Before UFC Vegas 12, the last time Anderson Silva fought in the month of October, he had cleaned out the middleweight division so thoroughly, the UFC upped the stakes and gave him a fight at light heavyweight. Sure, he had already fought at light heavyweight and sure it was against Stephan Bonnar, which takes some sparkle away from Silva’s division-jumping shine, but a matchup need not be special to inspire special moments.
Let’s talk about that fight. Before writing this, I had zero interest in re-watching it. After all, there are so many better moments to relive. How about Silva’s bullet-time knockout of Forrest Griffin? Or the first time Rich Franklin’s nose would disappear into an aether gust of shin and bone? Which is really the same as the second time when you think about it. Even in fights he won ‘eccentrically,’ there was plenty to enjoy.
Was the Dan Henderson fight the first time we realized just how ridiculous Silva’s chin was? Was his win over Nate Marquardt the first time we realized his wrestling had game? Eating an h-bomb, and performing a wrestling switch aren’t devastatingly impressive on their own, but it was the way Silva turned those moments into doomsdays.
Hell even some of his late career losses seemed more interested in revisiting. But it was against Bonnar that we got everything at once. He showed his grappling chops, with a slick trip takedown to precede the knee that broke Bonnar in half. He showed the brashness, trying to land a killshot while defending a single. The eccentricity: throwing very committed shoulder strikes long before Conor McGregor made it look inexplicably dangerous. And yes, the cheeky recklessness of letting Bonnar land bombs on him against the cage, however deftly they were rolled with. It was all there.
Switching gears — in the past, I’ve had a private disdain for MMA fans who speak of legacy. Legacy is Marvin Hagler spending seven years dominating middleweight. Legacy is Wayne Gretzky producing over a point-per-game for 12 years straight, and winning four Stanley Cups along the way. Legacy is Roger Federer being ranked top 10 for more than a decade with the accommodating titles to match.
Let’s compare these decade-long stretches to MMA. By comparison, Fedor dominated for six years without facing the other half of the world’s heavyweight talent. At least half of his “historic” run was created with mismatches you wouldn’t even get in a shockfight. Jon Jones couldn’t go four years without becoming a stereotype of a former 80’s child star. Randy Couture lost thirty-six percent of his professional fights. Chuck Liddell’s “reign” lasted two years, and when the music stopped, boy did it stop; he went 1-6 to close out his career. Khabib Nurmagomedov: I’m supposed to be impressed by two years of dominance after winning a vacant title fight against the last minute replacement? Wanderlei Silva’s undefeated three-year title run was littered with fighters who had more experience being dipped in piranhas than fighting in the ring.
‘Well what the hell would impress you, Dave?’
Again, context. Looking at other sports greats, there’s something to be said for continuity. In that context, MMA looks like the timbit of the bunch. Of course, like anyone else, you form principles in your head that you apply to others and not the one in the mirror. How much of this did I apply to my own thinking? How far along the context rabbit hole do we want to go? Let’s step away from MMA again. Gretzky? Still obviously great. But he played during a hockey era in which teams averaged eight goals per game. Last season, teams averaged just three. Which is why, when adjusted for era, someone like Alex Ovechkin tightens the competition for ‘best goal scorer.’
There’s a part of me that wants to reach for some academic definition of what constitutes a legacy. But maybe that part of me is just the dorm room pot smoker — unwilling or unable to realize that the haze in front of the objective truth is the truth. Maybe it’s time to accept that MMA legacies are as strange as MMA itself. This sport isn’t boxing. We don’t go all the way back to 1891, and cross the globe in London clubs. This sport isn’t the NHL. We don’t have a Montreal hotel and 102 years to figure it out. The UFC is only four years older than Silva’s been competing professionally. And it began with bare knuckles, and optional boxing gloves.
It was tough watching Silva lose to Uriah Hall. But only because of the end result. There were some Vintage Silva moments. From the good — his multipurpose centerline attack — to the bad — the stubborn commitment to a questionable strategy, and estranged aloofness. And there were some vintage Everything About MMA is Awful moments. As much as I respect Hall as a human, that wasn’t the proverbial torch being passed. That was the torch accidentally bursting into flames, and someone just happened to have a fire extinguisher nearby.
To that end, MMA legacies are maybe just the best stories. Quality, quantity, twists, turns, drama, comedy, the whole three-act structure: Silva’s offered it all. We’ve had the benefit of watching his story unfold, page by page. Maybe I’m doing it again. Maybe I’m trying to make the case for Silva’s legacy as the ‘greatest.’ I’m not. But maybe I am. Maybe recency bias has a hold of me. But who else has a legacy so complete? Who else has ever offered something so delightful yet strange, so violent yet tranquil, for so long?