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Wanderlei Silva - Tribute to a Legend

"Wanderlei Silva is a great fighter—recent results notwithstanding. In fact, he may be one of the greatest in the history of our sport."

Let’s cut right to the bone. Wanderlei Silva has dropped six of his last eight fights, four of them by knockout. I have no idea if Silva is on the verge of bringing an end to his illustrious mixed martial arts career. Nor am I suggesting that it is time for him to go. Yet, we have to be realistic about the situation. The 35-year-old, 46-fight veteran and former champion is nearing the end of his career.

Silva fans probably don’t want to read those words. Yet, this is a reality that every great fighter faces at some point in his career. And make no mistake about it, Silva is a great fighter—recent results notwithstanding. In fact, he may be one of the greatest in the history of our sport.

If, indeed, Silva has reached the end of his career, this is a time for celebration, not sadness. Domestic MMA fans should be thankful that they had the privilege to see “The Axe Murderer” compete stateside over the past few years.  Keep in mind, though, that the Silva who first entered the United States for fistic competition back in May 1999 was a very different fighter than the one who returned to American soil in February 2007 for PRIDE’s final US event before returning to the UFC.

The former was a highly touted Brazilian contender. The latter had morphed into the greatest knockout artist the sport has ever known and the most dominant champion in the history of the PRIDE Fighting Championships.

Silva’s career can be summed up with one quote. Three simple words uttered in response to a reporter’s request to predict the outcome of an upcoming fight.

I promise violence.

No better quote has ever been spoken by a fighter in the days leading up to an MMA bout. And no fighter ever delivered on such a promise quite like Silva, particularly during his PRIDE days.

The awful experience of fighting Wanderlei Silva began in earnest at the weigh-ins.  It wasn’t bravado. There was no act. And he certainly wasn’t trying to convince anybody that he was a tough guy. Silva’s terrifying stare instead was the embodiment of his love of conquering another man. His need to vanquish anyone who dared stand opposed in an MMA contest.  Or, more simply put, his insatiable hunger for violence.

Twenty-four hours later, Silva would be backstage warming up for his bout. The hour or so he spent getting ready was about much more than just preparing his body for combat. It was also about sending a message to future opponents. Former UFC middleweight contender Phil Baroni once told me that watching Silva hit pads during the warm-up for his PRIDE fights made everyone backstage take notice. Whether or not Silva was purposefully trying to intimidate possible future foes, it worked. Baroni said no other fighter’s pre-fight warm-up session was even close to the same.

Then, Silva’s entrance music would begin to blare over the arena’s loudspeakers.  “Sandstorm” by Darude was his melody of choice. The upbeat techno song was a clear signal to his opponent and everyone watching that “The Axe Murderer” was coming.

Silva would walk down the entrance ramp or aisle, depending on the venue, bobbing his head to the music, while wearing the blank stare of an executioner walking toward his victim. It was fight time. He had permanently flipped the switch from family man to combat berserker, at least until the fight was over.

As the in-ring announcer read the traditional intros for each fighter, Silva would stalk back and forth in his corner like a starving tiger waiting to get his first bite of meat in weeks. And then, just as his name was announced to the crowd, the Muay Thai expert would clasp his hands together, with his fingers interlocked, and roll his wrists back and forth under his chin in what would become his trademark pre-combat gesture.

That is when the terrifying stare returned. Silva would lock eyes with his opponent and approach his opponent one final time for the final pre-fight instructions before the action would get underway. Bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet, a smile would take over his face. At that point, Silva wanted a piece of his opponent so badly that he could barely contain himself.

No problem. He would get his wish soon enough.

Silva’s game plan rarely deviated from fight to fight. He took the center of the ring or cage and looked for the first opportunity to unleash a barrage of punches. The salvo, whether it was the first or the tenth of the night, almost always consisted of wide hooks flying in rapid alternating fashion. Each laced with savage intentions in search of a knockout. None meant to merely gauge the distance or distract his foe.

If the knockout didn’t come right away, Silva would step inside behind the power shots and look for the Thai plumb. His sole purpose for the plumb was to pull his opponent’s head into a series of oncoming knees, possibly the most devastating of their kind.

If Thai knees dropped but did not stop his opponent, Silva wasted no time continuing his search for a knockout. Soccer kicks and heel stomps to the head nearly always sealed the deal in PRIDE fights. He replaced those shots with ground-and-pound punches in the UFC in order to remain within the rules of combat.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? The truth is that Silva was a very straightforward fighter. But he was extraordinarily effective with his straightforward style, which is why he became the most prolific knockout artist to ever step into a PRIDE ring.

