Vale Tudo Relics: Backstage with Anderson Silva

By Marcelo Alonso Feb 26, 2016

Talent, skills and conditioning, it could be argued, are the most important and basic features for any mixed martial artist aspiring to reach the top of the sport. However, in covering vale tudo and MMA events for the last two decades, I have learned that a fourth feature is just as significant: a resolute mind.

As I witnessed the trash talk between Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping ahead of their UFC Fight Night 84 main event on Saturday in London, I recalled two instances in which I came to understand the importance of “Chute Boxe Philosophy” and its role in shaping one of the best fighters in MMA history.

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A Fight Won at Weigh-ins

I had gotten used to covering Silva through his first vale tudo events in Curitiba, Brazil, and through closed-door training sessions with Chute Boxe, where a day of training was sometimes worse than the fights themselves. On a good day of sparring in the early 2000s, Silva could expect to see partners like Wanderlei Silva, Jose Landi-Jons, Rafael Cordeiro, Assuerio Silva, Murila Rua and Fabio Piemonte.

Silva showed his skills in a number of Meca World Vale Tudo events and knocked out Carlos Newton and Alex Stiebling in Pride Fighting Championships. He always had the support of his Chute Boxe teammates, who provided him with consistent mental encouragement. Not long after he left Chute Boxe, Silva was invited to Cage Rage to vie for the middleweight championship against Lee Murray in September 2004. Only student Damaso Pereira was in the Brazilian’s corner.

It was probably the most difficult mental test of Silva’s career. Besides the local support he received from his fellow Brits, Murray’s confidence was at an all-time high after his impressive knockout of Landi-Jons the previous year. He also had established himself as a gangster everyone in London feared, and he used that notoriety to scare some of his opponents.

I arrived a few hours before weigh-ins, and the atmosphere in the hotel was unusually tense. I had grown accustomed to such settings covering Pride, events in Northeast Brazil and even shows promoted by the Russian mob. However, I confess I had never seen anything like this. There was so much tension at the weigh-ins that even the promoters were unsure of how to handle Murray and his entourage, which typically included members carrying guns. By the time the weigh-ins started, Murray was swearing at the Brazilian, his mean-mugging friends providing the backup. Silva avoided their attempts at provocation, at least until they faced off.

After the two men were finished on the scale, Murray ripped away a Brazilian flag that had been stitched into the Cage Rage-issued trunks and went forehead to forehead with Silva. “The Spider” laughed and pushed Murray into the chairs surrounding the stage, igniting a melee.

“In the school I come from, we learn not to care about psychological games,” Silva said. “Ugly faces, to me, mean fear.”

He kept laughing, even as Murray threatened him while leaving the room. Silva was well aware that he had already swung the fight in his favor. News of the altercation spread across the media, resulting in a jam-packed Wembley Conference Centre. What impressed me most was Silva’s ability to forget everything that had happened by the time the referee closed the cage door. The Curitiba native started the bout with a kick to the Englishman’s head and followed it with a flying knee, the two blows silencing the partisan crowd. Silva taught an MMA and muay Thai class for all three rounds. He spent most of the fight standing, as he connected with spinning and low kicks. On the few occasions in which the action hit the ground, Silva attempted triangle chokes, omoplatas and arm locks, all of which were defended by Murray.

Silva was awarded a unanimous decision and with it the Cage Rage championship. Afterward, he took a moment to return the torn Brazilian flag to Murray. The crowd jeered the move, but his point was made.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it out of there alive,” Silva said, “but I did that to show him, humbly, that to disrespect an opponent and his country doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Later, Murray paid Silva a visit in his locker room, asked for forgiveness and congratulated the new champion. Their lives then went in two very different directions. After losing to Silva, Murray was at the center of a historic armed robbery, stealing $92 million from a bank in England. He fled to Morocco, where he was arrested on June 25, 2006, convicted and later sentenced to 25 years in prison. Murray’s story has now become the subject of a major motion picture.

Silva, meanwhile, defended the Cage Rage title three times, as he knocked out Jorge Rivera, Curtis Stault and Tony Fryklund. In June 2006, while Murray was under arrest in Morocco, Silva made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut at UFC Fight Night 5 and knocked out Chris Leben in 49 seconds. Four months later, I had the opportunity to go backstage for another memorable Silva victory in hostile territory, as he faced reigning middleweight champion Rich Franklin at UFC 64 in Las Vegas.

Capturing UFC Gold and Instant Celebrity

After he blew away Leben, Silva was given the chance to add UFC gold to a collection that already included Shooto and Cage Rage titles. UFC 64 took place on Oct. 12, 2006 in Las Vegas, one week before Pride Fighting Championships was scheduled to debut in Sin City. Covering a nine-day trip out of my own pocket, I tried to find a cheap hotel between the Mandalay Bay, where the UFC was holding court, and Caesar’s Palace, where Pride was setting up shop.

As soon as Silva saw me at the pre-fight press conference -- I was the only member of the Brazilian media in town -- he invited me to share a room with his trainers. It gave me an up-close look at all the details that went into launching the greatest championship reign in UFC history. The camp had a tight-knit vibe about it, with Silva’s good spirits as the centerpiece. It hardly felt as if he was about to face one of the most popular and successful champions in the UFC. Franklin was 22-1 entering the fight and had never lost as a middleweight.

