"Boxers get told to imagine punching a spot behind your opponent’s head, to reach in so far so they can extend the destruction to the back of the head. Writers do the same thing—they try to imagine a spot behind your brain and punch you there." - Colum McCann, The Word Made Flesh
2013 has been a year for upsets. Some champions have been brutally deposed, and others held onto belts by their fingernails.
At the close of 2013, perhaps it’s fitting that it’s the oldest and the strangest champion, who lost in the worst way, who has a chance to stem the bleeding. The chance to rebuild just a little confidence in immortality, try to defy insistent time and reality one more time.
I went to the Trocadero with my father as a child. It's a multi-story entertainment complex in the centre of London, full of tacky crap designed to appeal to kids and tourists- sweet shops and arcades and photo booths; a store of Union Jack-themed tat and a bungee harness like a gigantic baby-bouncer in the center of the building, running up through the floors. The air was always full of electronic chatter, the screams of kids on the bungee, and the glutinous stink of popcorn and sugar.
On one arcade machine, the target was the centrepiece, a red boxing pad on a pivot arm with a mitt chained to the side. Hit the pad as hard as you could, and your score would show up on the screen over a pixellated monster which deformed correspondingly with the strength of the blow. You got three attempts for a quid, and we watched as a group of young men all tried their hand, laughing and taking the piss out of each other’s scores before walking off.
I asked Dad to give it a go. I’m the youngest of five, with a sizable gap between myself and my brother. Dad himself has around 7 years on my mother, and was always the eldest among my friend’s parents.
He slipped a pound into the machine, put on the glove, and threw a punch into the pad. He immediately recoiled on impact, gasped and grabbed his fist, suddenly and unbelievably frail.
I looked at the expression of pain on his face, and we both quickly and wordlessly realized that he shouldn’t try hitting it again. We left the other two attempts on the machine for someone else to try as Dad massaged his knuckles.
These moments grab at you a bit, right? The cracks in ideals of strength and invincibility, and the brief flare in recognition of something inexorable. Age and decline are not abstract concepts, but concrete certainties that will fall on everyone you know. It’s a horrible, vertiginous thing to contemplate.
Twitter was a few months old when Anderson Silva defeated Rich Franklin in October 2006. The iPhone was under development as "Project Purple". The housing bubble which would be the herald of the great financial crash of 2007 was reaching its apex, Cain Velasquez was a week removed from his first pro MMA fight and Chris Weidman, Chad Mendes, Anthony Pettis and Johny Hendricks had yet to ever step into a cage or ring as professionals.
Silva’s first UFC wins over Franklin and Leben were as close to perfect as MMA victories can be, one-sided dismissals of skilled and tough fighters. They swung helplessly at the target in front of them, and were disposed of with an almost casual precision, without a gram of wasted effort.
Silva simply looked immortal. I hadn’t watched a ton of fights at that point- I had seen individual battles from Pride, some boxing bouts, but Silva was something else. He was one of the first fighters I was a real fan of.
It was a bit like my first taste of Greek dessert wine as a child- strong and sweet and fruity, it tasted somehow exactly how I expected wine would. Standard wines, by comparison, were traitorously bitter. Similarly, to watch Silva was to see a man pare down the chaos of fighting into lines of ink-sketch simplicity, away from the confusing grind of sweaty grappling and ugly strikes, and reconstructing it into a way that I simply believed combat should look.
"It’s hard to explain how to fight him, because if you go forward, he’s behind you. You try to hit him, and he’s not there. It’s very, very weird." - Patrick Cote
Left-handers are notoriously tricky to go against in many sports, and fighting in particular. It’s been hypothesized that left-handedness is an overall genetic disadvantage, but persists for its benefits in head to head competition. It actually increases in frequency in the populations of more violent societies- combat trains you to be ready for the norm, and it’s difficult to take on the mirror image.
