Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva is, as his name would suggest, a sizable guy. He's a long-term sufferer of acromegaly, and the primary effect of the growth hormone deficiency is neatly summarized by its entymology- the Greek ákros megalo literally just means "very big".
At 6’4, the Brazilian is not actually especially tall for a heavyweight, but he is large, one of the few heavies who makes a significant cut down to 265 lbs. Not fat or even particularly muscular, but instead all stooping coarse skeleton and sinew. The structure of his face less like bones and flesh, and closer to water-driven erosions of limestone. Crags and cracks and shade interacting to create a visage in the rock.
Big men can’t really win fights. Not really, or at least not in the way that smaller ones can. When they come through, it’s because they overpowered the smaller fighter with brute force. If they have a measure of technical striking, then we know that they utilized their frame to exploit an unfair reach advantage over their foes. No-one wants to hear or see the story of the big man winning, looks forward to seeing Goliath or Cyclops or Gogmagog come out on top. We want to see them tricked, blinded, beaten with superior technology. In combat sports, there’s a special relish in a giant’s collapse, and Bigfoot Silva has taken an impressive fall like that more than once.
Everyone knows what can happen when he steps into the cage. If he manages to land a good punch, there aren’t many that are going to be left standing. If he gets on top of his opponent, he is so heavy and so strong that they’re unlikely to get out again.
Against this are his weaknesses: He is achingly slow, and not a difficult fighter to hit. Top heavy and consequently easy to take down. Once he’s on the mat, Silva struggles to haul those rocky bones back up.
So, we can see that when he fights others, he is the constant, the unmoving monolith. His victories are instead his opponent’s losses. They failed to overcome the clearly-defined array of skills put before them, or they were simply physically outmatched. There’s less room for acknowledging that he might harbor technique, or improvements, or strategy, because…well, look at him.
Every time we observe another, we unconsciously layer our preconceptions over them. Some of the most unwavering impressions have to be the concepts of the giant and the monster. Either he is a terrifying golem, or a gentle titan.
Pezao Silva is neither of these. He is a fearless, tactless guy. Something of a gym nomad, moving from ATT to Brazilian Top Team, to Imperial Athletics, to Team Nogueira. I don’t know why he keeps shifting, but I’d suspect it’s something to do with his prickly temper and tendency to blurt out anything that pops into his mouth.
On Josh Barnett: "He makes me sick. He's the classic kiss-ass, a rude man ... I really want to face Barnett and I've already said I consider him a filthy person, even though he is a great fighter, and that I'll beat him up and close both of his eyes."
On Overeem: "To me, Overeem is among the best fighters in the world, and I want to always fight the best. Of course, where I come from - Paraiba, in Brasil - our supplement of choice is molasses, and our strength is our attitude and we will fight whoever, whenever. Let's see if Overeem can say the same."
Beyond that, he’s a rare heavyweight who has worked diligently to improve the technical aspects of his fight game, who actually thinks and tailors his approach to his opponents.
Rather than being this blundering monster who occasionally lucks into fluke punches and wins over better competition, to me he’s a man who has constantly been fighting against the very real limitations of his frame. Athletically outgunned virtually every time out, he’s used fundamentals, technique and strategy to win when no-one thought he could. His reward has been that his opponents were posthumously labelled spent, stupid, unlucky or any combination of the three.
Bigfoot showed off some improved hands, and took the first frame from his fellow Brazilian. Werdum rallied in the second and third, changing levels for the takedown and attacking with the double-collar clinch to take the decision, flashing the first real hints of the trademark Chute Boxe Muai Thai. It was a good, underrated battle, particularly between heavyweights, and passed completely under the radar. Werdum had won, as expected, and therefore no improvements in either fighter were registered. It would take until Werdum fought Mike Russow, three years later, that anyone would acknowledge that he was actually OK at this kickboxing stuff. With the loss, Pezao merely dropped back into obscurity.
Booked as a bounceback for Arlovski after getting posterized by Fedor and Brett Rogers, the fight answered two questions: Firstly, that Arlovski could take a punch. Secondly, that Silva genuinely could box a little bit, as he maintained his distance, and patiently took apart the Jackson’s MMA product with one-twos and crosses. The general response from the media was that even if he had proven that his chin wasn’t made of fine china, Arlovski was even more shot than had previously been thought.
