After reading through the thoughts of many MMA fans over the course of the last few days I've come to the sad realization that fans will probably never really respect Tim Sylvia the way they should.
A lot of fans who weren't following the sport closely back in 2002 probably don't realize just how big of a signing it was when the UFC landed Tim Sylvia. The 6'8" Sylvia came into the promotion with a 13-0 record, with those wins coming in some of the bigger "regional" promotions like Superbrawl and Extreme Challenge. Sylvia also was riding high after winning the Superbrawl 24 tournament by stopping Boyd Ballard, Jason Lambert and Mike Whitehead. When he was signed to the UFC it was one of the biggest signings the promotion had in quite some time and was expected to help pick up what was then a lackluster heavyweight division.
Upon his arrival Sylvia met "Cabbage" Correira at UFC 39. After surviving an early onslaught from the big Hawaiian, Sylvia absolutely brutalized him en route to a second round stoppage. While many may be quick to dismiss a win over Correira as meaningless, this was during a period where Cabbage had won 7 straight coming in and would win 6 in a row afterward. Many of those wins were legitimate and against guys like Aaron Brink, Kevin Jordan, Travis Wiuff, Jason Lambert, Joe Riggs, Justin Eilers, and Sean Alvarez.
Sylvia would get a UFC title shot against Ricco Rodriguez, a guy who the UFC wanted to be a "poster boy" as he had a lot of charisma and some crossover appeal with the Latino market that the promotion wanted to tap into at the time. Sylvia blasted out Rodriguez in just over three minutes to improve to 15-0 and become UFC champion. Already Sylvia was not a well liked fighter among some of the MMA base off nothing more than being awkward and coming from a camp in Miletich Fighting Systems that was not the most loved by MMA's most hardcore followers.
The UFC then matched Sylvia up with Gan McGee in a "battle of the giants." McGee was 11-1 with his lone loss coming at the hands of Josh Barnett. Sylvia did away with the taller McGee in under two minutes. Unfortunately, Sylvia would test positive for a steroid after the fight and was suspended. Sylvia admitted what he did (one of the very few fighters who tested positive you can say this about) and voluntarily gave up his title. I would never suggest that he should be forgiven for using, but he handled it with as much class as one can. It also was one of the first times that MMA fans really got to see how desperate Sylvia was to be liked by the fans. He was constantly the target of mocking for his soft build despite being a wrecking machine and seemed to want to have a much better "look" in hopes that he would be more accepted.
He returned at UFC 48 in an attempt to win back "his belt" and got caught in an armbar by rising superstar Frank Mir. Mir didn't have the elbow joint locked and as he torqued his hips against Sylvia's forearm the radius bone broke. Herb Dean stopped the fight despite Sylvia's desire to continue on. After time off to heal Sylvia quickly beat fellow giant Wes Sims and got another shot at a title, this time the UFC interim heavyweight title (due to Mir's recent motorcycle crash) against Andrei Arlovski. Arlovski quickly dropped Tim and locked in a leg lock that forced a submission.
Rather than crumble under the weight of a tarnished reputation and losing two of three, Sylvia came back with a win over Mike Block, a highlight reel KO of the very tough Tra Telligman, a decision win while ill over Assuerio Silva, and was given a shot to avenge his loss to Arlovski. Sylvia would come back from early trouble in the fight to TKO Andrei and win his second UFC heavyweight championship. This was probably the moment that Sylvia's career hit it's peak. Sylvia would go on to defend his title in a rubber match with Arlovski in what will always be remembered as one of the most boring heavyweight title fights ever and then won a decision over Jeff Monson.
Then Sylvia would end up on the losing end of one of the most historic fights in the history of the sport as Randy Couture returned to the UFC with a stunning decision victory over Tim. Despite being the much bigger man it was Randy who landed an early punch which put Sylvia down and from that point on Couture was able to control the fight.
Sylvia would rebound with a rather unspectacular win over Brandon Vera before meeting MMA legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in what was once considered an MMA dream match. Nogueira would lock in a guillotine choke in the third round. What most don't remember (or rather choose not to remember) about the fight was Sylvia controlling the first two rounds and dominating the first round. BE actually had that fight scored 20-17 for Sylvia heading into the third before some classic Nogueira drama happened.
Following the loss Sylvia went on to sign with Affliction and get blitzed by Fedor Emelianenko in well under a minute. Then a boxing match with Ray Mercer in New Jersey became an MMA match in Alabama where Mercer caught a 310 pound Sylvia with a power punch to get a win in under 10 seconds.
Obviously Sylvia, who will enter the Moosin event tonight at over 300 pounds again, is not the level of fighter that he once was. But it only takes one look at his career to see a guy who, while never loved by the fans, has only ever lost to the absolute top of the division (and Ray Mercer). Losses to Arlovski, Mir, Fedor and Nogueira are nothing to be ashamed of. Honestly, if Tim Sylva were to retire today he is without a doubt one of the top 15 heavyweights in the history of the sport. One could even make a very valid case to rank him at the bottom end of the top 10.
Many of his wins don't look as good now if you don't look at them in the context of when they happened. The wins over McGee, Cabbage, Arlovski (twice), Rodriguez, etc. were all very meaningful and legitimate wins at the time when they happened.
One last thing: the boring tag is completely unfair given that in my mind he has only been in four boring fights in his career. The Assuerio fight (where Sylvia was ill), the third Arlovski fight (where both men were hesitant), the Vera fight and the Monson bout. In other fights during his career he has been an absolute wrecking machine or involved in incredibly dramatic moments. It's a shame that someone who worked so hard and cared so much about fan approval for the majority of his career has been reduced to a punchline by the fans, not that Tim and his own declining work ethic is helping his case. But the biggest shame is that most fans are all too happy to ignore the realities of a great heavyweight career.