So, it has negative connotations. The latin for left is sinister. Going back further, it’s been suggested that sinister itself comes from the sanskrit saniyan, for useful or advantageous.
Being left-handed is a benefit that has helped to build careers. In the early days of the Pride fighting championships, some of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic’s early opponents might have had some experience against southpaw boxers, but most were simply not ready for a left-handed kickboxer. They had little experience of a left high kick, until they were shepherded into it by his left straight and laid out cold.
Anderson Silva is a stranger beast still, and perhaps MMA’s most deceptive fighter. The craftiness starts at the root of his style- he is (or at least appears to be) a converted southpaw. That is, he is naturally right handed, yet fights as though he is a leftie, so that he jabs with his dominant fist. It’s a rarity in boxing, and is scarce as rubies in mixed martial arts.
In the cage he keeps his hands low. He shares with his compatriot Machida what the Japanese call hara, the center of being and balance which is carried low down in the belly. A combat stance that is almost a slouch, bones hanging loose from his shoulders, watching his opponent through lidded and sleepy eyes. When they attack, he doesn’t explode into motion, but slides back with easy economy as they rush forward onto the ductile piston of that right hand.
He leans and rolls with punches instead of blocking them. Those that landed never seemed to hurt him, the flow of the strikes refracted in small and deceptive ways off the center of impact. He’s blessed with skin that just doesn’t bruise or mark up.
The nonchalance; the unearthly accuracy; the ability to shrug off punches without effect; hurting or dropping opponents with a jab...! There’s simply been no-one who made high level fighters look as lost and impotent in the UFC’s cage as its longest reigning Middleweight champion.
Traditional MMA tools are often crude: Dan Henderson’s signature technique as the "H-bomb" overhand. Anderson Silva’s best weapon? Something subtler, breaking fighters invisibly from the inside in the way that a neutron bomb is made to kill the crew of a tank without harming its exterior. In Silva-Griffin, Silva-Sonnen II, Silva-Okami II, there were those moments you could just about catch, the spasmodic, seismic tremble when the armoured confidence of the pro cracked from beneath.
Behind the misdirection, there has to be an engine of discipline. As much as the image of the carefree artist is seductive, you just don’t get to be champion of the world for as long as Silva did without a serious work ethic and focused risk-mitigation measures.
He refused to engage on anything but his own terms. Taken down by wrestlers, he often held on and waited for the referee to stand them up. He gave away the first round against Dan Henderson, confident that he had at least four more chances to finish the fight.
Against jiu-jitsu grapplers who couldn’t take him down unless he engaged, he got ahead on points and then cruised and baited his way to decision wins.
None of this hurt him, in a way. It built up the idea that he was only vulnerable to wrestlers, reinforced by comparison the idea that he was unbeatable on the feet.
The man who almost defeated him was one with a marrow-deep understanding of the value of psychology and the weight of appearance. When Chael Sonnen fought Silva, at the summation of his first long trash-talk campaign, he blasted through everything the champion threw at him in a desperate, ferocious attempt to fling him to the mat. The dozens of short strikes which Sonnen threw on the ground were physically undamaging, but they served their purpose: Silva couldn’t rely on the ref to intervene, or give away every frame to top control, so he fought to stand up, and opened himself to the stronger punches that bounced his head off the canvas.
MMA’s foremost manipulator dragged the great illusionist down deep into the suffocating loam of the late fight. He was banking that beneath the image of the smiling, unbeatable champ, there was a quitter. He was wrong.
After he lost, Sonnen came back bigger and stronger, with increasingly offensive invective and a more cunning top game, and yet the result still felt like a foregone conclusion, and its hard to argue that Sonnen wasn’t the one who broke in the end.
"The effect was shocking, the bullet-catching magician dying by gunshot." - Ryan Perry, Portrait of an Artist at UFC 162
Silva lost me a little in the Maia and Griffin contests. As in film, food, music or wine, your tastes in violence warp over time, and I found that I come down on the boring side of the great schism in fandom- I traditionally prefer the hard worker over the gifted artist. Frazier over Ali, Velasquez over Dos Santos.