Guy Mezger. Kazushi Sakuraba. Shungo Oyama.  Alexander Otsuka. Kiyoshi Tamura. Tatsuya Iwasaki. Hiromitsu Kanehara. Quinton Jackson. Ikuisa Minowa. Yuki Kondo. Kazuhiro Nakamura. Kazuyuki Fujita.

Twelve names. Each of them suffered at least one knockout loss at the hands of “The Axe Murderer” during his reign of terror in PRIDE.

When Zuffa acquired the Japanese fight promotion in October 2007, Silva ended his PRIDE career with a 22-4-1 (1 NC) record, including 15 knockouts. His marks for wins and knockouts will forever remain in the record books as the best ever.  

Silva held the PRIDE Middleweight Championship for almost six years, also a record, and he won the inaugural Middleweight Grand Prix.

For those who don’t know, PRIDE’s middleweight division used a 93-kilogram, or 204.6-pound, weight limit.

Silva’s run in the UFC wasn’t nearly as successful. But who really cares? He was already a living legend at that point in his career, so he certainly had nothing left to prove. Yet, he still gave the fans two of the more memorable fights of 2007 (his three-round war with Chuck Liddell, a fight several years past its due date) and 2008 (a Knockout of the Year performance over Keith Jardine).

Today’s version of Wanderlei Silva may not be the same fighter who ruled PRIDE, but nobody can deny the fact that he still fights with the same passion, courage and dedication to violence as during his heyday. Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change in that regard.

If Silva’s career is, in fact, coming to a close, I think I speak for all MMA fans when I say, thank you for the thrilling fights, timeless knockouts, and permanent dedication to entertaining the fans in a sport that you helped build.


Trilogy with Sakuraba

March 25, 2001 – PRIDE 13
Result – TKO1 (1:38)

Fans new to the sport will never fully grasp how great Kazushi Sakuraba was at the height of his career. The self-titled “Gracie Killer” was 12-2-1 (1 NC) heading into his first fight with Silva. His only two career losses came in open weight bouts against heavyweights who dwarfed him in size. Sakuraba was riding a three-fight winning streak and had scored wins against four Gracie family members at that point in his career: Ryan Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Royler Gracie, and, the most famous of them all, Royce Gracie. Silva was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb for the ultra talented Sakuraba. Not only did Silva defeat him, he completely annihilated the Japanese superstar, something that had never before happened in Sakuraba’s career. It was a coming out party for Silva and a sign of what was to come over the next five-plus years in PRIDE.

November 3, 2001 – PRIDE 17
Result – TKO1 (10:00)

Sakuraba rebounded from the one-sided loss to Silva by scoring a huge win over a very green Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a fighter nobody knew at the time. The win set up a rematch with Silva. This time the inaugural PRIDE Middleweight Championship was on the line. Sakuraba fans were certain that the first fight was a fluke. Someone forgot to send that memo to Silva. Sure, this time it took a full 10 minutes, rather than a mere 98 seconds. Nonetheless, the result was the same. Sakuraba suffered such a savage beating during the first round that the doctors had no option but to call a halt to the action. This fight put Silva on the worldwide MMA map as a legitimate superstar.

August 10, 2003 – PRIDE Total Elimination
Result – KO1 (5:01)

Almost two years since their last encounter, Sakuraba had gone from one of the best fighters in the world, pound for pound, to a shell of his former self. He still had all the offensive skills, but the two vicious knockouts losses to Silva had left permanent effects. No matter, Sakuraba requested a third bout with the reigning 93-kg champion. Silva had yet to lose in PRIDE and had scored knockout wins in eight of his last nine bouts. This one was no different. It took longer than some anticipated, but Silva did not disappoint, as he separated Sakuraba from consciousness midway through the first round.

Trilogy with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

November 9, 2003 – PRIDE Final Conflict
Result – TKO1 (6:28)

Grudge matches are commonplace in combat sports. But Silva-Rampage took the typical grudge match to another level. These guys genuinely hated each other, and there was little doubt when they met in the finals of the 2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix that they were two of the best 205-lb fighters in the world. Rampage had been calling out Silva for months by the time they met in the cage. Both men had competed earlier that same night. Rampage knocked out Chuck Liddell and Silva outlasted Olympic gold medal judoka Hidehiko Yoshida. The arena was fully lathered with anticipation when the action got underway. An early takedown by Rampage followed by some excellent ground and pound suggested that the American was en route to handing the champion his first PRIDE loss. But a curious standup by the referee forever altered the course of history. After a somewhat cautious period, Silva exploded, like he always does. Rampage was hurt by a series of punches, which led to Silva’s signature Thai plumb and a series of knee strikes that will forever define the relationship between the two. Rampage ate more than a dozen knees, including smiling at his attacker at one point, but the end was a mere formality at that point. The knockout victory crowned Silva as the Grand Prix champion, an honor that fit nicely with his 93-kg belt.

