Anderson Silva is one of the most gifted athletes ever to step inside the UFC Octagon. His debut against the tough Ultimate Fighter star Chris Leben set the tone for his entire record setting tenure - he made it look easy, dismantling the game but overmatched Leben in less than a minute. Since then, eleven consecutive wins have followed.
Middleweight champion Rich Franklin didn't last two full rounds in his pair of fights with Silva. Both ended with devastating knees. Pride's middleweight champion Dan Henderson fared a little better in his unification bout. He made it all the way into the second round before being choked out. Of his twelve opponents, ten have failed to go the distance with the champion, a record unparalleled in UFC history.
But Anderson Silva is only a man, subject to the most cruel master of all - father time. Silva is 35 and his athletic gifts are on a slow slide to oblivion. There were subtle signs that Silva was aging and I was concerned about him prior to the Chael Sonnen fight at UFC 117, afraid he had lost his edge:
I worry about a fighter like Anderson Silva. He reminds me quite a bit of boxer Roy Jones. Both men rely on a physical edge, hyper speed reflexes and reaction time that makes it look like their opponents are moving in slow motion. At some point, that kind of fighter is bound to fall of a cliff. When it happens, it won't be pretty.
After the fight, won by Silva with the kind of last second heroics that will secure his legacy, I was more concerned than ever. Silva looked more vulnerable than we had ever seen him before. We finally saw it against Sonnen, saw Silva tagged by punches he would have dismissively dodged just a year before. Fight Metric has quantified what was just a feeling in my gut, pointing out that while Silva is still statistically the best striker in UFC history, that is changing with each fight:
He has still never fought a fight where his significant striking accuracy was less than 50%. That said, his percentage today [68.4%] is not nearly as impressive as it was. Silva’s accuracy has declined in each of his last four fights. Prior to fighting Thales Leites, Silva’s accuracy percentage was a ridiculous 80.9%.
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MMA fans have been spoiled by Randy Couture, a man defying the odds, somehow able to compete at a high level well into his 40's. That's almost unheard of in the entire history of professional athletics. For an athlete like Silva, one who relies heavily on natural gifts of speed and astounding reflexes, time is a fighter's most fearsome foe. Against Chael Sonnen you can survive a mistake and live to finish the fight. Against Vitor Belfort? The same kind of punch that knocks you down when thrown by Chael Sonnen knocks you out when thrown by "the Phenom."
There is a real chance that Anderson Silva loses this fight. And if that happens, I hope fans and pundits take a reasoned approach to discussion of his legacy and achievements. Anderson Silva is one of the five best fighters in the history of this sport. Where he falls in the pantheon of greats is up for debate - his status as a legend isn't.
In sports, everyone gets old eventually. We've seen Brett Favre prone on the field gasping in pain. We've seen Michael Jordan inexplicably in the blue jersey of the Washington Wizards, limping up and down the court yelling at teammates and looking like a grumpy old man. We've seen Muhammad Ali beaten and battered by the likes of Trevor Berbick.
With rare exceptions, all the great ones leave their sport of choice humbled and beaten. None of that diminishes what they've accomplished before. Anderson Silva has been a transcendent figure in mixed martial arts. When the day comes that he finally succumbs to age, injury, or even a better fighter, I hope we give him his due.