The loss to Weidman hurt his biggest fans badly. A decision-heavy top control fight would have been painful, even a loss from a submission or at the last a ground and pound technical knockout. Instead he was dropped like deadwood.
"It’s just a sport", but it’s difficult to quantify how invested someone is in their heroes. It can be heartbreaking to watch a football or rugby team fail, but even then, there’s generally some warning of what is to come. Something like the Silva KO, by contrast, has an incomparable jarring finality- one instant he’s The Champ! in control, deft and effortless. The next drifting flat to earth with rolling eyes and nailed to the canvas with the follow-up.
When someone in a more traditional sport is defeated, he or she normally looks upset, and if you’re empathic or invested, you can feel their pain.
Silva, and Cro Cop and Pacquiao and Petrosyan and countless other men lost in the ring or the cage, and they looked, briefly, dead. The trauma of watching your idols thumping into the floor like shot quail is tough to take from something which you ostensibly started watching as entertainment, so a number of fans were driven away from MMA as a whole. If you’re reading this, you’re probably kind of hardcore. Look on the forums or the websites, and you’ll certainly see some names which just up and disappeared after the first Weidman bout.
The great knockout unsurprisingly sent writers to their keyboards. One of the most interesting thematic consistencies was the one of certainty. There was little to no middle ground- Silva lost because he wanted to, or because he trolled too hard, or because he was disappointed with the state of MMA. On the flip side, others pointed out the technical errors that had always been present in his game.
Yet, if he’s been elusive in the cage, he’s been even more difficult to nail down outside it, to really land a solid hit on McCann’s spot behind the brain. Infamous for weird proclamations- "BJ Penn is the best"; talk of fighting the faded Roy Jones Jr. in boxing; his constant, year-on-year claims of retirement. He even said, before fighting Weidman, that losing to the younger fighter would be the perfect ending.
Some sift his words like he’s MMA’s Delphic Oracle, while others dismiss near everything he’s come out with as nothing more than a wind-up. His erstwhile nemesis Sonnen, by contrast, is a man with a carefully constructed public persona, complete with visible seams and stitching- you can get an idea of the "real" Sonnen and the one he shows to the public, and the approximate line between the two, but attempts to accurately summarize the true Anderson Silva are like punching at a ghost.
Is he the man who smugly helped Forrest Griffin back to his feet before he dispatched him, the careful, respectful mixed martial artist who bows to the crowd, the cocky champion who got in Vitor Belfort’s face, the fiercely loyal student who cried when his mentor Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira picked up the knockout over Brendan Schaub? He is of course all of these things, but it’s difficult to put them together.
For me at least, there’s a potential clue in the title of his documentary, "Like Water"; in the Taoist tenet of wu wei, or "doing while non-doing".
"Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of "going with the flow" that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which - without even trying - we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise."
When we’re asked our opinion on who is the greatest MMA fighter, we weigh up their accomplishments and failures. Perhaps Anderson just remembers BJ Penn doing awesome things, and then says "BJ." Maybe Silva understood instinctively that Vitor has never been the most mentally robust fighter and would buckle under aggression; a raw, reactive insight that came to him in the same way that he can be engulfed in a cacophony of limbs bouncing off the cage and strike straight into the chaos to hit his opponent precisely…here. No internal monologue, no debate.
"In wu wei, the mind is silenced and the work is allowed to express itself."
That being said, it's easy to get caught up too much in elegant and airy ideals about martial arts and to subconsciously draw associations between the the kung-fu films you grew up with and the man in the cage.
His toying with opponents at times has veered into something which was if not outright sadism, then at least caprice. At one point in his early career, he brought a shotgun to the gym after an argument with his trainer Rafael Cordeiro. The darker side of "doing without doing" can be someone who is perhaps a little too in touch with their own sense of whimsy, listening to that inner child that wants to pull the wings off flies as much as the one who is warm-hearted and loyal.
