Last Best Hope Denied
UFC 82 “Pride of a Champion” | March 1, 2008 -- Columbus, Ohio
While Franklin reigned as the UFC’s middleweight champion, Dan Henderson ruled Pride’s 185-pound division. Thus, when Silva defeated Franklin twice, Henderson was left as the only man who stood out as a particularly formidable challenge. Henderson’s wrestling chops and stout chin were thought to present danger for the Brazilian knockout artist.
Henderson indeed looked threatening to Silva early, winning the first round. However, Silva took over in the second. After dropping Henderson with strikes, Silva dominated on the ground and secured the submission with a rear-naked choke. The ground did not prove to be nearly as hospitable for Henderson as many had figured.
In less than two years, Silva had effectively cleaned out the 185-pound division. In the coming years, he dabbled in fighting at light heavyweight and took on underwhelming challengers for his middleweight title. After the Henderson fight, it became harder and harder to find anyone picking against “The Spider.”
UFC 101 “Declaration” | Aug. 8, 2009 -- Philadelphia
Forrest Griffin was not supposed to look like an overmatched sparring partner. The man was a former champion at the weight class above Silva, with wins over the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Yet in Philadelphia, Griffin looked like he did not belong in the cage with the Brazilian. Silva showed his propensity to not just defeat opponents but to thoroughly humiliate them.
After a feeling-out process, Silva and Griffin picked up the pace towards the middle of the first round of their bout. Griffin aggressively attacked his foe with punches, but Silva bobbed his head and ducked in and out as if they were coming in slow motion.
The sequence almost looked choreographed. Silva then counterattacked, with his strikes connecting solidly on Griffin’s chin. As Griffin charged in, Silva lifted up his fist effortlessly and dropped Griffin to the canvas. Griffin flailed wildly on the canvas, and the fight was called off.
Griffin was so devastated he literally ran from the cage to the back. It was hard to blame him; few fighters have the ability to wound an opponent’s pride like Silva.
UFC 117 “Silva vs. Sonnen” | Aug. 7, 2010 -- Oakland, Calif.
Some fighters’ careers, like that of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, are defined by overcoming adversity. However, Silva, Nogueira’s training partner and pupil, is not one of those fighters. Silva dominates. It was thus unusual to see him controlled for the majority of five rounds by Chael Sonnen. After talking an unprecedented amount of trash, Sonnen backed it up by repeatedly taking down Silva and punishing him with punches. “The Spider” was not in control of the fight like he almost always is, but it was in that moment of weakness that Silva showed the heart of a champion.
As Sonnen beat down Silva for nearly 25 minutes, the longtime champion did not disconnect himself from the fight. He hung in and, in the final stanza, finally saw an opening. He secured Sonnen’s arm and quickly swung his hips and legs up for a triangle choke. By the time Sonnen recognized his mistake, it was too late. Silva locked in the triangle and yanked down on Sonnen’s arm. The American had to tap. Silva had survived.
Silva-Sonnen I was one of the most memorable fights and most impressive comebacks in MMA history. It added to Silva’s legacy so much more than other fights that he won with greater ease. Silva’s ability to dole out punishment was not in doubt. Against Sonnen, he showed he had world-class mental toughness, as well.
Out of the Movies
UFC 126 “Silva vs. Belfort” | Feb. 5, 2011 -- Las Vegas
Steven Seagal is no stranger to making unorthodox martial arts techniques look easy. It was thus appropriate that he was in Silva’s corner when the champion knocked out Vitor Belfort with a front kick right out of the movies at UFC 126.
Front kicks are not new techniques in MMA, but they have rarely been used to finish fights, even by advanced muay Thai specialists. It is a lot easier to pull off on a movie set than against a live opponent. However, Silva has always had an ability to execute moves that other fighters struggle to master. Looking down, Silva darted his leg straight up towards Belfort’s face, knocking his fellow Brazilian loopy. The fight was over just seconds later, and Silva had once again made the spectacular look standard.
Following Silva-Belfort, the front kick began to be used more often. Most notably, Silva’s training partner, Lyoto Machida, used a leaping front kick to finish Randy Couture two months later at UFC 129. Other fighters were watching and learning anew what could work in a fight, 18 years after the first Ultimate Fighting
UFC 134 “Silva vs. Okami” | Aug. 27, 2011 -- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
With the Brazilian market rapidly becoming a hotbed for the UFC, today’s elite Brazilian fighters will have plenty of opportunities to perform in front of their home country in the coming years. Junior dos Santos and Jose Aldo will be counted on to draw in live crowds in the burgeoning South American power.
However, Silva, now 37, saw his peak years as a fighter come at a time when Brazil was not a frequent stop for upper-echelon MMA. That made it all the more special when, at UFC 134, he had the opportunity to perform in his native country for the first time since he became an international superstar.
Returning to fight in Brazil for the first time since 2003, Silva was presented with a seemingly difficult stylistic matchup. Yushin Okami had utilized excellent wrestling to win six of seven fights heading into a showdown for the UFC middleweight title. Even so, Okami seemed paralyzed by Silva’s dynamic striking ability. The Japanese veteran never got his wrestling game going, and Silva put an end to the fight with punches in the second round.
Afterwards, it was time to celebrate in front of an ebullient crowd in Rio de Janeiro. “The Spider” was home.