October 31, 2004 – PRIDE 28
Result – KO1 (3:26)

Following his first-round knockout loss, Rampage was very outspoken about having been robbed by PRIDE matchmakers. He claimed that Silva had the easier path to the finals, and also pointed out that his semifinal bout with Liddell occurred in closer time proximity to the finals, so he had much less time to recover. Those words enraged an already white hot Silva. The champion did not need any motivation for a rematch with Rampage, but the added incentive led to the single-best performance of the champion’s career. Silva put his stamp on Rampage with one of the most savage knockouts in the history of MMA. A series of knee strikes from the clinch brought the fight to an end, the last of which left Rampage hanging half way out of the PRIDE ring, his unconscious and bloody body draped over the second rope. Silva stood over him with his arms raised like a big game hunter. For my money, that remains the best knockout of the last 10 years.

December 27, 2008 – UFC 92
Result – KO1 Loss (3:21)

By the time Silva and Rampage met for a third time, the fighters were in two very different places in their respective careers. Silva was no longer a champion and had just righted the ship after the first multi-loss streak of his career. This version of Silva was not as physically intimidating as the man who ruled PRIDE for nearly six years. But he was every bit as committed bringing violence to anyone who would dare stand across from him. Rampage, by contrast, was coming off a year-long run as the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. He was at the top of his game, despite a recent controversial loss to Forrest Griffin. Rampage wanted to avenge his two losses to Silva in the worst way, while Silva wanted to get his career back on track with a marquee win over arguably the best 205-lb’er in the world. It wasn’t to be as Rampage landed a perfect counter left hook that put Silva to sleep in the first round. Rampage had his revenge and, with four losses in his last five fights, including three by knockout, questions were starting to swirl about whether Silva’s time at the top of the sport was coming to an end.

First loss of PRIDE Career

October 31, 2004 – PRIDE Shockwave 2004
Result – SD3 Loss

Fans who followed PRIDE probably remember some of the short-notice, wacky matchups. This one took the cake. Silva was the reigning middleweight champ at the peak of his dominance. Mark Hunt was a 280-lb former K-1 champion learning the ropes in MMA. Oh yes, Silva was given two days notice of the matchup.  Despite weighing a career high 220 lbs heading into the fight, Silva was still giving up 60 lbs to the technically better, far more powerful striker. After a rough first round where Hunt basically had his way with the champion, Silva found his rhythm in rounds two and three. Taking into account that, under PRIDE rules, the smaller fighter is to be given the benefit of the doubt in an otherwise equal affair and also that the final round counts more than the first two in terms of scoring (which happened to be Silva’s best round of the fight), I will forever stand firm in my belief that Silva won the fight. Randy Couture and Bas Rutten, who were calling the bout for the pay-per-view telecast, agreed. Yet, the judges saw it differently, scoring a disputed decision in favor of Hunt. It was the first loss of Silva’s PRIDE career. Yet, the legend of Wanderlei Silva actually grew from the effort.

Doubleheader with Mirko Cro Cop

April 28, 2002 – PRIDE 20
Result – Draw

Three fights into his championship reign, Silva was matched up against heavyweight kickboxer Mirko Cro Cop in a special rules bout – if the fight went the distance, it would be called a draw, period. Oh yes, there was also the unofficial rule that the referee would stand up the fighters after a few seconds, if Silva scored a takedown. The bout largely unfolded as a kickboxing contest. Silva basically fought him to a draw on the feet, which was shocking to some, based on Cro Cop’s history in K-1. A late takedown by Silva followed by some ground and pound would have won the fight, if the judges were allowed to choose a winner.

September 10, 2006 – PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute
Result – KO1 Loss (5:26)

Silva and Cro Cop met for a second time in the semifinals of the PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix. Cro Cop had grown leaps and bounds as a mixed martial artist by this time. In fact, he was probably the most fearsome striker in the sport in late 2006. Much of that was due to the excellent takedown defense he had developed over the last few years. This fight unfolded like most expected. The larger, more powerful Cro Cop basically had his way with the 93-kg champion. He sat down on his strikes without worrying about getting taken to the ground, which was a major change from their first bout. Cro Cop brought the brutal five-plus-minute beating to an end with his patented left high kick. Silva was left unconscious on the ground, something that PRIDE fans had never before seen.

