In the eyes of many, the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. A pioneer. An entertainer. But perhaps above all, a maverick.
The Spider, Anderson Silva, one of the most fascinating, devastating fighters in the sport’s history.
He came to the UFC in 2006 as Cage Rage middleweight champion, with a record of 16-4 (including one DQ), and faced powerful brawler Chris Leben in a title eliminator.
If you weren’t familiar with Leben’s work and you looked at Silva’s record, you might be tempted to write him off as no more than one of Silva’s many victims, but at the time he was well regarded in the middleweight division. A tough fighter, Leben came through the first series of The Ultimate Fighter, which sparked a boom in the UFC and MMA.
While he was the favourite, this wasn’t supposed to be an easy fight for Silva.
But it was.
Silva caught the onrushing, off-balance Leben with an early right hand. A head kick followed by a pin-point right-left-right combo had Leben grounded and ready to be finished, but Silva allowed him back to his feet. Two more rights and a knee to the head ended the bout inside the first minute.
Silva had arrived.
Up next was the title shot against Rich Franklin, the holder of the UFC’s longest winning streak at the time, with eight.
Silva was nearly a 2/1 underdog, but Franklin, who’d seen Silva earlier in his career, knew exactly what he was up against.
Silva, with his Muay Thai background, engaged in an early clinch, relentlessly launching knees into Franklin’s body. The then-champion later said the strikes started shutting things down in his body almost immediately. Soon after, he lowered his arms to defend the knees and said his arms went numb too. That left his head exposed, which Silva took full advantage of. A knee to the head allowed Silva to start teeing off on his opponent, and seconds later, the belt was his.
Wins against Travis Lutter and Nate Marquardt set up a rematch with Franklin, which unfolded all too similarly to their first fight.
A more confident – cocky? We’ll get to that later – Silva lowered his hands when he detected Franklin reaching with his punching. He was bobbing and weaving with his hands offering no protection whatsoever. Like many who tried throughout the years, ‘Ace’ didn’t lay a glove on Silva. And while the challenger was saved by the bell at the end of the first, Silva laid on the knees again in the second, securing another knockout.
Next up was Dan Henderson off the back of his failed light heavyweight title bid against Quinton Jackson.
Hendo actually took the first round and frustrated Anderson with strong grappling, but a brief striking exchange in the second where Silva got the better of the challenger saw Henderson scrambling to stay in the fight. A patient Silva wrapped Henderson up, eventually locking in the rear naked choke to secure just a second submission win in his career.
Patrick Cote suffered a shocking knee injury in Silva’s next defence, and the less said about the Thales Leites fight, the better. Leites – 14-1 at the time – looked like he’d been plucked out of the crowd, showing almost zero interest in fighting Silva. He spent 25 minutes throwing himself to the ground in a series of ostensible takedown attempts – he even tried a slide tackle in the third round.
Silva then stepped up to light-heavyweight for the second time in the UFC to fight Forrest Griffin. Although not a title fight, this may have been peak Anderson Silva.
There’s a YouTube video with highlights from the fight titled ‘Silva Enters The Matrix’, which sums his performance up perfectly. Silva read everything Griffin threw at him, like he’d slowed time down. It was a defensive masterclass. With Griffin threatening to get involved in a tear-up, it spurred Silva on, banging his chest, urging Griffin to throw down. Griffin shrugged, and held his hands up as if to say ‘what more do you want from me?’ and even said “I-“ cutting himself off. You wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to insist: “I’m trying!”
Silva wanted a challenge that Griffin couldn’t offer, soon realising his opponent couldn’t catch him. Hands down, his upper-body movement was out of this world. Griffin missed with three punches, and Silva put him down with one straight left.
To give Griffin his credit, he hung on. As he got back to his feet, Silva offered a hand of respect. The knockout which followed, showed near-disrespect. Griffin leaned forward with two punches, Silva dodged both, and almost in disdain for his opponent, flicked out a right hand which rendered Griffin unconscious. It wasn’t a devastating knockout; it was the perfect example of timing and precision. It was how you imagine a fight would play out between a professional and someone who’d never thrown a punch before, but Griffin was the first winner of The Ultimate Fighter, who beat Rampage Jackson a year earlier to claim the UFC light heavyweight title. This was a quality fighter, and Silva, who’d moved up from his natural middleweight, dispatched with him as if he was a novice.
