Opinion: A Logical Character Sketch of a Logical Man

By Jordan Breen Sep 2, 2016



Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Now and forever in this sport's history, the final day of August will be the day that the MMA world found out that nigh-eternal Ultimate Fighting Championship matchmaker Joe Silva would be retiring by year's end. Even if its timing seemed surprising, the announcement was a long time coming. It's not a promotional sale, pay-per-view main event reveal or high-profile drug test failure, but there is really no way to overstate the legacy of Silva's UFC tenure and potential impact of his imminent departure.

It's strange to imagine an MMA landscape without Silva, largely due to his primacy in the sport. Silva's genesis in the industry typifies the man himself, too: A lifelong martial artist, Silva saw a UFC ad in a martial arts magazine after watching the promotion's first event and called the contact number on a whim. Incredibly, he ended up on the other end of the phone with UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren. McLaren was clearly taken by Silva's knowledge, passion and cocksureness and hired him as a UFC consultant prior to UFC 2. It was 1994.

Silva was -- and still is -- an unapologetic dork. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he was a Puerto Rican kid who was into comic books, Bruce Lee and Adam Ant. He was managing a Babbage's and arguing with video game nerds when he harangued his way into a UFC consulting gig. It is a trait that will suit him well in what he tersely called his “retirement” via text, before stereotypically referring me to the UFC Public Relations staff for further company statement. Classic Silva.

The truth is, courtesy of WME-IMG's buyout of the UFC, Silva got a fat albeit undisclosed bonus. This is after negotiating a solid raise a few years ago, making Silva essentially the best-case scenario for early retirement. He's married, with his wife's name tattooed on his ring finger. His stepdaughter is grown, just married and studying tuberculosis. When Zuffa first took over the company in 2001, Silva relocated and spent a scant amount of time at the UFC home base in Las Vegas. In his righteous, combative way, he argued with Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta that he could do his job just as effectively from Virginia. Like most backroom arguments over the last 15 years of this UFC regime, Silva won. He moved back to Richmond, and today, the UFC is worth $4 billion. Silva loves Richmond, and now, he never has to leave again, if he doesn't want to.

He has a cage in his house. Silva has enough money to text desperate 1990s UFC veterans and have them fight for his own amusement while he sits in a recliner and listens to Depeche Mode. Like I said, he never has to leave Richmond again.

It only makes sense for Silva to get out. Never mind the financial security, this is a business that can simultaneously break you down while making you dream of bigger things. The Fertitta brothers have been looking beyond the UFC and dreaming of owning an NFL team for years now. The UFC's sale was years in the making, and even if the news hit us like a bomb, it wasn't the first round of potential sale talks and was largely expected. Even if Silva has been putting his fingerprints on the sport and the UFC specifically for 22 years, even if it just always seemed like he would be around, this is no shock.

Despite him weaving his threads into MMA's tapestry for two decades, Silva delights in being in the background. Like most things with him, though, it's not that simple. Famously, Silva rejects the media. While he once did a 1-900 number for the Semaphore-era UFC and is prone to sending out 25 emails a day to his atheist email chain, he balks at the prospects of being interviewed. Since Zuffa bought the UFC in 2001 and canned previous matchmaker John Perretti, you could count the amount of Silva media appearances on your digits. It isn't that hard to catalogue most of them.

Early in his official tenure as sole UFC matchmaker in 2001, he did a short interview with Full Contact Fighter. In late 2006, as the UFC was gearing up to purchase Pride Fighting Championships and get a foothold in Japan, Silva did a minuscule Q&A with Japanese media veteran Manabu Takashima for the site God Bless the Ring, stating that the UFC wanted to court a new wave of Japanese fighters; it was really more of an advertisement than an interview.

In 2013, MMAJunkie and USA Today reeled in both Silva and Sean Shelby -- largely against their will -- for their “25 Most Powerful People in MMA” yearbook. In the piece, Ben Fowlkes brilliantly profiled the UFC's matchmaking duo, sketching their individual characters, explaining their matchmaking ethos and sprinkling in whimsical anecdotes. However, there's a reason the piece begins with, “At first I thought the UFC matchmakers were just being paranoid.”

Recently, as the UFC has ramped up its exclusive Fight Pass content, the company began producing its “Watch List” segments, where it interviews both Silva and Shelby about fights on upcoming cards they think are particularly crucial and salient. While they both play brave professionals on camera, it's obvious how much they both hate it; years from now, while laying on his couch watching “The Last Dragon,” Silva will not miss this.

