At UFC 162, Chris Weidman, as the saying goes, 'shocked the world' by knocking out living MMA legend Anderson Silva. In truth, while the mode of victory was definitely astonishing, judging by the pre-fight betting odds which were the closest for a Silva fight in years, a large swathe of the world wasn't that shocked. The pundits who had predicted a Weidman victory hinged their prognostications on their assessment of his skill set versus Anderson's. I disagreed. In my own-pre fight analysis, I opened with the words 'Anderson Silva is 38 years old'. Those words said it all- and those words are why Silva should not fight again.
The story of the decline of great champions is a sad but familiar and predictable one. In 1978, at the age of 36, boxing legend Muhammad Ali was defeated by a young upstart called Leon Spinks. It wasn't a crushing defeat, and Ali avenged the loss 7 months later. But it was obvious that Ali's decline was undeniable. He was still magnificient- maybe 99% of the prime Ali- but at the highest levels of combat sports, 99% is not enough. He should have retired then, but excuses were made for his loss because the world wasn't ready to say goodbye. He kept fighting until Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick battered him into retirement.
In 2010, after a 28-fight win streak, MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko lost to Fabricio Verdum. He was still magnificient- maybe 99% of the prime Fedor- but at the highest levels of combat sports, 99% is not enough. He should have retired then, but excuses were made for his loss because the world wasn't ready to say goodbye. He kept fighting until Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson battered him into retirement, after he salvaged his dignity with three easy fights so he could retire on a winning streak.
We recently saw Manny Pacquiao lose to journeyman Timothy Bradley. Excuses were made for his loss, because the world wasn't ready to say goodbye. He had been robbed by the judges, the world protested. This was true, but Manny that night was only 99% of prime Manny, and at the highest levels of combat sports, 99% is not enough. His KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in his next fight dispelled any doubt that age had finally caught up with him. Chuck Lidell, Sugar Ray Leonard, Anderson Silva's idol Roy Jones Jr- we've seen them all play out the familiar script.
The script hurts us because we don't want to say goodbye. This is why we make the excuse that it was cockines, not age, that defeated Anderson. Prime Silva was a delight to behold, a balletic phenomenom of martial skill that made expert adversaries seem like plodding amateurs. I maintain that a prime Anderson would have destroyed Chris Weidman. But in analysing Silva's pre-fight workout, I detected signs of ageing. I also mentioned the worrying symptoms of demotivation which Silva admitted to after the loss.
Skeptics scoffed at my conclusion that there were signs of decline noticable to the practised eye. It was easy to scoff at my diagnoses, because as even I admitted, there was still much that was magnificient about the champ. In other words, he was 99% of prime Silva. But at the highest levels of combat sports, 99% is not enough.
Promoters are guilty of keeping great fighters in the game for too long. Fans don't want to believe the dream is over, but greedy promoters just want to keep cashing in on the legend's name while it has commercial value. This is why Don King kept goading Ali into one more fight, and why Dana White is salivating at the lucre that will be generated by a Silva-Weidman rematch. But if Anderson fights Weidman again in February as Dana is mooting, he will be 2 months shy of his 39th birthday.
Will he win? It's possible. In my opinion, he was the better fighter on the night of UFC 162, surviving Weidman's submission attempts, stuffing his later takedown, and battering him on the feet with easily-landed leg kicks. A 100% Silva would have got away with styling on Weidman- he had done it before. But a 99% Silva was just a little too flat-footed, a little too slow. At the highest levels of combat sports, 99% is not enough.
If Anderson shows up again in February, he won't be 99% of prime Silva. He will be maybe 95%. This means that one error will settle his fate as an ageing has-been. Even if he defeats Weidman using his superior skill and experience- just like an ageing Ali defeated the strapping young George Foreman- it would just encourage him to keep fighting until the next inevitable humiliation at the hands of another young upstart. And the next one after that. Until- as the familiar script always dictates- he finally accepts the terrible reality that the clock cannot be turned back for anybody.
It's too late for Silva to walk away at the top, as wiser champs like Lennox Lewis have done. But it is not too late to change the familiar ending of this story. If his pride demands that he goes out on a win, he should take a leaf out of the Fedor playbook and accept a fight against a fellow geriatric. He has said he wanted to fight fellow ageing strikemeister Cung Le. That fight would be both exciting to fans and winnable. And after that final victory, he should walk off into the sunset, draped by garlands of our adoration and gratitude, into that place where 99% is more than good enough. Retirement.