Going into the fifth official defense of his Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title at UFC 97, Anderson Silva was facing a bit of a public image crisis. He was on a nine-fight winning streak—the last eight of those victories coming in the UFC—and was considered by most fans to be one of the three most dominant pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, alongside Fedor Emelianenko and Georges St. Pierre.
However, his previous title defense, against Patrick Cote at UFC 90, had raised some eyebrows. First, the sturdy but unspectacular Cote seemed like a step down from recent middleweight challengers Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin and Nate Marquardt. Second, the fight itself had been such a strange and lackluster affair. Cote had become the first Silva opponent to make it to the third round, not because of his own toughness—though he was indisputably a gritty fighter—but because “The Spider” had chosen to engage in bizarre tactics seemingly designed to confuse or frustrate rather than destroy his opponent. When Cote’s knee gave out early in the third round and ended the fight, it felt like an act of mercy to the audience, as well.
Silva then headlined a hastily put together UFC Fight Night card at light heavyweight, as he massacred a woefully outmatched and opioid-filled James Irvin before returning to 185 pounds. The booking of Thales Leites for his next title defense, however, did nothing to dispel the growing notion that the UFC was running out of interesting challenges for its most dominant fighter. Leites, like Cote, was on a respectable winning streak but was practically anonymous to the fan base at large, which ramped up the call for Silva to take a champ-versus-champ fight with St. Pierre.
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The bout itself, which took place on April 18, 2009, did nothing to dispel the grumbling and in fact amplified it tenfold. Silva and Leites engaged in what might still be the most frustrating, tedious and difficult-to-watch title fight of the modern-era UFC. The tone was set early on, as neither man threw a strike or attempted any offense for over a full minute. The fight—and that term applies loosely at best—was characterized by long stretches in which neither man was willing to engage, including Silva throwing bizarre invented strikes, Leites repeatedly flopping to his back and both men circling well outside striking range. The crowd booed early and often, and it could be heard very audibly chanting “GSP” by the later rounds.
After five excruciating frames, “The Spider” won a unanimous decision, the disparate 49-46, 48-47 and 50-46 scorecards an indicator of just how difficult the rounds had been to score. The questions about Silva’s motivation and level of interest only grew louder; some fans and media wondered whether he was protesting his contract, though his constant willingness to step up for the UFC seemed to belie that idea. Others wondered if the mercurial and seemingly untouchable Silva was simply growing bored with his own dominance. While he would always remain an enigma—and we never did get that superfight with St. Pierre—Silva atoned for the awful Leites fight just over a year later, when Chael Sonnen pushed him to the limit in one of the most thrilling title fights of all time at UFC 117.
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