I’ll let you in on a little secret: a fight-week interview is a bit of a drudgerous affair.
The fighters are, understandably, not always in the best of spirits. They’ve got the fight on their minds, they’re often mired in the misery of a weight cut, and you’re the 19th in a series of roughly 527 phone interviews the UFC has heaped on their plate that day. And that’s in addition to open workouts, closed workouts, fan events and interviews with all the media personnel present on site. It’s enough to make anyone grumpy, and it’s part of why their comments are often rote and cagey.
And then there’s Anderson Silva, who greeted me like the first guest to arrive at his bachelor party.
"Hey, man! What’s going on, my brother? How are you?"
It’s the unmistakable, Tysonesque tenor of the greatest middleweight ever to fight—and maybe the greatest fighter of all time. More on that in a moment.
The cheeriness isn’t an act, either, or at least it doesn’t sound that way. It’s not the tone you’d expect from a venerated but rapidly aging 45-year-old who has dropped two straight and six of his last eight dating back to 2013. (One of those two wins was ruled a no-contest when Silva failed a drug test following his carnivalesque 2015 win over Nick Diaz.)
It’s not the tone you’d expect from a guy who has openly acknowledged that this will be the last fight in the UFC, after which his future—both in and out of fighting—is cloudy at best. And it’s certainly not the tone you’d expect from a guy oddsmakers have as a roughly +200 underdog in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night 181, where he’ll face Uriah Hall, a high-octane striker who wouldn’t be the same fighter if Silva’s fingerprints weren’t all over his game.
But it is the tone of a man who’s relaxed, who knows who and where he is. He’s as aware as anyone of the position he holds in the sport, where he has UFC records for longest title reign (2,457 days) and consecutive victories (16). It’s a man who’s finding fulfillment not just on Saturday nights but on all those Tuesday mornings when the cameras are on another continent and the alarm clock, try as it might, can’t find its way onto your bad side.
"For me, there’s a huge special secret," said Silva, the Brazilian now with a much stronger grasp on English than he had in his heyday, when he needed a translator. "It’s how much do you love your job? You make something special for yourself if every single day you love what you do. Sometimes there are good days, sometimes bad day. It’s not just what’s inside the sport, but what’s inside your life."
What makes the interview different is not just his cheerfulness but his willingness to reflect. And it’s a good time for it, too, given that he’s on plenty of shortlists as the greatest fighter of all time. That’s a conversation that found new life recently after lightweight kingpin Khabib Nurmagomedov retired last week.
His takes on Hall do lapse into predictability—repeated expressions of respect for Hall as a person and fighter. Hall could use a victory himself; despite a two-fight win streak, bad luck with injuries and cancellations means he's only competed three times in the past three years, and not at all to date in 2020.
But he throws a curveball when asked to think back on his own career. Specifically, his favorite fight. With so many to choose from, where does he land?
Consider the options. There was that Hail Mary triangle choke on Chael Sonnen to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with fewer than two minutes remaining in their 2010 battle for the ages (was that really 10 years ago?). There was that 2009 night in South Philadelphia when Silva moved up to light heavyweight and turned Forrest Griffin into a steaming husk of his former self (Griffin's career arguably never recovered). There was his knockout of Vitor Belfort, known succinctly as The Front Kick. The list continues, as you might expect when you've defended your UFC middleweight title 10 times.
So, which fight was his favorite? None of the above, it turns out.
"For me, the most special fight?" he ponders. "My favorite was Hayato Sakurai."
Who? Wait, the guy he beat by decision in 2001 while competing in Japan for the venerable but long-obsolete pro-wrestling-hybrid Shooto promotion?
"It was my first title belt," he explains. "I was fighting in Japan for my country. Forrest was a great opportunity for me. This fight changed the world. Every fan know this. A special fight was my first fight with Rich Franklin in UFC, where I first win my UFC title. But Sakurai, this was my first title. I did it in Japan, and I bring it home to Brazil for my fans."
It’s impossible to exclude Silva from any sober conversation regarding the MMA GOAT. But when I put the question to Silva himself, he declines to self-appoint, likely knowing that plenty of others will do it for him. But what about Nurmagomedov? Is he a worthy GOAT candidate?
"I don’t have nothing [bad] to talk about Khabib," he said. "He’s the best. I love him. He’s a great guy. He’s a great fighter."
You can sense there’s a "but" coming.
"It’s tough for me to talk about the GOAT. I don’t think the GOAT exists."
To Silva, there are many candidates but no winner. He points out—quite validly—that MMA’s evolution happens too fast to compare champions across eras. In other words, to coin a phrase, there’s no Mr. Right. There's only Mr. Right Now.
"I don’t think there’s a GOAT. You have best moments," Silva explained. "Royce Gracie was the best in his moment. Randy Couture was the best in his moment. Tito Ortiz, BJ Penn, Chuck Liddell, every single fighter who takes a belt does something special. But I don’t want to talk about GOAT. It’s just moments."
Like a busy doctor’s office, the interview time ticks down to the next wretch on the interview assembly line. With my questions completed, did he have anything else to add?
"Thank you to my fans!" he blurted out, as cheerily as when our time began. "Every single person inside and outside! Saturday, I’ll continue to do my best. I love you guys."
And then his voice trails off, as if he had a thought he couldn't quite complete, the tone of a man with just a little more still to say.