Showdown with the “Iceman”

December 29, 2007 – UFC 78
Result – UD3 Loss

After Chuck Liddell lost to Rampage Jackson in the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix, he went on one of the greatest streaks that the 205-lb division has ever seen, racking up seven consecutive knockouts, winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship and becoming an iconic fighting figure in the process. Liddell was the biggest figure in the sport, by a wide margin. Once it became clear that he had no peers in the UFC 205-lb division, fans and pundits alike began calling for a showdown with unquestioned PRIDE 93-kg kingpin Wanderlei Silva. Of course, the politics of competing fight promotions prevented the bout from coming to fruition when it was at its ripest stage. But when Zuffa acquired PRIDE in October 2007, one of the first matches to be made was Liddell-Silva. The problem, of course, is that both Liddell and Silva were riding a two-fight losing streaks at that time. Instead of deciding who was the greatest light heavy in the world, the bout was contested to see who would remain relevant in the UFC’s glamour division. Liddell and Silva turned back the clock and engaged in a timeless slugfest. Liddell ultimately prevailed, but the battle was the easy choice for Fight of the Night and also won Fight of the Year.

Knockout of Keith Jardine

May 24, 2008 – UFC 84
Result – KO1 (0:36)

Fresh off the heels of his Fight of the Year effort against Liddell, Silva once again turned back the clock with a scorching knockout of Keith Jardine in a scant 38 seconds, making it one of the fastest knockouts of his illustrious career. The MMA media selected the fight as Knockout of the Year. The win propelled Silva back into relevance in the UFC and set up a third fight with Rampage.  

The Move to Middleweight

June 13, 2009 – UFC 99
Result – UD3 Loss

Following his loss to Rampage, Silva made it clear to everyone that he was finished with the 205 lb division. UFC light heavies were too big, he reasoned, so he wanted to test himself against guys closer to his natural size. Of course, he made the move in a two-step process, first taking a 195-lb catchweight fight against former UFC Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin. This was the perfect litmus test for Silva, both in terms of seeing how his body would react to cutting the weight, without actually having to go all the way down to 185 lbs, and also to test himself against one of the greatest middleweights of our era. Silva and Franklin engaged in a back-and-forth war, with Franklin controlling most of the action with his precision stick-and-move tactics. Silva constantly chased his foe, and when he was able to close the distance, there was no doubt who was landing the harder shots. He actually came close to finishing Franklin in the final round, after landing a couple of game-changing bombs. But it was too little too late, as Franklin was awarded the unanimous decision win. Nonetheless, the bout was selected as the Fight of the Night.

February 21, 2010 – UFC 110
Result – UD3

Former TUF winner Michael Bisping was selected as Silva’s first opponent in the middleweight division. Bisping was one of the most exciting young contenders and this fight would determine whether Silva could resurrect his championship ways in a division 20 lbs south of his career fighting weight. Bisping tried to follow the blueprint laid down by Franklin, employing a hunt-and-peck strategy, while remaining focused on not engaging in unnecessary exchanges with his dangerous foe. It almost worked. Bisping appeared to be on his way to winning a close unanimous decision until Silva caught him on the temple with one of his trademark looping bombs. The shot almost ended the fight, forcing Bisping to get on his bicycle and get out of dodge. The win solidified Silva as a legitimate threat in the 185 lb division.

July 2, 2011 – UFC 132
Result – KO1 Loss (0:21)

When UFC President Dana White announced that Silva would face iron-chinned slugger Chris Leben at UFC 132, the MMA world began salivating with anticipation. The bout had explosion written all over it, and the fighters did not disappoint. Silva attacked Leben at the opening bell, just as promised. He landed a tremendous looping punch squarely on his foe’s jaw. Unfortunately for Silva, shots like that don’t deter Leben, they actually cause him to come forward and fight harder. He is an amazing competitor in that way. Knowing that he landed a clean shot, Silva attempted to secure the Thai plumb to unload a barrage of knees. Leben countered with a series of left uppercuts right on the button. The first rocked Silva, as evidenced by the fact that he inexplicably continued searching for the plumb, rather than backing away and regrouping. The second turned out the lights in what was the most devastating knockout of 2011 to date. Despite the positive signs showed by Silva in his previous three fights, this knockout was so devastating that it instantly raised questions about Silva’s future in the sport and may ultimately prove to be his MMA swan song.