Unfortunately, it was followed by probably Silva’s most controversial fight. Back to middleweight to defend his title, the gulf in class between Silva and fellow Brazilian Demian Maia became apparent very quickly.
Dropped with a flying knee in the first, Maia was allowed back to his feet. Silva must have felt at this point, especially after the fights with Henderson, Cote, Leites and Griffin, that nobody could beat him. He was too quick, too precise, too good. Especially for someone like Maia who, while a world class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, was nowhere near an elite-level striker.
Silva became agitated with Maia’s insistence on taking the fight to the ground, banging on the mat at one point, imploring his compatriot forward. Maia was having none of it. Through two rounds, Maia had landed precisely one strike. Silva opted for a change of tack. He disengaged with Maia, and let the challenger come forward.
In Silva’s second win over Rich Franklin, he attempted 7.8 significant strikes per minute. For the final three rounds against Maia, that number dropped to 4.4.
In the fourth round, referee Dan Miragliotta told both men to fight. In the fifth round, tired of Silva running away from Maia, he warned the Spider, that if he continued to run away, he’d deduct a point. Silva even apologised after the fight.
After seven early stoppages and the knee injury to Cote, Silva had now won two comfortable decisions. The idea of him even being troubled in a fight, let alone losing, was becoming a fantasy.
Enter: Chael Sonnen
Silva might not have been beaten in the Octagon at this point, but Sonnen made sure he beat him outside the Octagon.
Sonnen’s MMA record was 26-10-1, and naturally Silva was a big favourite.
But Sonnen attacked Silva. He attacked the Nogueira brothers. He attacked Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Antonio Nogueira awarded Silva his black belt).
Sonnen’s pre-fight plan seemed to have paid off. Silva was going into the fight with the intention of submitting Sonnen. He even, for the first time in the UFC, walked to the Octagon wearing a Gi, almost as a signal of intent.
Incredibly, a straight left from the southpaw stance wobbled Silva, and Sonnen landed several more. Silva, with hands down, was taken down, and Sonnen was even more dominant on the ground, landing blow after blow. Silva was human. Vulnerable.
Silva came out more aggressively in the second but was again taken down, and Silva had no answer. Total strikes through two rounds read 174-34 in favour of the challenger. The third round was the same as the second. Silva came out strongly in the fourth, but a decision win was now out of reach, and again, less than a minute into the round, he was taken down and kept there.
Entering the final round, Silva needed a stoppage, and he’d not looked remotely close to getting one. Sonnen again rocked Silva with a left and down he went. Joe Rogan on commentary even asked if it was too soon to start celebrating.
Sonnen still looked strong on the ground, and it did seem like a matter of time before Silva was dethroned. He’d been completely outclassed. He’d lost on his feet, he’d lost on the ground. Sonnen was seeing out the clock.
But with two minutes left, Silva landed a right hand from the bottom, which didn’t seem too damaging, almost innocuous. But it got Sonnen’s attention. Sonnen was now covering up from the top, and in the blink of an eye, Silva had a triangle locked in.
Sadly, we weren’t given the resounding, definitive ending the fight deserved, with Sonnen tapping just once on Silva’s leg, then denying he’d submitted at all. Replays showed he had tapped, and Silva remained at the summit.
What came next cemented Silva’s legacy as an all-time MMA great.
Vitor Belfort for a ninth straight title fight win. Silva threw nothing. Was this a newly-cautious Silva, or the Silva of old simply waiting for his opponent to make the first move? A fight subject to a feeling out period which lasted the better part of three minutes was illuminated, like a bolt of lightning had struck Las Vegas. Belfort must have felt like a bolt of lightning had struck him.
With no warning whatsoever, Silva landed a front kick to Belfort’s chin. He was out. You’ve never watched a compilation video of the best MMA knockouts that hasn’t featured it. It simply hadn’t been seen in top level MMA before and it’s hardly been since. Maverick.
That it then happened when Lyoto Machida pulled it off on Randy Couture two months later is testament to Silva’s role as a pioneer within the sport. Incidentally, Machida also knocked out Belfort with the same front kick seven years after knocking out Couture.
Next up was Yushin Okami. The Japanese fighter wasn’t expected to post much of a threat, but put up a respectable challenge, before a second-round TKO.
Then came the long-awaited rematch. The only man who’d ever come vaguely close to beating Silva would get a second bite of the cherry.
Chael Sonnen landed a takedown instantly and dominated yet another round.
Could it be that Sonnen simply had Silva’s number? Was he Silva’s Kryptonite?