Beyond these media appearances, Silva cameos are scant. After the UFC 194 week tripleheader in December, Silva popped up on the dais in front of the media following the actual press conference and informally rapped about washing Tony Ferguson's blood off of his suit following “El Cucuy” finishing Edson Barboza in a bloody barnburner. Every so often, if MMA outlets were filming portions of “The Ultimate Fighter” tryouts, Silva would pop up on camera. Beyond this, Silva's public commentary is limited to obscure quotes in Saskatoon newspapers, such as him commenting on the historical relevance of the “Just Bleed” guy.

This is the sort of thing, among other traits, that makes Silva an engrossing but difficult figure to access. I bring up his short history of media appearances because it's amusing and telling about the man, but it's obviously not like Silva is some shrinking violet. He is still the guy who gets on stage for UFC weigh-ins wearing a T-shirt featuring Charles Darwin's bushy-bearded face bursting out from under his leather moto jacket. Silva hates doing media, but in my personal experience, few people in this entire industry have ever been more willing to help the media. Silva would stab you if you tried to quote him, but he always finds a Yoda-esque way of throwing you a journalistic bone, letting you know that critical person you need to talk to who could rap on the record without ever saying their name or explicitly suggesting it. You just have a casual conversation and know where you need to go next to understand more. Silva plants that mental seed and then he stays Teflon.

However, it's not like Silva is some saint -- again, the prickly intersection of his character and his job. Since 2001, he hasn't just been a UFC matchmaker. For a decade and a half, Silva has been the contract negotiator, the setter of free agent market value and, in times of insanity, the voice of blunt logic of White and the Fertittas. Earlier this year, during one of Joe Rogan's Fight Companion videos, former UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub said that Silva needed a “reality check” and suggested that most of the nearly 700 fighters on the UFC roster may have a deep desire to sock him in the face. Schaub may be hyperbolic, but he's not necessarily wrong.

This, to me, is perhaps the most fascinating angle of Silva as a professional. Silva clearly paid his dues: Like I said, he has been here since UFC 2, and beyond giving SEG his two cents from time to time, he worked with the late, great Jeff Blatnick to craft the UFC's rules in the 1990s, ultimately influencing the Unified Rules. All this to say you can't overstate Silva's impact as an author of this sport. At the same time, while he came to be reflexively known as “UFC matchmaker Joe Silva,” his job is bigger than throwing darts at a board to make a pay-per-view lineup.

In fact, his relationship with Blatnick informs the unique and often contradictory duality of Silva. Many MMA folks, if asked for a Silva origin story, will say something like “Oh, he was an Internet geek who started hassling the UFC and telling them what fights to book, so they just gave him a job.” This is not just an anachronism but an outright inaccuracy. In fact, when Silva took the UFC job, despite his keyholder status at his local Babbage's, he did not own a computer. It was actually Blatnick who bought Silva his first computer to help facilitate his UFC duties, never mind anything about Silva being an early Internet adopter.

As much as he hates to be quoted, these are the sorts of stories that Silva likes to tell in public. Generally speaking, he's an outstanding raconteur, but more particularly, there are two kinds of Joe Silva stories: one, times that he was right and everybody else was wrong, and two, the favors and niceties that industry players have done him over the years. I don't doubt for a second that Silva has and continues to think he is the most clever man to ever hatch a clever plan in MMA, and I don't think that's an unfair extrapolation. Silva genuinely relishes telling people they are wrong and pointing out their intellectual missteps; there can be no mistake that the man has an ego. Conversely, he is anything but a narcissist, as he naturally and genuinely ascribes so many elements of his success to family, friends, mentors and co-workers.

More than anything, Silva prides himself on his honesty, but sometimes it descends into the pathological. He once told a UFC fighter that his bout that evening was so boring that Silva had started to believe in God and that God was in fact punishing him; that fighter was cut the next morning. Silva has now spent years speaking hard truths to hardened athletes, and as a result, he has verbalized the sort of critiques that stick with people for life. For almost any UFC roster fighter, veteran or retiree, they can likely recall a moment that they stared down at Silva and had their raw soul exposed.

In most business worlds, this dynamic would be smoke and mirrors and pure artifice. After all, how could all these cagefighters dread talking to a 5-foot-3 comic book enthusiast? In most business worlds, Silva's tough talk would at best be suspected as bluster and at worst categorically dismissed as bluster. Yet, since Zuffa bought the UFC over 15 years ago, Silva has somehow been the promotion's honest-to-goodness boogeyman.

Given the money, power and eye-opening familial history of the Fertittas, combined with the brothers being boyhood friends with White and his highly combustible personality, most alleged underlings would know their role and stay in line. Of course, that is not the case with Silva, the guy who dialed the UFC offices out of a martial arts magazine and somehow finagled a job out of it.

