to have the perfect combination of skills to flush The Spider—nuclear warheads on the end of both arms with an Olympic-caliber wrestling pedigree—and managed to take the first round in the eyes of many observers.
The American was off to a good start in the second round as well, but it all unraveled pretty quickly.
A slip started the wheels shaking and then the clinch sent them flying off into the night.
A crushing knee from Silva convinced Dan to try for a takedown, but Anderson parried easily and eventually took control of a dazed and/or gun-shy Henderson on the ground. He started off in dominant position and then improved it by taking Hendo's back.
From there it was as simple as body lock, rear-naked choke and a tap.
The Hall of Fame opponent, impressive submission and the unification of Pride/UFC belts land this 185-pound championship bout at No. 3.
No. 2—Dave Menne Defeats Gil Castillo at UFC 33: Victory in Vegas
Allow me to introduce the first true UFC Middleweight Champion, Dave Menne.
Whereas Frank Shamrock was the first to hold the title, we've already seen how it was a misnomer by modern standards. Menne, on the other hand, actually fought for and won the hardware at 185 pounds.
You can't really call this a famous tilt or a really great one—frankly, I'm not too sure which of the highlights from the clip is "The Warrior" vs. Gil Castillo.
In fact, it would've been an entirely forgettable five-round unanimous decision for Menne if not for one little detail.
It was the first middleweight championship awarded at the new and enduring weight classification.
And that makes it monumental for what it represents, if not for what it was.
No. 1—Anderson Silva Defeats Rich Franklin at UFC 64: Unstoppable
Poor, poor Rich Franklin.
Who knows how invulnerable his iconic career would've looked if not for the arrival of Anderson Silva?
Alas, The Spider did burst on the UFC scene in 2006 after coming over from Pride.
The Brazilian used Chris Leben's cement head to introduce himself to the American audience. But even though the obliteration of the Crippler was astounding, it didn't prepare us for what was about to unfold against then-UFC Middleweight Champion Franklin.
This was a ruler who hadn't been severely tested in years unless you counted the five-round unanimous decision over David Loiseau (and not too many did).
So while people had taken notice of Silva courtesy of the ease with which he dispatched Leben, nobody predicted an even easier night in the cage with Ace.
Yet that's what it was.
While it took an extra 130 seconds to convince Franklin that he'd brought a knife to a gun fight, Leben at least came at Anderson before his shellacking.
Contrarily, Ace was on the defensive from almost the first sweep of the second hand and mustered quite literally nothing in the way of an attack (can't say that I really blame him).
When the dust, blood and swelling had settled, the championship belt was around Anderson Silva's waist.
And that's where it's been ever since.