Wanderlei Silva (right) still posseses a serious mean streak in the cage. | Photo: Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog.com
For years, he was defined by the fear and wonder he struck in his opponents, and if Wanderlei Silva has anything to say about it, he will reclaim some of that past glory at the expense of a man who calls himself “The Crippler.”
Silva will meet Chris Leben in the UFC 132 “Cruz vs. Faber 2” co-main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as he returns to the cage for the first time in more than a year. In advance of the middleweight matchup, he has gone back to his roots under longtime mentor Rafael Cordeiro at Kings MMA and resurrected one of his most lethal weapons: the Thai plum. Silva views Leben as a test subject.
“I’ll try to knock him out however I can: knees, legs, elbows, hands,” he tells Sherdog.com. “What I want is to win and to fight well. I’m training everything. I had gotten away from the clinch and knees a little because I wasn’t training it. When I trained at my gym -- or event at Kings -- I could only act like I was throwing knees. The Americans don’t like taking knees without a brace, but I have returned to practicing this, and if I grab onto the neck, I’m only releasing it when the guy goes down.”
Silva, who has not fought since he defeated “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 winner Michael Bisping by unanimous decision at UFC 110, faces the difficult prospect of competing after a 16-month layoff brought on by a knee injury that required reconstructive surgery and extensive rehabilitation.
“The most serious injury I had was in my knee, where I tore the anterior-cruciate ligament,” he says. “Actually, I had to have three knee ligaments rebuilt. I went four or five months without any activity. It was very difficult. You don’t know if your body’s going to go back to the way it was. I did a very good job with physical therapy, and everything was alright. I’m back to training normally.”
Time away from the sport to which he had given so much was challenging. The Brazilian icon admitted he had to adjust to a new way of life while he recovered.
“I was used to waking up, drinking my shakes and going to the academy. It’s been my life since I was 14 years old,” Silva says. “When I got out of that routine, it was complicated, but I had the support of my wife and children.”
Silva, who turns 35 the day after UFC 132, found avenues outside of actual competition through which to pass the time.
“I was without training, but I did other things, made some appearances here and there,” he says. “In Brazil, I don’t know if it’s happening -- the idea of fighters attending events [as celebrities]. Here, I have a lot of opportunities. I get to sign autographs for a thousand people. That kind of work also shows up in the number of pay-per-views that are sold.”
Silva has found a pre-fight training home at Kings MMA in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Cordeiro has assembled a number of his former Chute Boxe Academy proteges, including onetime UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
“Rafael was able to build a great team here,” Silva says. “We each have students, but when we train between us, among professionals, it’s different. Training with partners who take you out of your comfort zone is different. I was even talking to [Fabricio] Werdum about how the master looks like a maestro conducting an orchestra. We do five, six rounds with good guys, and you don’t miss a single round.
“I feel good. I did all the work: ground, takedowns, standup -- everything I needed to train,” he adds. “I hope to have a great fight.”
Leben presents many dangers. The 30-year-old last appeared at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day, when he succumbed to first-round strikes from the surging Brian Stann. The defeat snapped his three-fight winning streak and derailed much of the momentum he had accrued. Known for engaging in -- and often winning -- wild brawls in the cage, Leben has secured more than half (13) of his 25 professional victories by knockout or technical knockout. He figures to be one of the few willing to oblige Silva with an extended standup fight.
“I think it has everything you need to be ‘Fight of the Night.’ He’s an aggressive guy,” Silva says. “I can say one thing. If I don’t knock him out in the first round, he’ll get hurt. I’m at my best, weighing 200 pounds. I’m dry, and I’m fast. I did my homework. I’m preparing for this new phase of my career.
“I have good expectations,” he adds. “It’s a new moment for me. I’ve never gone so long without competing. It’s amazing to see how much MMA has changed in the time I was out. This business is expanding to the whole world.”
Win or lose, Silva and his live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword style have inspired countless others in the sport. “The Axe Murderer” seems to understand his place in history.
“It’s an example for athletes worldwide,” he says. “You see an athlete fighting and wanting to entertain the audience, with some saying, ‘Gee, this guy fights like Wanderlei.’ Being the reference point for other athletes makes me proud, of course.”
Silva, who has never won consecutive bouts inside the Octagon, still has designs on someday wearing UFC gold.
“Of course, everyone wants to be champion, but I have to show that I’m able, not only that I want to,” he says. “It comes naturally when you get a few knockouts and have some good fights.”