In November 2002, the UFC was preparing for UFC 40, headlined by Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. It was the Zuffa-era UFC's first major event, the first time this company ever got anything resembling mainstream publicity and traction, the first time the UFC could really draw in the pro-wrestling demographic and make a buck or two. With such a grand stage set, White called Sherdog.com founder Jeff Sherwood a few weeks prior to the event. He asked Sherwood for the phone number of “Tank” David Abbott. Sherwood asked White if “Tank” was making a comeback; White cleverly said that they were working on a documentary feature of sorts about some of the pioneering era UFC fighters. Sherwood gave him the number.

On Nov. 22, 2002, in the middle of the UFC's biggest event to date, Abbott, not long removed from a pro wrestling stint in World Championship Wrestling, strolled out in his leather biker jacket to announce his return to the Octagon. White had kept it a secret from what was at the time a tiny core Zuffa staff. While you'll never see it on DVD or Fight Pass, as Abbott walked down the ramp, Silva fired off his headset, sprinted halfway around the Octagon and began screaming in White's face.

White, whose entire public persona is predicated on his alleged bolshie, tough guy street sensibilities, apologized to Silva, just like always. Seven years later, White signed then-41-year-old boxing legend James Toney to a contract in one of the most surreal and inexplicable happenings in UFC history. He did it in secret, without consulting Silva. When he called that Richmond area code to let the cat out of the bag, Silva had a field day. If part of the work world is supposed to occasionally taking a bite of the collective s--- sandwich, Silva always refused and just threw it back in the face of his bosses.

Of course, it's not just the verbal component. Silva's passion and dedication to this sport is a gift and a curse in some ways; while he has spent 15 years smartly articulating what fans and casual consumers want to see in the cage, he's not above twisting the knife. When Abbott returned to the Octagon at UFC 41, Silva booked him against his close friend, Frank Mir, who chained 40 submissions on a hapless Abbott before submitting him with a toehold. When he was forced to book Toney, he knew a middle-aged Randy Couture crawling at him for an elementary takedown would expose what a farce the entire thing was. When Zuffa, in its manifest destiny, bought up promotions and acquired contracts that Silva didn't like, he matched those fighters in question as tough as possible and sought to get them off the books.

There's a reason that every once in a blue moon White will drop some soundbite in a media scrum or tip the company's hand in some way and then say, “Aw, Joe Silva is going to be pissed at me.” Yes, Silva will be pissed, and more than that, White and even Lorenzo Fertitta dread that excoriation. Despite their stature and their bank accounts, White and Fertitta have never even tried to hide the fact that a showdown with Silva fills them with existential dread. In fact, they've played it for years.

Silva hates this. He prides himself so much on being rational, logical and philosophically consistent; as mentioned, he sees himself as an honest man, performing a job where biting truth is simply part of the menu. What he hates, what rankles him, is when people call him “negative.” It is something to which I can relate: When you're embedded in MMA -- whether as a fan, a media member, a fighter or a promotion's employee -- your opinion, at least in some small part, is a part of your job and helps get you paid.

If you study any field, any industry, no matter how much it speaks to your soul and you love it, there are circumstances and outcomes that you won't agree with and that you'll want to rally against. It is unnerving and upsetting to have someone tell you that you're “negative” when whatever you say, whatever you do, comes from a position of love and concern. Whether you're the UFC's matchmaker or a fan spitballing on Twitter, all of us are here because we love fights. It feels defeating to act out of passion and dedication, only for those who disagree with you to frame you as jaded and cynical.

It has never stopped this UFC regime from hamming up the narrative. For years, new UFC hires have been warned in summer camp ghost story-like fashion about crossing Silva. UFC employees paint pictures of sitting down in a Las Vegas board room, anxiously dreading the chance that Silva's disembodied voice would explode out of the speakerphone and put them on blast.

One of the famous Silva quips -- and to be fair, Shelby uses this device, too -- is “You think you want my job?”. MMA media repeat this ad nauseum whenever the UFC is put in some kind of tense contract negotiation or injury-related matchmaking bind. The idea is that MMA fans, never shy about sharing their own matchmaking and business philosophies, would cower and crack if they saw what Silva or Shelby's gig was really like. I'm not so sure it works like that; it's cumulative more than anything.

What I mean to say is, I don't think a savvy MMA fan would have trouble making fantasy fights and squaring off fighters against one another on paper for a good salary and a respectable position in a major sports promotion. That's the dream, of course. However, it's a job you must have a disposition for, and even if you do, it's no guarantee that your nerves are bulletproof.

