It is often hard to appreciate history while it is still happening. Fans have become so accustomed to Anderson Silva’s dominance that it is hard to remember the time when he did not tower over the sport with highlight-reel knockouts and submissions. Silva’s reign will eventually end, maybe as soon as this Saturday, when he meets Chael Sonnen in the UFC 148 main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Silva has crafted a legacy so inordinately successful that it will likely grow even more impressive as time provides historical context. These are the moments that stand out the most in Silva’s storied career.
Undefeated No More
Shooto “To The Top 7” | Aug. 26, 2001 -- Osaka, Japan
When Silva fought Hayato Sakurai in 2001, the undefeated Japanese star was arguably the most highly regarded lighter weight fighter in the sport. Mixing solid wrestling and submissions with a dangerous standup game, Sakurai was a complete mixed martial artist at a time when few others were. The Shooto middleweight champion was prized by the UFC and Pride Fighting Championships organizations, and ended up fighting for both. However, his reign as Shooto champion ended abruptly in the late summer of 2001 against a then relatively unknown Brazilian.
Silva had only fought once in Japan prior to his golden opportunity against Sakurai. His win over Tetsuji Kato was enough to earn the shot, and Silva took advantage. Still, Sakurai proved to be a difficult challenge for him. This did not prove to be a spectacular and one-sided destruction like so many future fights. Rather, Sakurai hung in the standup with Silva and scored a number of takedowns over the course of the bout. Silva was active enough off his back and landed enough shots in the standups to take a unanimous decision. Sakurai’s long dominance in Japan was over, and, following a car accident, he never again reached the same heights.
This was the fight that announced Silva’s presence on the world stage. He never fought for Shooto again, instead vacating the title and joining Pride. The credibility of the win over a fighter the caliber of “Mach” Sakurai that paved the way for Silva’s future stellar success, and he was just getting started.
The Flying Knee
Pride 25 “Body Blow” | March 16, 2003 -- Yokohama, Japan
Few weapons are more valuable to a striker in MMA than those which prevent a grappler from closing the distance. The more hesitant a wrestler or jiu-jitsu artist is to move in on a kickboxer, the more likely the fight is to be fought on the striker’s terms. Silva knows that better than anyone and has made a career of knocking out opponents with precise counterstrikes when they look to take him to the ground. Sunday morning quarterbacks will often question why a fighter did not go for takedowns more aggressively against a dynamic striker. The answer: fights like Silva-Carlos Newton.
Newton had a clear route to victory against Silva, as he needed to get the then-Chute Boxe fighter to the ground. Newton’s jiu-jitsu was his forte, and Silva’s strength was known to be in striking.
“The Ronin” did get Silva to the ground early, but the fight returned to the feet later in the first round. Newton looked to take Silva back down, at which point disaster struck for the former UFC welterweight champion. Silva went to the air at just about the same moment Newton ducked for a takedown. His knee collided violently with Newton’s head, and it was lights out. A split second changed everything, and grapplers were put on notice: shoot on “The Spider” at your own peril.
Danger From Below
Pride “Shockwave 2004” | December 31, 2004 -- Saitama, Japan
His submission loss to Daiju Takase may have been more surprising because of how lightly the 4-7-1 Kazushi Sakuraba protégé was regarded, but the most memorable defeat of Silva’s career came against the former Deep champion Ryo Chonan. Chonan pulled out a come-from-behind submission win in the final two minutes of his fight with Silva -- a strange complement to Silva’s future come-from-behind submission win in the final two minutes of his fight with Chael Sonnen. However, unlike the Silva-Sonnen fight, which ended with a standard triangle armbar, Chonan executed a submission that has rarely been pulled off, before or after.
The Japanese fighter knew he needed to do something to pull off a win over Silva at Pride “Shockwave 2004.” While the fight was competitive, Silva had generally gotten the better of the action and was likely to get a decision win in a matter of moments. Chonan dove forward and scissored Silva’s legs. Tripping Silva to the ground, Chonan cranked a heel hook and forced the Brazilian to tap. It was a shocking conclusion to the fight and the last true loss of Silva’s career.
An Auspicious Debut
UFC Fight Night 5 | June 28, 2006 -- Las Vegas
Few fighters in UFC history have ever debuted as spectacularly as Silva did in 2006. He was expected to be a contender in the middleweight division, but his main event against Chris Leben was not considered a gimme at the time. Leben had won five straight fights in the UFC and sported a sparkling 15-1 record. Leben, known for his iron chin and solid striking, vowed to take the fight to Silva.
It was only a few seconds before the folly of that approach became readily apparent. Leben charged forward swinging wild punches. Almost all of them missed. Silva responded with pinpoint counterpunches. Almost all of them connected. Not only did Silva land at will right on Leben’s chin, but he connected with power. He dropped Leben once and then floored him for good with a knee. At the end of a 49-second massacre, Silva had connected with 85 percent of his strikes, and Leben had connected with 13 percent of his.
Leben was simply outclassed. That raised a troubling question: if Silva could do that against a game UFC contender, what would he do against the rest of the middleweight division? The answer soon followed, and it was not good news for everyone else fighting at 185 pounds.
The Beginning of a New Era
UFC 64 “Unstoppable” | Oct. 14, 2006 -- Las Vegas
It is easy to forget that before Silva arrived, Rich Franklin was firmly planted as the king of the UFC middleweight division. Only Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Pat Miletich and Matt Hughes had more successful title defenses to that point in UFC history, and Franklin had never been bested at 185 pounds.
Franklin’s nearly 500-day title run came to an abrupt end at the hands of Silva, thanks in part to a calamitous fight strategy. Franklin admitted after the fight that he expected the clinch to be his “sweet spot” against the master of the Thai plum. Sweet spot it was not. Silva destroyed Franklin with knees from the clinch before the fight was mercifully stopped three minutes in. There was almost a feeling of pity for the longtime champion.
The destruction that Silva wrought against Franklin was evident when the two rematched for the title in Cincinnati the next year. “Ace” does not have the best of poker faces. In his most recent contest against Wanderlei Silva, he came out smiling like he could not wait to fight. Against “The Spider” in 2007, Franklin looked like he was coming out for a funeral. The champion again finished Franklin with strikes and left no doubt as to who was the better man.
Finish Reading » Standing Alone