The idea of flow still seems a salient one. The redirection of the stream of the expected kept his opponents from landing hard hits on him, and his easy, amused accedence to the eddies and swells of his own quirks prevented prying external eyes from ever grasping who he "really" is.
Even when he was finished by Weidman, he had achieved what he wanted to by getting the New Yorker to stand with him, and frustrated the challenger into swinging repeatedly at his head. The key blow in the sequence was the weak backfist. Ingrained defensive instincts caused him to sway backwards out of the way, and destroyed his posture in the process.
As Weidman’s last left hook arced through the air, there could only be one end. The flow of the fight could only go in one direction,and only end with Silva on his back, looking sightlessly up at the blazing lights of the MGM Grand high above him.
Some of the aura of invincibility is still there. He’s a betting line favourite against the Middleweight champion. It’s fundamentally tricky to roll that concept of "Anderson Silva the challenger" around.
I’ll always remember Greg Savage on Sherdog radio’s Cheap Seats after the fight. Jordan Breen asked him "What will Silva do, if he wins a rematch?" Savage laughed and said "He’ll go on and win a whole bunch more fights, go on another seven-year streak!"
Difficult to imagine another fighter who could inspire that kind of optimism from jaded MMA journalists.
I have my own boring bias, and so I like to think of him as more vulnerable. He was never the most well-rounded fighter, with clearly presented flaws. In a way, he represents something more impressive than cold invincibility. He built a legend, using strange and exotic tools. He fought for the greater part of a decade as though he never cared whether he won a lackadaisical decision or knockout of the year.
For UFC 168, here’s my attempt to nail down the outcome with some certainty.
Silva is going to lose. Behind the mystique and the magic, these elements remain cold and unvarnished:
He’s... old. He’s 38, and been fighting as a professional for over 16 years.
"No man. I’m tired bro. No rematch. I’m tired. I win, I win, I win. Go back for all the fights. Please."
According to Machida, he was pressured into taking the fight for a fat payday.
For all the clowning in the first contest, he lost that fight at almost every turn. Weidman landed better punches on the feet, took him down, hit Silva with solid ground and pound, showed no fear in going for the submission.
None of this seems to be part of a winner’s narrative.
The world at large continues to align slowly into a monoculture where you can order a Big Mac or indulge in the throat-stinging processed tang of a Subway sandwich wherever you might find yourself. Chris Weidman himself is undoubtedly a phenomenal and even thrilling fighter, yet it’s tough to shake the nagging idea that as far as MMA goes, he is in some small way that monoculture made flesh. A strong wrestler, with good submissions, excellent ground and pound, and sound fundamental stand-up.
In another idle etymological foray, I found that the name "Silva" means jungle or woodland, and "Weidman" comes from a German term meaning "huntsman". It’s tempting to attempt to weave these together, to look at the passing of the middleweight torch as being symbolic of a closing down of a greater wildness, a taming and mechanisation of nature, but... this is nostalgic crap, isn’t it?
This kind of portentous nonsense was doubtless said when Gracie jiu-jitsu was defeated and mixed martial arts seemed to be becoming the domain of wrasslers, or when everyman champions like Pulver or Griffin lost their belts and ushered in the era of the athlete. We look fondly on the past, and are bad at seeing the possibilities of the future.
The reality is that whatever era Silva was born into and fought in, he would have been unique. Whether it was in the past or the future, it would always be sad to see him go. To borrow from Hunter S Thompson:
"One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die."
So, Weidman will win, and Silva will probably retire. We won’t ever see a strange, unknowable creature quite like the spider as champion again.
Of course, I could be wrong, about all this. Like so many others I’ve swung out in confidence at this particular target only to flail at air and look like an idiot.