Wanderlei Silva following his win over Cung Le. Photo by Esther Lin at MMA Fighting.
I don't know what it says about us, as fans of this sport (or perhaps simply as humans), to cheer the spectacle upon us this weekend. Wanderlei Silva is a legend. He's a great fighter, a pioneer (mostly of violence rather than technique), an affable father and person. In short, he's all that and an outbreak of Dengue Fever.
But he's also on borrowed time. I hate to start this retrospective on such a sobering note. But it's impossible not to draw comparisons from UFC 115. There, an aging legend became the victim of a brutal knockout. For some, it's one of the more lasting images of Chuck Liddell: his lip in two, Rogan lamenting, Goldberg shouting, and all the while Chuck's eyes appear directed at the rapture.
Many of us are trying to perish the thought. After all, a list of "favorite Wanderlei Silva" moments is like trying to recall your favorite episode of The Wire, the most violent scene in a Martin Scorcese film, or the best use of profanity in Glengarry Glen Ross. There are simply too many to count.
It'd be silly to try, but try I must. Having followed his career since its inception, I'll ignore his brief run in the UFC before Pride. I'll even ignore his Pride accomplishments, though Final Conflict 2003 should probably be numero uno on any respectable list.
Instead I'd like to focus on UFC 79.
A lot of people like to criticize this event. It was the showdown MMA fans had clamored for: The Axe Murderer vs. The Ice Man. A matchup that sounds like a True Crime/Marvel Comics crossover.
Except it was a few years too late. Both men were coming off consecutive losses. Silva from back to back knockout losses to Mirko Filopovic, and Dan Henderson, while Chuck was obliterated by Quinton Jackson, and almost just as embarrassingly dropped a decision to Keith Jardine.
There was no reason for fans to care. Two proud champions appeared to be on their way out, and Dana White was just chasing the ghost of a main event.
However, something strange happened once the two men entered the cage.
Instead of fighting for their jobs (potentially playing it safe), or downplaying what it meant for their careers, the two fought with purpose. They fought like their legacies depended on this one match.
People rarely judge the fight on its own terms, instead opting to taint it with context: "neither fighter was the same, it would have been cool in their primes, etc.".
It's not that these are empty criticisms: only that their performances that night existed on a level parallel with the legacies they built for themselves, red in tooth and claw.
Silva was hurt on numerous occasions, but he never wilted under Chuck's (still considerable) power. Shocking, seeing as how even Shungo Oyama was able to put Silva on his knees.
Since then, Silva's career hasn't been in complete shambles. And maybe that's what gives us room to be optimistic. The loss to Liddell would have been devastating to many with three in a row. But for a fighter with so much history and pride (ho ho) behind him, it's amazing how little regard he has for it. Wand will always have a special place in every fan's heart because he's made it a personal mission to do so. He's a once in a lifetime "I do this for you" competitor.
One of my favorite exchanges in all of professional sports was in 2005 at the MGM Grand. Erik Morales was fighting a breakout star now tearing up the Featherweight division in Manny Pacquiao. Morales was coming off a loss to his rival Marco Antonio Barrera, and with Manny coming off a win over Barrera, many assumed Morales was another obstacle to Pacquiao's newly minted legacy.
But not that night. Morales outboxed and outfought Manny for the majority of the fight. Though competitive, it was clear who would take this fight going into the 12th. Then Morales did something foolish, switching southpaw in the 12th, leaving himself more open to Manny's straight left. Sure enough, Erik was blasted with lefts, but the fight became the street fight everyone wanted. When Larry Merchant asked Morales why he would do something so tactically questionable, Morales asked in Spanish with a smile, "did you like that?"
I suspect this is the rhetorical question Silva is constantly asking each and every fan, for better or worse. I've always been wary of fighter health, and the concussion crisis. And so I still worry that Saturday will hold a mirror up to our moral principles, knowing full well this Is Silva's fate.
But Wanderlei Silva is an adult, who derives his pleasure in life from the intensity of his fan's support. If that's his wish, the least we can do is grant him that.