In the days before the fight, Franklin vowed not to shy away from striking with the Brazilian. However, he admitted he was aware of the serious test before him.

“Anderson will be the biggest challenge of my career,” Franklin said. “Whoever is left standing will not only take the title belt but also the title of best striker in the division.”

During fighter introductions, Franklin offered a glimpse into why he was so popular. When the crowd booed Silva, the former high school math teacher requested that he be applauded instead. The fans obliged. Applause notwithstanding, Silva was well-prepared for Franklin’s approach. After a brief striking exchange between the two, the Brazilian secured a muay Thai clinch on the champion’s neck and landed a series of damaging knees to the ribs and liver. Franklin staggered, and Silva pounced for the finish. A knee strike left the American with a badly broken nose, and a head kick finished him off.

While the crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center fell into a hush, Silva shed tears of joy as his entourage flooded the Octagon.

“I don’t cry a lot, but when I won, it all came back to me -- all the hard work I put in with my coaches and the daily struggle with injuries,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Silva left the cage as the third Brazilian to win a UFC championship, joining Vitor Belfort and Murilo Bustamante. It was fascinating to see the birth of an icon. Just hours after it took him a few minutes to walk to the arena from his hotel room, Silva covered the same path on the way back. It took him almost an hour to get to his room. American fight fans had already begun to recognize him.

Longstanding Fascination with B.O.P.E.

In the days following his win over Franklin, Silva told me of his fascination with “Elite Squad,” a blockbuster film made by Brazilian director Jose Padilha. It tells of the violent routine of Batalhao de Operacoes Policiais Especiais, a military police force, and its battles with drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro. Silva dreamed of joining the team before becoming a fighter and was fascinated with a character named Captain Nascimento, played by actor Wagner Moura. So extensive was Silva’s fascination that he called his children by code numbers that represented their ages: Kauana 06, Khalil 08, Gabriel 09 and Kaori 011.

I had a couple of friends who worked with B.O.P.E., so after the fight with Franklin, I thought about taking Silva to meet some of his heroes. I proposed a visit, and the group immediately welcomed the champion. The day after he returned to Rio de Janeiro, I picked up Silva and one of his students at his house and we set off for the B.O.P.E. headquarters in the Laranjeiras district. Lieutenant Colonel Pinheiro Neto greeted Silva, along with a major and several corporals.

“Feel free to grab [the championship belt], ’cause it’s ours,” Silva told them. “It belongs to Brazil.”

Silva then invited everyone to take pictures with the title at the entrance to headquarters. He looked like a wide-eyed kid visiting an amusement park for the first time. At the end of his tour, Silva headed down to check out the B.O.P.E. dojo. Seeing images of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira painted on the wall, he was informed that the brothers had donated $2,000 toward building the dojo. “I also owe a lot to those guys,” Silva said. “If it weren’t for them, I might have stopped fighting.”

The B.O.P.E. major seized the moment and asked the champion to lead a muay Thai training session and face prospective cadets one by one. Silva let his guard down and defended their punches and kicks without striking back. Afterward, he allowed the students to take pictures with the UFC championship; and the officers even broke protocol for him.

“Military officers are not supposed to applaud,” the corporal said, “but given this lesson of humility and technique, we’ll make an exception with a round of applause for our champion.”

Silva thanked the group for the experience.

“In my home, everyone was in the military,” he said. “I grew up believing I’d join the police force, but God steered me to the fight world. It’s an honor to be here today. I have great admiration for B.O.P.E., not only because of the movie but because of the book. I’m thrilled to see the discipline and respect among all of you.”

Before he left, Silva was invited to pose in a B.O.P.E. uniform with the squad’s official rifle. There could not have been a better picture for the cover of Tatame 141. Besides the exclusive scoop of taking the UFC champion to B.O.P.E., I had the photo of him dressed as the most popular character in the history of Brazilian cinema.

Surpassing Fedor

Silva finished the visit by watching almost an hour of real mission footage, as B.O.P.E. traveled to one of the most dangerous slums in Rio. It was close to 11 p.m. when we left battalion headquarters. The experience was all Silva could talk about during our return trip from Laranjeiras to his home in Barra da Tijuca. His manager, Ed Soares, called him and brought him back to reality.

“You surpassed Fedor [Emelianenko], and you’re the new number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world, according to the rankings on Sherdog, the biggest MMA website in the world,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

Silva appreciated the call.

“Cool, great news,” he said. Silva then echoed the words of his movie idol: “Skulls, commander. Mission issued and mission accomplished.”

Working as editor of Tatame Magazine, I lost count of how many fighters and managers asked to be on the cover of the publication. However, I had never received a call from anyone requesting not to appear on the cover, until Silva phoned me the day after or visit with B.O.P.E. He had just moved to Rio de Janeiro and was fearful he would invite problems with drug dealers if the picture of him dressed like a B.O.P.E. officer made the rounds in the city.

At the time, there was no Pacifying Unit Project in existence, and an intense war between the police and drug dealers had claimed many victims. I had no choice but to concede to his wishes.
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