At this point it's a bit hard to remember that Tim Sylvia was twice heavyweight champion of the UFC. In part, that's because he lived under the shadow of Fedor; champion at a time when no discerning person would possibly crown him "Champion of the World." But still, he was "the man" for longer than Andrei Arlovski or Junior Dos Santos or Josh Barnett or Frank Mir. Tim Sylvia was a big part of the legacy of the UFC heavyweight title. And then he was gone.
Pat Miletich has said of Tim Syliva, that he was "the poster child of over-achievement". A man who started fighting professionally when he could barely skip rope. Sylvia recently described his introduction to Miletich and the Miletich Fighting Systems Gym for Fightland.
I had met Pat [while attending] a UFC, and he invited me to come train. I was kind of at a crossroads. Being from Maine, I was bigger and better than everybody I trained with, and it was just hard to find fights and it was hard to get training partners and stuff like that. I met Pat and I went out for two weeks in '99 and absolutely loved it-it was one of the toughest two weeks I'd ever had in my life. Everyone was asking me when I was gonna move back, and it's like, I'm not one of those guys that's gonna move here without permission. Pat pulled me aside and said, "Hey, there's definitely a spot on the team for you. If you want to come out here and live and pursue your dream, you're more than welcome to." That's all I needed to hear.
And from that beginning, Tim Sylvia went from a 3-0 heavyweight to world champion in just a year and a half, beating Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 41. And just as quickly, he lost it all to a failed drug test for the steroid Stanozolol. Sylvia fought for the UFC title and the interim title shortly after his suspension, losing both bids, to Frank Mir and Andrei Arlovski, respectively. But a career derailing injury to Mir and a three fight win streak, put him back in title contention against Arlovski in 2006, and gave Sylvia his second reign as UFC champion. Sylvia would be champion for nearly a year, defending his belt successfully twice, before Randy Couture made another of his many journeys to championship status. Sylvia would get one more chance at UFC gold, in an interim title fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, before being forever banished to the wastelands of regional MMA... mostly.
The truth is, that armed with the knowledge that the UFC had no intention of re-signing him when his contract ran out, Sylvia was able to negotiate his release to sign with Adrenaline MMA on an open contract, and net a huge fight under the Afflicition banner against the aforementioned long shadow caster, Fedor Emelianenko. Sylvia would be jumping from Zuffa, not onto the regional depths as most fighters were forced to, but into the next big up and coming promotion. Tim Sylvia would earn a reported $800,000 to lose to Emelianenko in just 36 seconds. His next fight would be the most humiliating loss of his career.
Tim Sylvia was booked in the main event of Adrenaline MMA III, in a boxing match, of all things. His opponent would be former Olympic gold medalist and one-time WBO heavyweight champion Ray Mercer. Even writing that out, it's easy to see why no one would sanction the fight, not in a boxing ring. And nobody did. So, just three days out from the show (already moved from Atlantic City to Brimingham, Alabama), the bout became an MMA fight, a fight that Syliva should have had all the tools in the world to win. He was knocked out in just 9 seconds. Here's what Sylvia said of the fight back in 2010, speaking to FightOpinion:
"That was my stupidity. It was the dumbest thing that I could have ever done. As soon as it was switched to Mixed Martial Arts I should have went in there and took him down and ended the fight in 30 seconds but I listened to his mouth run and I thought I could stand with a heavyweight boxer with four ounce gloves. Obviously, it didn't work out the way I wanted it to but I did fight in September and that went well against a pretty decent up-and-comer (Jason Riley)."
And this is where the real wasteland wandering began. Opportunities for fights in Dream and Strikeforce almost surfaced, but were punched down by injuries and a begrudging former promoter. Sylvia did his part, he went 7-1. Not against the world's greatest competition, but regional heavyweight MMA is, by definition, not the greatest competition. Finally, late in 2012, he got a chance for another big fight on a big stage, facing off against Andrei Arlovski in ONE FC. After an incredibly scrappy back and forth fight, Arlovski dropped Sylvia on a series of right hands and followed it up with two fight ending soccer kicks, KOing Sylvia late in the second. Due to ONE FC's terrible soccer kick rule structure (which would be changed shortly after this bout) the fight was eventually ruled a no contest. Either way, it was the beginning of the end.
Two years and three losses later, Sylvia attempted to get cleared for a super heavyweight bout against Juliano Coutinho under a promotion titled "Reality Fighting." It was his third attempt to get a fight booked in the last year. Plagued by injury woes, Sylvia weighed in for the bout at 371 lbs. Following an MRI and a bevvy of other pre-fight screenings, the Mohegan Athletic Comission refused to issue Sylvia a license to fight. Sylvia announced his retirement shortly afterward.
For a fighter who reached the pinnacle of MMA achievement just over two years into his pro-career, Sylvia's journey in MMA has been a strange, unexpected, and somewhat cautionary one. He was a fighter who made more money and had more success than the majority of his contemporaries, but who, nonetheless, became something of a forgotten man in his own time. Hopefully, whatever direction his post MMA career goes, it brings him consistent success and happiness, above and beyond whatever he may have gotten out of MMA.