In a recent interview, Tim Sylvia spoke about his relationship, or lack thereof, with the UFC, expressing dismay and frustration that he's been so long kept on the outside looking in. Sylvia clearly believes that the exile Dana White eagerly imposed when Sylvia left the promotion in 2008 has been unjust. And I can't help but agree. In the last few years we've seen several fighters from the mid-aughts brought back, from Paul Buentello in late 2009 to, most recently, Joe Riggs. Meanwhile, Sylvia, despite a 7-1 mark from 2009-2012, has been over and over again given the brush-off. I think the former two-time heavyweight champion deserves better.
In 2002, an undefeated Tim Sylvia made his debut in the UFC. Getting there wasn't easy. As documented in Chuck Mindenhall's "The Eagles of Bettendorf," few people believed he would ever make it as a fighter. But Sylvia's friend Tony Fryklund had insisted that if he were to train at Miletich, Sylvia must be welcomed to train as well. And Sylvia made good on that bit of faith. He put together a 13-0-0 record, including a tear through the one-night, eight-man Superbrawl tournament, where he finished all of his opponents (including Jason Lambert and Mike Whitehead) by TKO. His UFC debut against Wesley Correira was equally emphatic, and by February 2003 he would be fighting Ricco Rodriguez for the heavyweight title.
Beginning with his thrashing of Rodriguez, Sylvia would stay at or near the top of the division for over five years, putting together a promotional record of 9-4-0. He would challenge for the title five times, capture it twice, and defend it a total of three. At the time, he was, along with nemesis Andrei Arlovski, one of the few elite heavyweights that the UFC could lay claim to. And if fan accounts and photos are any indication, he loved all of it and was a happy and grateful champion. And yet, by the end of his UFC tenure, the fans had begun to turn against Sylvia, and the sentiment was spreading upwards, with media and, ultimately, the UFC itself writing him off. So what went wrong? Why the turn?
Let's be honest. Sylvia could come off as a bit of a goofball. Photos of him wearing his championship belt everywhere he went could be as off-putting as they were endearing, if not more so. He wasn't great in interviews, either, and as far as physiques go, he made one of the more underwhelming first impressions, something he himself seemed painfully aware of. And then there was that pretty embarrassing turn on Blind Date (a reality show that my grandfather happens to love, and which I recommend to you, provided you have the sense of humor of an 80-year old former navy man with a passion for sensible haircuts, non-elastic socks, and yelling at the stock ticker, but I digress). All in all, Sylva wasn't the most camera-ready of fighters. More than this, though, I believe fans' change of heart had to do with who Sylvia found himself acting as foil to.
He may not have been the most charismatic of champions, but Sylvia certainly wasn't a bad guy. The men he fought, however, wound up being some of the most beloved of the day. First there's Sylvia's opposite number, Arlovski: a pretty boy in both looks and fight style who possessed a certain allure that Sylvia lacked. Already then, by comparison, Sylvia was beginning to be cast in an unfavorable light. His 2007 bout with Randy Couture, one of MMA's darlings at the time, would compound the problem-prior to his meeting with Couture, Sylvia had turned in a pair of skillful but tepid title defenses that had already strained his relationship with fans, and being tasked with beating up one of the sport's best-liked underdogs wouldn't win any of them back. And then, finally, the fight with Nogueira, who, like Couture, seemed like one of the venerable elder statesmen of the sport (even if he was at the time only 31 years old). Sylvia was, by default, cast as a heel. That he was never comfortable with or able to embrace that role made for some significant dissonance. Fans couldn't rally around him as a hero, but he was a little too naïve and soft-spoken to play up the villain, and so, unable to carry either of those projections, Sylvia, knock-kneed and derided by his peers, became like a hapless Quasimodo.
Sylvia exited the UFC off the loss to Nogueira and, despite the fact that he'd turned in one of his best, most exciting performances in a long while, no one seemed to mind seeing him go. There was little shame in his follow-up loss to Fedor Emelianenko, but the knockout at the hands of aged boxer Ray Mercer came off quite a bit worse. In the fans' eyes, Sylvia turned into a joke (never mind that if any other heavyweight decided to get into a boxing match with Mercer, they would've likely suffered the same fate). As often happens, fan commentary around the internet turned cruel. Sylvia became a sort of lightning rod of disdain and ridicule that far exceeded anything he himself had earned. Sylvia's great desire for fan affection and his desperate attempts to be accepted (the tweets, the workout videos, and so on) only seemed to make things worse. The heap of derision turned toxic. Despite having won three straight (including a TKO of Paul Buentello, whom the UFC had seen fit to bring back for a final tour in the Octagon), Sylvia was not included in Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament, while Arlovski, who had just been knocked out twice in a row, was. Even after four straight wins, whenever Sylvia was brought up in interviews with Dana White, the UFC president laughed off the idea of Sylvia ever appearing in the organization again. "Don't worry," were the words he used. As if he were doing us a favor. As if no matter what Sylvia did, there was no place for him in the UFC.
I don't know what it feels like to have the world turn its back on you. I'm certainly not eager to find out. And I'm not going to sit back in my chair and insist that another man persevere and triumph under such conditions. Would it be inspiring if he could? Of course. We like that story. For someone to overcome the world's apathy and attain greatness by sheer will and sweep of vision-that's hero territory. But the truth also is that there are many types of people in this world, and they are injured and wounded and hobbled in many different ways, and they're powered by many different things.
Sylvia responds well to the faith others put in him. You can see it throughout his career. What faith Tony Fryklund put into Sylvia when he brought him along to Miletich Fighting Systems, Sylvia built on. And what faith Pat Miletich put into him, he built on. And he rose to the occasion when it was time to step into the UFC, and to challenge for the heavyweight title, and to eventually serve as one of the pillars of that teetering division. With all this in mind, I think Sylvia deserves another chance. Or a sign that there's one waiting for him.
I'm not calling for a free pass back into the UFC. Tim Sylvia needs to get real. His talk about a UFC superheavyweight division is more wishful thinking than anything else, and the fact of the matter is he's lost three fights in a row. He has to put together two or three solid wins, and they must come within the 265-pound heavyweight limit. And he may be the type who can do this, and more, if only the door weren't so firmly shut against him. During a time when the UFC is putting on more and more shows, surely Sylvia is as worthy as any undercard heavyweight of that small promise.