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Tim Sylvia, the anti-champ

So before I say a word about Tim Sylvia, let me acknowledge how wrong I was on the Holman vs. Hamill fight: TOTALLY WRONG.  But, I don't feel bad about it and don't really care.  Hamill still looked horrendous, but Holman managed to out horrendous him.  This isn't the first, nor the last time I'll be way off.  MMA fights - and particularly upsets - are incredibly difficult to call.  I'll just do my best next time.  C'est la vie.

Now onto Sylvia.

I doubt he agrees with me, but I think this is a good loss for Sylvia.  In terms of popularity, he has nowhere to go but up.  The guy - a heavyweight champion - got booed at the weigh-ins, for crying out loud.  Sylvia is arguably the least popular fighter in the UFC and he just lost to arguably the most popular.  I doubt he can fight again and be disliked as much by the fans.  He's got nowhere to go but up.

Add to that he's been stripped of his belt, so his comeback to a title shot provides him the perfect opportunity to repair his image.  He'll still be hated heading into whoever he fights next, but it'll be different for a few reasons.

1.  Sylvia's been a disliked fighter for a while, but some of the extra hate was a function of his status as champion.  Hardcore fans just couldn't accept him in that role.  Sure he was big, but he was goofy and it just didn't seem meritorious that he held the belt.  And when compared to PRIDE's heavyweight roster, Sylvia seemed to be good, but be holding only a paper championship belt.  Sylvia didn't do himself any favors by constantly saying he was the best in the world, either.  When looking around the heavyweight MMA landscape, no one took that claim seriously.  The problem for fans was that unless he actually stepped into the ring with PRIDE's heavyweights there was simply no way to prove it.  I believe Sylvia used that "possibility gap" as an opportunity to be overly confident and smug while the fans used their frustration to spit yet more venom at him.

The point, then, is that since Sylvia's no longer the heavyweight title holder, some of the vitriol and negativity sent his way should dissipate.  Sylvia could squander this opportunity, so maybe not.  But at least the opening is there for him.

And now that's he lost to the legend Couture, the fans desire to see Sylvia dethroned has finally been satiated.  I think fans were hoping CroCop (the former PRIDE fighter and therefore pseudo PRIDE heavyweight representative) would do it, but they'll take this win without hesitation.

2.  Tim used his championship BELT as a means for vindication.  Plain and simple, that's a recipe for disaster.

Tim Sylvia's "story" is truthfully very inspiring.  He had a desire to compete and win, but was counted out even by his trainers at Miletich when he first started.  He didn't have the natural athletic ability and really suffered for years as he trained and learned to fight.  But somewhere along the line the work paid off.  He actually began to get, well, good.  Really good.  He started competing and dominated nearly everyone who crossed his path.  From there the rest is history, but its worth noting that Tim Sylvia's heart and work ethic are second to none.  He got where he got because he worked his ass off and earned it the old fashioned way, genetics and nay-sayers be damned.  I will always have such a strong admiration for that.

But I think Sylvia may have been holding a grudge all these years against that nebulously-defined group of "doubters, critics, and haters."  To some extent this is understandable: he was, in fact, hated.  People did constantly doubt him, so the pressure to perform and prove them wrong was certainly present.  But I think somewhere along the line this quest to silence critics became his mission.  And the more critics pushed, the more he angrily and dismissively pushed back.  That just fanned the flames even further.

I think Tim wanted the love of the fans, but he was waiting for them to come around first before he gave love back.  In his mind, he earned his place at the throne of the heavyweights and it was the fans' fault for not recognizing that.  To be honest, I think it bothered him that they've never really come around.  He says it hasn't, but how can it not?

3.  Tim just wasn't a good "champ".  I'm not referring to his fighting prowess, which in my view, is still top-level.  I'm referring to his status as the heavyweight champ: the MMA icon, torch bearer, role model, and celebrity.  On all but the second account he was simply not interested in playing the role (and did only a modest amount of work on the second).  Sylvia didn't have the big muscular physique, he strangely wore his belt everywhere he went, he gave fans the fingers when they booed, and he always seemed to make comments that were more irritating than he had to.  For example, when he said he "out jiu-jitsu'd" Jeff Monson and almost submitted him, you have to wonder who he's trying to convince: himself or the fans?

None of that ever personally bothered me and I try to not use a fighter's personal habits as a criteria to judge them, but Sylvia fails to recognize just how important those traits are.  When a politician runs for office, the number one thing voters look for is the candidates personal traits and habits.  How a candidate's voted on important pieces of legislation or where they stand on issues comes FAR after whether they're a runner, enjoy golfing, seem friendly, and like the color red.  That may be sad, but its the truth.  If you want to be a popular fighter or champion you don't have to cater to these base-level criteria all the time, but you should recognize they're there and that FANS do pay attention to them.

So how does Sylvia come back?

He's got to stop isolating himself.  He's cornered himself into this world of close, loyal friends and the Miletich camp.  I understand this temptation, but a popular fighter is often an accessible fighter.  It's a fighter who's not only exciting in the cage, but talks to fans, loves to perform for the crowd, and embodies traits that others relate to.  I don't know that fans can relate to Tim Sylvia as he presents himself, but it need not be that way.  If he humbly stated before fights he's working his ass off because he knows its going to be his ticket to beat his athletic opponent, I think people would be more inclined to honor Sylvia's hard work and sacrifice.  They'd like his recognition of his limited athletic skills, but cheer his efforts to overcome what limits nature may have imposed.  He'd almost be the dominant underdog, if you will: a guy who is so good he can beat just about any of the top 10 fighters in his weightclass, but is only able to do that because he overcame serious adversity.

The "material" is there for Sylvia to get the appreciation and respect he deserves. He can turn his weird quirks and at times awkward movement into an asset. He has the skills and story to make it happen if he so desires.  I think he needs to figure out a better way to speak about himself, other Miletich fighters, and his opponents.  He also needs to let the critics be critics, whether he wins or losses.  And he needs to reach out to fans both in practice and attitude.  Fans simply want nothing to do with him at the moment.  Part of his mission as he makes his comeback needs to be letting fans know he's part of them, just like Rich Franklin did in Ohio when he said he couldn't lose there and GSP did in Vegas by telling the fans he's Canadian, but always feels at home in their city.  If a foreigner with broken English can be a MMA icon, so can Tim Sylvia.

Lastly, Tim needs to do what he does best and that's win fights.  I have no doubt that Tim's next opponent is in for a world of hurt.  When Tim's performing up to his talent level, his opponents are asleep on the floor.  Newbie fans want to see the KO at MMA fights and Sylvia can deliver on that expectation, yet another reason why Sylvia could turn his popularity around.

So Tim, take time off.  Go on vacation.  Relax a little.  Gain a little weight.  I think at the end of the day Randy actually did you a favor.  You can not only get your title back - thereby making 2 fighters to win the heavyweight belt 3 times - but you can also remold your image.  You can be a champ and get the respect from experts and casual fans alike.  And when you come back, be positive, be ready, be aggressive, be humble, be an inspiration, be accessible, and win.  Leave the negative pressure and the "me against the world" attitude behind.