At this weekend's UFC on Fuel TV 2 show, all eyes seem to be focused on one man: Alexander Gustafsson. And that's entirely understandable. Gustafsson is the young gun climbing the ranks, the Swede welcoming the UFC to his country for the first time, the original main eventer for this show. In short, he's the man this show is being built around, and it's no surprise he is the big story.
But lurking behind him, ready to spoil that story, is his opponent. Thiago Silva is coming into Gustafsson's home with a very different mission. Once considered the same kind of fast rising prospect we see in Gustafsson today, Silva now finds himself on a quest for something much more personal - redemption.
It's been over a year since Thiago Silva last fought, and the reasons why are well documented. After his UFC 125 win over Brandon Vera, Silva's urine sample was ruled to be "inconsistent with human urine." The Brazilian fighter admitted that he had been taking a banned substance to deal with a back injury, and had indeed tampered with his sample to try and beat the test. He was suspended for a year, and his win reversed to a No Contest.
Now, 15 months after he last set foot inside the Octagon, Thiago Silva returns. As with every fighter suspended for banned substances, he does so under intense scrutiny. When these sort of things happen, it casts doubt over the fighter's entire career. Had he been taking illegal substances in previous fights? Is he truly clean now? If he is, can he win without them? These are all valid questions, but even after Saturday's fight, we won't truly know the answers. We can speculate based on what happens against Gustafsson, but it will remain just that - speculation.
However there is one question we may get answered on Saturday, and that is perhaps the most important one for Thiago Silva - is he still relevant in the UFC Light Heavyweight division? He certainly once was: fights against Lyoto Machida and Keith Jardine were semi-main events, he headlined UFC 108 against Rashad Evans, and was rumored to be heading towards a UFC 130 main event with Quinton Jackson before the Vera suspension. But all of that is, in MMA terms, ancient history. The once red hot KO artist took a year off in 2010, another year off in 2011, and is now looking at only his 3rd fight since 2009. He hasn't won a fight since UFC 102 in August 2009. To put that into perspective, when Silva last won, Gustafsson had not even debuted in the UFC yet. That's a long time to lose at this point in your career, and the odds are against Silva coming back strong.
If Silva can come back, can pull off the upset, can spoil Gustafsson's coming out party Saturday, he'll find himself right back in the top 10, ready to challenge the division's best once again. But if he can't, if he gets dismantled the same way most of Gustafsson's opponents have been dismantled, the loss will speak volumes - both about his past, and his future. Truly, for Silva, this is the crossroads. Which path will he take?