We all want to imagine the luxury of being able to book champion against champion in our own hometown during International Fight Week, but as I said, it's hardly about that. It's screaming in a board room to contrary-minded executives about business plans. It's about telling a veteran in his mid-30s after a dozen fights in the Octagon to hit the bricks, while you hope somehow he lands on his feet. It's not the panic and anxiety of making late replacement fights; it's the horror and guilt when you sign an undefeated novice on a week's notice, throw him in the cage and he gets absolutely obliterated right in front of your face.

On the surface, charges of “You don't want this job!” are predicated on the idea that it's difficult to sit on the phone arguing all day or decide who gets fight night bonuses, but that's obviously not why “UFC Vice President of Talent Relations” is a brutal gig. When people imagine playing matchmaker, they imagine putting together puzzle pieces to create a beautiful picture or snapping together Lego pieces to engineer some creative, clever feat. Spend 22 years working for the UFC and over 15 years as a matchmaker? You realize they're not jigsaw pieces, Lego blocks, darts at a board or any other inanimate object. They're real people; they really go into the cage and they really get [expletive] up while you sit there watching, judging, arbitrating and scheming.

At the end of this year, Silva will leave the game. After 22 years, this human conundrum -- the fiery, opinionated provocateur who has always proclaimed he prefers to lurk in the shadows -- will finally, truly be in MMA's background. Between emails, social media and sports radio appearances in the last 24 hours, it seems most MMA folks' worries over Silva's departure are hinged on professional proficiency. Rest assured: Shelby will step up and do this job. Shelby was brought on early in Zuffa's ownership, because like Silva before him, he had a certain kind of zeal for this sport; he was the guy in 2001 with Shooto cards on VHS and hard opinions about Tony Cecchine's instructionals. He may forever be linked to the UFC's in-house pre-main card highlight package set to “Baba O'Riley” by The Who, the original incarnation of which he edited well over a decade ago. However, since taking the matchmaking reins of World Extreme Cagefighting from Scott Adams in late 2008, Shelby has proved himself more than capable in this regard.

By all accounts from my journalistic snooping, there is no hard-and-fast plan quite yet for the UFC's matchmaking team. It is inevitable that Shelby will be promoted into Silva's spot, but whether or not he maintains his grips on the women's 115- and 135-pound divisions in addition to the men from flyweight to featherweight is anyone's guess. By next year, the UFC roster is likely to swell to 700 fighters or more, with the promotion running 40 to 50 events per year, with a dozen or more fights per card. Logically, even if he was the greatest and most productive talent relations guru in the history of prizefighting, there is no way Shelby can shoulder this himself. Regardless of how they divide the labor and who books what weight classes, the likely outcome is that Zuffa hires Shelby a right-hand man, someone who can learn from him while still holding down his divisions and negotiating free agents down to the cheapest nickel. Maybe a decade from now, Shelby passes this same torch to our hypothetical, unnamed future Zuffa matchmaker. It's the matchmaking circle of life.

That's not the salient aspect of Silva's retirement, though. Like his retirement itself, it was expected. It's a no-brainer that in his absence Shelby will ascend up the totem pole and be afforded a second-in-command to assist him. The crux of this whole thing is that people, select people, can handle Silva's job title, but no one else can be Joe Silva. As I feel like I repeat ad nauseum, MMA is the misfits' toy box of sports, and usually that pertains strictly to the characters inside that box. For over two decades, though, Silva has not just been the adjudicator of those ne'er-do-wells but the central voice that would stand up against White and the Fertittas and tell them that their plans, hopes and dreams were flawed, unrealistic and not good for business.

Despite the tiny man that inhabited them, Silva's matchmaking and deal-striking shoes are hard to fill, even for a far-more-than-prepared replacement like Shelby. However, it's not those contracts, or whether X should fight Y or Z next, or even just the conviction and cocksureness to defy and test White and the Fertittas. The UFC is not losing a matchmaker or just a smart decision maker in Silva; it's losing a true character, a man whose personality, for better and for worse, intimately shaped the landscape we've inhabited for nearly the entire duration of modern MMA. Silva never got to live out all of his martial arts dreams as UFC matchmaker. For instance, despite constant rumors during the early 2000s, Silva's favorite fighter, Rumina Sato, never got to fight in the UFC. However, during International Fight Week ahead of UFC 100 in July 2009, Sato did come to America and tapped Ulysses Gomez during a grappling match. Above and beyond the fact that Silva once named a house cat “Rumina Gato” in honor of the Shooto legend, that sort of small victory will have to suffice, I suppose.

A few short months and many distant years from now, Silva will be in his comfy chair, enjoying MMA fights on television infinitely more than if he had politicked and booked the contests himself. No matter what happens, he isn't controlling how much a fighter makes. He won't have to call any managers or cut a single soul from the roster. He can just watch fights again. He will never have to leave Richmond again, if he doesn't want to.

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