Joe Silva celebrated his 50th birthday in March, his first in a long time that didn’t have a fight week attached to it in some way, shape or form. And the longtime UFC matchmaker, whose official title was Vice President of Talent Relations, was just fine with that.
“It’s been four months and I haven’t had a bad day yet,” he laughed of life in retirement. “The worst day that I’ve had has been an awesome day.”
That doesn’t mean Silva, who will be inducted into the Contributor Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame this July, has forgotten the sport of mixed martial arts.
“I enjoy it more,” he said. “Now I get to enjoy it like a fan. I get to have an adult beverage and yell at the screen and not worry about trying to appear impartial or anything like that. It’s a wonderful sport and I get to fully enjoy it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it before, but every second it was like, ‘All right, well, this guy won and what am I gonna do with him next, and that guy lost, and what am I gonna do with him?’ And you just have all these business aspects of it, and here I don’t have any of that. I can just enjoy a great fight for being a great fight.”
Virginia’s Silva admits that fight nights still involve group texts with fellow matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard, UFC President Dana White and former Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, and when the bouts are going on, it’s just like old times. And even though he retired from the UFC at the end of 2016, martial arts always has been and always will be a major part of his life.
“I loved it since I was a little kid,” he said. “I have a cage and bag room in my house, I spar a couple times a week, and I am passionate about and love martial arts. And just because I retired from UFC, I didn’t retire from martial arts. I still do this stuff every day.”
To anyone who has spent any time talking to Silva, that’s not surprising. And whether he agreed with you or not – usually not – he loved debating about MMA. It’s how he got in the sport in the first place, as the diehard fan who just happened to make the right call at the right time and get in the door of a sport in its infancy. He calls it luck, but considering the years he spent thrilling fans with the fights he put together and the stars he developed, there is no such thing.
“I’m just that lottery winner guy who has gotten away with it,” he said. “Everything people told me that I should not do, I did, and it worked out for me. I worked very hard and I think I was good at what I did and had a talent for it and a work ethic, but there are lots of people out there who are hard workers, who are smart, but who never get the opportunity. There are so many times that UFC almost went away. It almost went away in the SEG era, it almost went away in the Zuffa era. Those were things that were beyond my control and I was fortunate that it didn’t go away. So I made the most of the luck that I got, but I still had to get that luck. It very easily might have not turned out this way.”
But it did, and as the man behind the scenes who didn’t just make the biggest fights in MMA but helped create the sport we are watching today thanks to his work with John McCarthy and fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Blatnick to create the unified rules of MMA, Silva left an enduring mark that won’t be forgotten. Yet not surprisingly, Silva isn’t patting himself on the back for a job well done.
“I don’t think most people understand the job,” he said. “You can go to any MMA show in the world, and they’ll all have some great fights and they’ll all have some lousy fights. You can’t take credit for the good ones unless you also take blame for the bad ones. And anybody can look at the rankings and go, these are good guys and it will be a good fight. It’s can you get them to agree to fight each other when you have a date that makes sense for it, and what do you do when it falls apart and then your solution then falls apart. That’s the hard part of it.”
So what made him the best in the business for so long?
“My number one rule was I want to be surprised,” Silva said. “There are different tastes out there, and tastes are not right or wrong. But for me, personally, what I really enjoyed was not knowing. It’s like, I’ve got a fight and I really don’t know who’s gonna win. People loved UFC 40 and I hated it because it was one of the very few cards where I picked the winner in every single fight. To me, that’s a failure. If you know what’s probably going to happen going in, why even watch it? So my thing was never trying to guess who was going to win. You just try to make a match that makes sense and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.”
More often than not, Silva nailed it. That doesn’t mean it was a perfect existence. Far from it. As the company grew and more and more shows were scheduled, Silva and co-matchmaker Shelby, who were joined in late 2016 by Maynard, had more and more fighters to keep busy and put in compelling bouts while spending increased amounts of time away from home. But as Silva pointed out, perhaps the worst part of the job was telling fighters that they were being released from the promotion.
Yet while it could get overwhelming at times, by the time Silva settled into his Octagonside seat, there was no place he would rather be, as evidenced by the video clips and gifs that stormed the internet whenever he would jump out of his seat after a particularly spectacular move or finish.
That was the visual proof that Joe Silva is a fan forever.
“When Anthony Pettis did that ‘Showtime kick’ off the fence against Benson Henderson, my head just about exploded,” Silva laughs. “When the cage door would close and people would do crazy s**t, there’s no way I could not be sucked into it. There’s no way that I could not be a fan. And as our cameramen so expertly captured me freaking out at ringside, you saw that I love this. I love it with all of my heart. And I never lost that love.”