Sonnen was unable to land the all-important takedown in the second, and when attempting an over-zealous spinning back-fist, the Spider ducked under it, and Sonnen took himself down. Sonnen wasn’t able to regain his composure, and Silva finally closed the book on his nemesis.
Three months later, 13th October 2012, Silva travelled to Rio de Janeiro to once again step up to light heavyweight. What we didn’t know at the time is that the win over Stephan Bonnar would be Silva’s last as an elite-level fighter. We saw the return of the cocky Silva, happy to fight with his hands down and go out on his shield. If he was going to lose, he’d lose by taking risks, rather than being outclassed, as was the danger against Sonnen.
After a long time in the clinch with Silva up against the fence, the then-37-year-old freed himself, but opted not to circle away. He kept his back to the fence and let Bonnar tee off on him. Maverick.
After a minute or so of this, Silva tripped Bonnar and launched a vicious knee to his chest, rendering his opponent unable to continue.
There were calls for Silva to remain at 205lb to take on Jon Jones. The two P4P greats, to settle the argument once and for all. Sadly, the fight never happened. Jones was young and had conquered the light-heavyweight division by his mid-20s, and Silva himself admitted that reaching the pinnacle of a second weight class, certainly aged 38, was perhaps a bridge too far. “If I fight Jon Jones, I don’t think I’m going to win.” Refreshing honesty, even if it denied everyone the fight they most craved at the time.
There were also suggestions that Silva might retire after the Weidman fight, though this had been denied by him when asked a year earlier.
But he did approach the fight like a man with little to lose.
Of course, we’d seen this from Silva before, showing disdain for his opponents, coercing them into a striking match, knowing he’d have the better of them. As with the Bonnar fight, he was going to take risks.
But at 9-0, Weidman was not to be underestimated. This was set to be the toughest challenge Silva had faced since beating Dan Henderson five years earlier.
As he had against Bonnar, Silva opted to stand, back to the cage, beckoning Weidman towards him. Soon after, he stood hands-on-hips. Weidman caught Silva, who laughed it off and asked for another.
We’d seen showboating throughout Silva’s career, but this was different. He was demanding Weidman kicked his right thigh, then demanding he punched him on the chin. The second round saw him skipping around the ring, dancing. And in the blink of an eye came the end.
A nice left hand to the chin and Silva buckled his knees; more showboating. A straight left legitimately sent Silva backwards and off balance. He made sure to avoid the following right, but was glanced as Weidman swept the right back across Silva’s chin. Silva was vulnerable, and the left hand finished the job.
Silva immediately shut down talk of a rematch, leading to suggestions we’d seen the last of him. Years later he admitted he’d planned to retire after the first Weidman fight, and watching it back, that seems plausible. He’d conquered the MMA world. He’d achieved all there was for him to achieve, and if he was going to keep on fighting, he was going to do it his way, win or lose. He’d either win in the flashiest way imaginable or lose in the most careless way imaginable.
As we know, the rematch was of course made. Silva was still favourite, albeit only marginally so this time.
The rematch lives in infamy. All of Silva’s fans looking for him to avenge his loss, and prove to everyone that he was still better than the young Weidman, even as he approached 40, were cruelly denied. While the first stoppage was shocking, the second was even more so.
The nature of the two defeats forever leaves unanswered questions over Anderson Silva. If he actually tried in the first fight, rather than dropping his hands, would he have beaten Weidman? If he beats Weidman, there’s likely no rematch, no broken leg, and the rest of Silva’s career plays out differently. Even the second fight, had he not broken his leg, would he have won? So many unanswered questions.
Thirteen months later, Silva’s comeback came against cult hero Nick Diaz. Both men failed drug tests and Silva’s win became a no contest.
His life as an elite-level fighter was done, but there was still plenty of interest in his fights. Certainly across the pond as he agreed to fight nearly-man Michael Bisping.
Bisping, the trailblazer for British MMA had never quite reached contender level, twice losing title eliminator fights, to Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen, but this was a chance to put his name back in the picture.
Despite seeing some of the Silva of old – flying knees, amazing upper body movement, front kicks – Bisping did enough to win the decision.
It hasn’t been the end Silva’s career deserved, beating Derek Brunson amid losses to Daniel Cormier, Israel Adesanya, Jared Cannonier and Uriah Hall, but what a career it was.
Here’s to Anderson Silva. A pioneer. An entertainer. But perhaps above all, a maverick.