Anderson, Ideals and Atychiphobia

By Jordan Breen Aug 12, 2009
Anderson Silva is a great fighter.

No, I know, that's not a startling revelation, let alone an interesting one. After his three-minute mauling of Forrest Griffin on Saturday night, the ever-fickle MMA public has decided that Silva is to be celebrated once again, and in the strongest of terms.

That's to be expected after a performance with such a violent and skillful aesthetic. Griffin threw 35 strikes at Silva's head and landed literally one. Silva knocked Griffin on the mat three times. In case you're not mathematically inclined, that means Silva actually knocked Griffin down triple the amount of times that Griffin even touched his face. However, what's been overlooked in discussion of Silva's superlative skills is his equally lofty accomplishment.

Silva's complete sonning of Griffin is not just a technical sign of the times or an acid test that portends a successful light heavyweight run. It's actually set a particularly impressive standard for pound-for-pound achievement: With the victory, Silva has become the first fighter in this sport's short modern history to defeat top-five opponents across three weight classes.

Of course, Silva became a superstar when he became MMA's first pantheon-level middleweight. However, long before he ever eviscerated Rich Franklin, even before his Pride tenure, Silva was one of the sport's best welterweights. Eight years ago, he rolled into Osaka and took the Shooto world 168-pound title from Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, who was widely seen as the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter at the time.

In fact, on the back of that victory, Silva was actually slated to make his UFC debut at UFC 34 to face then-champ Carlos Newton. The exclusive deal that Zuffa wanted for Silva didn't jive with "The Spider," though, or his Chute Boxe handlers, who wanted to keep doors to Pride and Meca Vale Tudo open. Just think how radically different history might be if Silva got into the Octagon in '01 and Matt Hughes didn't unconsciously powerbomb his way to glory. Maybe there's a Marvel Comics-style "What If?" concept brewing.

Nonetheless, it is strange that the victory over Sakurai gets glossed over historically when it was Silva's first great moment and it is an accomplishment that stands the test of time. How often does any fighter dethrone the pound-for-pound king? Surely when Silva loses, the world won't forget about it in eight years -- at least I hope not.

Silva's accomplishments on both ends of the scale have set a new blueprint for multi-divisional success in MMA. Fighters like B.J. Penn and Randy Couture have both had success and failure in two weight classes. Vitor Belfort, with his recent middleweight run, has won notable bouts from middleweight right up to heavyweight. However, only Silva has had this level of success across three weight classes, however effortless for himself and embarrassing for others as he may make it look.

It is important -- perhaps even exciting and reassuring if you're Forrest Griffin -- to note the fact that many of Silva's best wins are not ephemeral. In prizefighting, all wins are imbued with a temporal quality: The notion of "when" matters. For instance, Ricardo Arona beating Wanderlei Silva in 2005 is of far more merit than Vitor Belfort's or Rich Franklin's wins over The Axe Murderer. Dennis Hallman's wins over Matt Hughes, or even Thiago Alves' win over Hughes, are not on the level of Penn's triumph over a pound-for-pound stalwart Hughes in 2004. Beating individuals in their moment of greatness is what counts.

Many of Silva's greatest wins have come against opponents who were not just great for that moment but sustained greatness for much longer. Sakurai, Franklin, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson and even Jeremy Horn, who has become driftwood in the last two years, all continued to prosper as fighters following their losses to Silva. You may not find that especially gripping, but it's more unusual than you'd imagine.

When you look at lists of title challengers in the Zuffa era of the UFC, it is littered with fighters who rightfully earned their way to a title shot but failed to sustain any measure of greatness, from Carlos Newton to Gil Castillo to David Terrell to David Loiseau to Gan McGee to Thales Leites. If you were explaining a fighter's accomplishments to a neophyte, you would qualify the wins by saying "Well, he was a great fighter at the time." Many of the names that Silva has put on his docket speak for themselves in a way that is still exceedingly rare for MMA.

One of the features I find most charming about Silva's accomplishments is that they're not without failure. While his early career loss to Luiz Azeredo and his disqualification defeat against Yushin Okami tend to be overlooked, Ryo Chonan ensured that Silva will be on highlight reels for the rest of time. His 2003 loss to Daiju Takase is every bit as embarrassing as what he did to Griffin on Saturday night, and maybe more so given the caliber of his opponent. Yet, his contemporary and career excellence are a welcome reminder that the absence of failure is not proof of greatness.

In fightsport the ultimate goal is to collect the most prized scalps more so than living in fear of losing your own. I think it can only breed positive expectations from athletes if the MMA world sees a pound-for-pound alpha dog who is great for accomplishment's sake, rather than the scantiness of his loss column.

Silva's legacy is secure, and from here on out, he's playing with house money. The best part is that while he teases retirement, he is very much in his physical prime. If he stays at 185 for a bit longer, there are accomplished and excellent middleweights for him to fight, even if he will be a prohibitive favorite. If he wants to head to 205 pounds, there are a half dozen or more outstanding new challenges for him to potentially put on his resume. Hell, maybe we'll even get a heavyweight fight or two.

This is what prizefighting is supposed to be at its apex: elite fighters daring to prove the extent of their greatness. There's a reason why crusty octogenarian boxing scribes champion the days of Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong and Roberto Duran, and eschew overmanaged modern champions. They sought challenges and accomplished brilliant feats in the ring. They didn't do it without failure, but those prospects never kept them from fighting. They understood, however consciously, that the absence of failure should not be confused with greatness.

I'm often asked whom I want to see Silva fight next, and frankly, I'm not sure I care. I just want him in the cage with an outstanding fighter across the Octagon, another man daring to be great.
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