Despite standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing in at 265 pounds, Tim Sylvia always seemed to be the underdog. That never mattered much to “The Maine-iac” though, as he went on to win the UFC heavyweight championship twice over the course of an Octagon career that saw him fight – and beat – the best from 2002 to 2008.
The secret? As far as Sylvia was concerned, it all came from inside his chest.
“You can’t teach heart,” Sylvia said in 2005. “Heart is something that you’re born with and blessed with. Some guys take an ass whipping and just want to lay down. I don’t lay down for no one.”
On January 3, Sylvia retired from the sport of mixed martial arts at 38, leaving a 31-10, 1 NC record and years worth of memories from his time at the top of the sport.
“Tim Sylvia was an important member of the UFC roster for several years after we first took over the company, and as a two-time heavyweight champion, he left his mark on the history books,” UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, said. “We, at Zuffa, wish him well in his retirement.”
“Tim Sylvia was our former heavyweight champion and his knockouts over Ricco Rodriguez and Andrei Arlovski were two of the most memorable we've seen in the division,” UFC President Dana White, said. “I wish him all the best in the future.”
A native of Ellsworth, Maine, Sylvia wrestled in high school and practiced karate as well, but it wasn’t until a few grappling tournaments and an amateur mixed martial arts fight that he began to see a new career path open up for him. He turned pro on January 19, 2001 with a first-round TKO of Randy Durant, and by chance he ran into future UFC Hall of Famer Pat Miletich, who was coaching a legion of elite fighters in Bettendorf, Iowa. Miletich invited Sylvia to train with his team, and the New Englander took him up on the offer.
Those early days weren’t easy, with his longtime manager Monte Cox saying in 2002, “I didn’t know he was 6-8 until a month into it. I thought he was 5-4 because every time I saw him he was puking into the garbage can.”
“My first ten days here, I got really sick,” Sylvia said in 2003. “I had a sinus infection and I was training my ass off, but I kept puking from not being in shape and trying to hang with the guys that were in shape. I wanted to let them know that I moved out here because I’m taking this seriously, not because I want to be around all these guys. I didn’t want to just be associated with them; I wanted to be a part of them.”
Sylvia, part of a team that included Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Robbie Lawler and Jeremy Horn, went on to compile a 13-0 record that included victories over Ben Rothwell, Mike Whitehead (twice) and Jason Lambert, earning him a call to the UFC. On September 27, 2002, Sylvia debuted in the Octagon with a second-round TKO of steel-chinned Hawaiian brawler Wesley “Cabbage” Correira, and following the bout, he got a surprise call to be the first challenger for Ricco Rodriguez’ UFC heavyweight title.
“I had a 15-0 record, I came to the UFC and put on a good performance against Cabbage and all of a sudden they were like ‘hey, you want to fight for the title?’” Sylvia said. “It was a win-win situation. You lose, and you’re losing to the guy who’s already the champ; and if you win, you become the champ. I didn’t really have to work hard at it. It kinda flopped in my lap, we took it, and we capitalized on it.”
That he did, with a single right hand separating Rodriguez from the title at 3:09 of the first round at UFC 41 on February 28, 2003. Tim Sylvia was a world champion.
Storm clouds were ahead though, and after successfully defending his title with a first-round TKO of Gan McGee in September of 2003, Sylvia failed a post-fight drug test and surrendered the belt. He lost his return bout in June of 2004 to Frank Mir, as well as a February 2005 match to Andrei Arlovski, leaving his UFC future in doubt.
That’s where his heart came into play.
“There are only five percent of the fighters in the world that actually get title shots, let alone possess the world title,” Sylvia said in 2006. “No one can say, ‘yeah, I know what it takes’ unless they’ve actually been a world champion. It’s tough, and the setbacks I had to go through, with a broken arm, the two losses in a row, and just having the drive and motivation to get back to where I need to be to be a number one contender and then win the belt, I can’t explain to you how tough it was, but I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles my whole life, so hard work is something I’m used to.”
Three wins over Mike Block, Tra Telligman and Assuerio Silva put Sylvia back in business and in a rematch for the title against Arlovski at UFC 59 in April of 2006. Sylvia hit the deck early but roared right back to stop the “Pit Bull” at 2:43 of the first round. “The Maine-iac” was a champion once more.
Sylvia successfully defended his second crown twice over Arlovski and Jeff Monson before being upset by Randy Couture at UFC 68 in March of 2007.
Following a subsequent win over Brandon Vera, Sylvia had one more chance to take UFC gold again in February of 2008, but was submitted by “Minotauro” Nogueira at UFC 81. It would be his final UFC bout.
Sylvia’s career continued in various promotions, and he compiled a 7-6, 1 NC record before calling it quits last weekend. But while he won’t be competing anymore, he leaves a legacy to be proud of.