Most likely booked for similar reasons to the Arlovski matchup. Silva had beaten a decent heavyweight, but the Strikeforce brass were hoping that Emilianenko could provide a picturesque KO.
He played spoiler once again, and once again, the focus was on how his opponent lost the fight rather than how he won it.
It’s true that by the time he fought Silva, the Last Emperor was not the same fighter who had beaten Minotauro and Cro Cop. However, the misconception that Silva was somehow this great beast of a man, beating on the brave, smaller fighter, does not really bear out, for the following, obvious reason:
Fedor Emilianenko is a much more gifted combat athlete than Bigfoot, regardless (and in some way because) of the size discrepancies. He is naturally faster, more diverse, and able to take more punishment. Even on the downswing of his career, Fedor should have been able to take care of someone over whom he owned as many advantages as Silva.
As it happened, Bigfoot instead carefully beat the greatest heavyweight of all time, shepherding the fight to where he was strongest and capitalizing on moments of weakness.
The key moment of the bout came at the start of the second when Fedor threw the overhand right.
The overhand is often used as a big man killer. Big Country on Struve, Couture on Silvia. The arc of the punch makes it a natural weapon for putting real impact behind hitting upwards and coming over the top of the defensive jab.
When Fedor threw, Bigfoot ducked his shoulder under the punch and took the Russian down. It was surprisingly fluid for the big man, and I remember looking at the screen in surprise and thinking: Wow. He trained that.
Once on top, Silva kept position and thumped Fedor repeatedly. The ref looked at the Russian’s mangled face and called a stop to the fight after the second.
Like another Pride legend in Takanori Gomi, the root of Fedor’s deterioration was in his abandonment of a multi-faceted, focused offensive, and in his growing fixation with winning with one punch. Silva defeated him not because he was bigger, or stronger, or because Fedor had physically declined in any drastic way, but because Bigfoot approached the fight with foresight, strategy and discipline, and Fedor just swung.
This was at the tail end of the Lesnar years and the obsession with size in the heavyweight division, and any illusions that it had been a determining factor were quickly dispelled in Silva’s next fight. Fedor was short and portly for a heavyweight, and Cormier was shorter and portlier. He ran rings around Bigfoot, dropping him with an uppercut and finishing him in the first.
This has generally been his story. Against Cormier, and later, against Velasquez, he simply had no avenue to victory. Hard work, discipline and focus can get you wins over more talented fighters… unless those talented fighters are also hard working, disciplined and focused.
Regardless, he’s continued to pick up wins. Travis Browne is his antithesis- a big man who is fast and strong and athletically gifted, he eschews Silva’s focus on simple technique and instead prances about the cage and throws silly high-risk strikes. It's a cunning tactic which has often deceived watchers into thinking that he is good at MMA. When he injured his knee while dancing, Bigfoot pinned him to the fence and slaughtered him.
"It pisses me off that he's going to make a name off of me" said Browne after the fight, with bitter and breathtaking hubris.
In Silva’s last great upset, he fought a slow, conservative fight, at least at the start. Rope-a-doping a man who was known for gassing prior to his bloating up into MMA’s own Incredible Hulk is not exactly Sun Tzu, but we’re talking heavyweights here. This is a weight class where fighters go up against Roy Nelson, and still circle into his right hand. Strategy is refreshing and laudable.
In addition, when you’re slow, and easy to hit, and not terribly sturdy, it’s got to be a difficult and frightening thing to fight carefully against one of the more explosive finishers in the sport. Regardless, Silva held on while getting tagged on the feet and eating unpleasant body and head shots on the ground. By the third, Overeem was exhausted, and was promptly subjected to one of the most brutal knockout flurries in recent memory.
Look, everyone likes Mark Hunt. He’s a great laconic character with a near-unbelievable comeback story, from the absolute bottom of the Heavyweight trash heap to within inches of title contention.
I just like Bigfoot more. Once again, despite obvious visual disparities, he’s never had the physical gifts of natural speed, toughness and plain fighting instincts which someone like Hunt (or Fedor, or Cormier) has in spades. Is he ever going to be champ? Not in a million years, but it actually makes me a little sad that he gets associated with the worst elements of the heavyweight division (just being big, and strong, and hitting hard). He's not GSP with regards to technique, and he's not a master of cage generalship like Randy, but I don't feel he gets the respect he deserves, either.