Sympathy for the Giant

Oct 18, 2007
Giants are supposed to win. David knocks off Goliath, and it's a story for the ages. If it had gone the other way, it would have been chalked up to physics and forgotten.

And so goes life for Tim Sylvia (Pictures), the 6-foot-8 behemoth that can seemingly do no right in the eyes of many mixed martial arts fans.

"People throughout history love to cheer for the underdog," says Sylvia's manager, Monte Cox. "And they love the little guy to beat the big guy."

On Saturday the former UFC heavyweight champion will fight Brandon Vera (Pictures) -- one of the smallest fighters in the division -- at UFC 77 in a bout of suddenly incalculable importance. Because of last week's announcement that heavyweight champion Randy Couture (Pictures) is leaving the UFC, Saturday's winner will almost certainly get a title shot in early 2008 as well as a chance to reap a windfall as the UFC's new poster boy.

Regardless of the outcome, this much is certain: If Sylvia wins, fans will credit his size; if he loses, they will demean his skill.

"It's always been that way," Sylvia says, resigned. "I actually like it. It helps me and motivates me and puts me in the zone. I want to prove people wrong. I feel like I'm sticking it to The Man."

This is the public persona of Sylvia the Giant, who takes more cues from pro wrestling than just his stature. He presents a black-and-white world, where it doesn't pay to delve too deeply into the psyche. Sylvia the Giant says it doesn't bother him being the villain and he plays along.

"In the Midwest, we would say Tim has an East Coast attitude," Cox says. "He says what he thinks and sometimes he speaks before he thinks. A lot of guys are more politically correct."

There's not much PC about Sylvia. He once flipped off fans (he says it was just ONE fan in particular). He sells his autographs for $20 a pop. He sells his personal time. He makes incendiary statements, poses a hard demeanor and is lustily hated by many fans. But beneath his hulking exterior, Sylvia the Man is significantly more complex.

"They always root against me," he says of MMA fans. "I don't know why. Maybe because I'm the biggest guy in the division, so everyone loves to see the smaller guy win. Maybe it's because I shoot straight and I'm honest, and a lot of people don't want to hear that. But that's OK. I've been put down and picked on my whole life."

Sylvia often attests to having thick skin, but he can barely conceal his emotional scars. Growing up in Eastbrook, Maine, life was difficult.

"My family life was hard. My mother drank a lot. There was physical abuse from my father," Sylvia says, voice fluttering briefly. "And I was teased and bullied a lot by kids in school."

The concept of the UFC's biggest bully being pushed around might seem odd. But Sylvia the Giant did not always exist. Sylvia the Boy was short, fat and often a target of ridicule by his peers.

"I was 5-foot-8 before my senior year in high school," he says. "Then I grew four inches through the summer, four inches through the year and then two inches after I got out.

"All of a sudden those guys that used to pick on me had a change of heart."

He admits to exacting measures of revenge against his former tormentors, chuckling under his breath before re-establishing his professional persona: "I was young and stupid. Once again, I was sticking it to The Man."

Sylvia began using his impressive dimensions in the ring and was famously discovered by Pat Miletich (Pictures) while attending a UFC event. After moving to Iowa to train at Miletich Fighting Systems, he won his first UFC fight in 2002 and became champion in his second.

"Tim works hard," Miletich says. "People don't give him enough credit for that."

Sylvia the Giant lost and then regained the title, defending it twice before losing to Randy Couture (Pictures) in March. Sylvia the Man was surprised and hurt that Couture had come out of retirement specifically to fight him. Like most of the country, he found out during a televised announcement.

"I was shocked that he wanted to fight me and that he called me out," Sylvia says. "I had thought Randy and I were good friends."

After the loss it was almost as if fans expected Sylvia to disappear while they salivated over the new PRIDE imports and the re-signing of Vera. He didn't.

"I have different things planned for Vera, but nothing I am going to give away," he says. "I'm going to be taking the fight to him and, if he stands and bangs with me, the fans will be in for a treat because one of us is going to sleep."

That is Sylvia the Giant talking. Sylvia the Man doesn't really care about Vera. He wants his title back but not for the reasons the Giant says.

"Those people back home motivate me a lot," he says. "I am a pro fighter now. Those guys that used to pick on me are still sitting in the same town, doing nothing with five kids and a dead-end job and a wife they hate. Look at where they are and look at me. I was the heavyweight champion of the world and I will be again.

"They made me what I am today."

TALL TALES

Worth his weight in gold

Myth: Sylvia used to carry his UFC belt wherever he went.

Basis: He wore the belt to a UFC event and looked like a pro "wrassler" cageside.

Reality: "That was mostly hype," he says. "When I first had it, I wore it to the UFCs, but it's more of a pain in the ass than anything else. It's 10 pounds. If I carry it on in my luggage, it's a big hassle and it gets banged up."

Ground-breaking performance

Myth: Sylvia sucks on the ground.

Basis: Andrei Arlovski (Pictures)'s ankle lock and Frank Mir (Pictures)'s arm-breaker.

Reality: Sylvia outworked and -- at times -- out-wrestled Jeff Monson (Pictures), one of the best ground fighters in the game. Sylvia was also able to stave off Couture's submission attempts despite being rocked.

"I want to end every fight by knockout," he says. But "I have an underrated ground game. I don't want people to know about how good I am on the ground."

Back story

Myth: Sylvia's training suffered after undergoing back surgery.

Basis: Sylvia had two bulging disks and had surgery May 8 after cortisone shots failed to dull the pain.

Reality: The surgery cured the problem.

"As soon as I came out of anesthesia, I felt great and jumped out of bed," he says. "I was working out two weeks out of surgery. I was so happy. I wish I had done it right away. It helped my training."

Staph fighter

Myth: Sylvia's training suffered after a massive staph outbreak at MFS.

Basis: In August, infections at MFS were so bad that Drew McFedries was hospitalized. Sylvia had a quarter-sized infection on his thigh.

Reality: Sylvia caught it early and missed a grand total of four days grappling.

"It didn't affect my training because I could still lift, spar and run," he says. "It chaffed a bit when I was running, but that was it."

Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy

Myth: Sylvia hates everyone.

Basis: Pick your moment: from flipping off the crowd to bad-mouthing every opponent.

Reality: Sylvia likes Couture and says Vera is "a nice guy" as well. The Zuffa production crew goaded him into making the comments about Couture.

Right-handed game plan

Myth: My grandmother can beat Sylvia now. She just has to follow Couture's blueprint.

Basis: Hello Jaw, meet Randy Couture (Pictures)'s fist.

Reality: Sylvia was booed when he mentioned his back injury after the fight, but it affected his preparation and his mobility.

"I know people think that they know how to beat me because of what happened in my last fight," Sylvia says. "I'm glad they think that. I know they are going to say this or that about how to beat me. But I am a different fighter now."
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