Wanderlei Silva will go down as one of the most feared fighters in MMA history. | Photo: Daniel Herbertson
Few fighters in mixed martial arts history have created as many enduring memories as the Brazilian muay Thai wrecking machine Wanderlei Silva. His ferocious attacking style has made for classic fights in victory and defeat. As such, picking out Silva’s most memorable bouts is no easy task. Some of his lesser fights would be career highlights for many.
Sadly, the career of the man known as “The Axe Murderer” is coming to its close. UFC President Dana White has made it clear he wants Silva to retire, but has continued to give him fights because of the respect he has for the Brazilian’s stature in the sport. It is the same conundrum he faced with Chuck Liddell. Silva’s bout against Cung Le at UFC 139 on Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., has all the makings of an exciting contest while it lasts -- far from an anomaly in Silva’s illustrious career. These are the fights, good and bad, that best define his legacy.
UFC 17.5 “Ultimate Brazil”
Oct. 16, 1998 -- Sao Paulo, Brazil
Coming off a series of brutal victories in the International Vale Tudo Championship, Silva was expected to present a serious challenge for Vitor Belfort in what was then the most high profile bout of the former’s career. Instead, Silva became a lasting mainstay in the highlight reel for “The Phenom.” Belfort caught Silva with a punch early and rocketed across the cage, firing power punches that overwhelmed him. Silva dropped to the canvas, the fight was stopped and his UFC debut was an ignominious one.
Silva would not establish himself as a feared competitor to UFC fans during the Semaphore Entertainment Group era, but it would not take long for him to make his name on the international stage. That opportunity would come in a young MMA organization in Japan: Pride Fighting Championships.
Pride 12 “Cold Fury”
Dec. 9, 2000 -- Saitama, Japan
In 1999 and 2000, Pride was targeting many of the world’s top fighters for contracts. Two of its top signings were Silva and the American Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson. Henderson was undefeated and coming off winning the prestigious Rings “King of Kings 1999” tournament. When Silva and Henderson were matched up at Pride 12, it was expected to be a memorable battle. The fight delivered.
Henderson showed no intimidation in the face of the dangerous Silva. When Silva did his patented staredown prior to the fight, Henderson simply smiled. Henderson proceeded to drop Silva with heavy right punches in the first round, busting open Silva’s eye and leaving him with a sizeable hematoma on his face. However, Silva showed he would not back down from a fight.
Silva took over with his own strikes as the fight progressed. Henderson slowed down, and Silva landed the better blows and even matched wrestling with the American. In the end, Silva scored the unanimous decision victory. Silva’s face showed the perils of battle, but he came out on top against an elite opponent. What’s more, he was just getting started.
Pride 13 “Collision Course”
March 25, 2001 -- Saitama, Japan
Pride’s initial run of moderate success was built around Japanese pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada. Unfortunately, Takada was not much of a factor in a sport without predetermined results. Luckily for Pride, a young Japanese preliminary wrestler would step into the void that was left following repeated Takada losses. Kazushi Sakuraba, a submission wiz with charisma to spare, became Pride’s biggest star. He was not only one of the world’s elite fighters but also the sport’s top drawing card, with wins over four members of the Gracie family.
Following his wins over the Gracies, Sakuraba needed new challenges. Silva had scored a series of wins in Pride, and he was given a fight with Sakuraba. It was not a particularly big fight at the time, as Silva was not well known to Japanese fans, even if those who followed the sport closely knew what a dangerous fighter he was. It was a high-risk, low-reward challenge for Sakuraba, and Silva did what nobody had been able to do to that point, brutalizing the Japanese standout in quick fashion.
Sakuraba had fought competitively with high-level strikers such as Igor Vovchanchyn, Guy Mezger and Belfort, so it came as a surprise to many when he buckled quickly under Silva’s barrage of knees. Silva followed with a brutal soccer kick on the ground, and the fight was stopped in just 98 seconds. Sakuraba was 12-2-1 and on top of the world heading into his first bout with Silva. He would go 14-14 in MMA competition from then on.
Pride 17 “Championship Chaos”
Nov. 3, 2001 -- Tokyo
After Silva took out Sakuraba, the onus was on Sakuraba to avenge the loss. The win over Sakuraba made Silva a star in Japan, and the rematch was held at the Tokyo Dome in front of 53,246 fans. With a gate bringing in more than $5 million, Silva-Sakuraba 2 was a legitimate big-money draw. It was one of the most hotly anticipated bouts in Pride history.
While Sakuraba did not show much in his first bout with Silva, he showed the skills that made him one of the world’s most respected fighters in their second contest. He got Silva to the ground and did well in his domain there, while also landing some shots in the standup. Unfortunately for Sakuraba, he suffered a shoulder injury trying for a guillotine choke and could not continue in the second round. Silva was crowned the first Pride middleweight champion and would prove to be much more than simply the great Sakuraba’s nemesis.
Pride “Final Conflict 2003”
Nov. 9, 2003 -- Tokyo
Pride ran a number of major tournaments throughout its history, but arguably the best of them all was the 2003 middleweight grand prix. An eight-man field featured Chuck Liddell, Alistair Overeem, Quinton Jackson, Murilo Bustamante, Sakuraba, Kiyoshi Tamura, Hidehiko Yoshida and Silva.
The culmination of the tournament came at Pride Final Conflict 2003. Silva started the night by defeating Hidehiko Yoshida in a classic confrontation. The proud judoka Yoshida took the fight to Silva and delivered a surprisingly strong showing, but the Brazilian simply had too much of an advantage standing and took the judges’ decision. Silva then finished Jackson later in the night with knees to win the tournament. Silva was already Pride’s top 205-pound fighter, and he only cemented his reputation by taking the prestigious tournament.
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