It's fair to say Superman was never quite as invigorated by the prospect of rescuing a cat from a tree than he was propping up a falling skyscraper with a stray pinky. Considered by many to be the Superman of mixed martial arts, Anderson 'The Spider' Silva looks wonderful when lifting buildings with one finger, yet, when uninspired and complacent, often struggles getting cats down from trees.
Silva is, of course, the incredibly gifted UFC world middleweight champion and a fighter undefeated in 12 UFC bouts. Upon joining the organization in June 2006, Silva dominated Chris Leben, Rich Franklin (twice), Travis Lutter, Nate Marquardt and Dan Henderson with frightening ease. Rarely pushed beyond the first round, Silva operated with a swagger and purpose, underpinned by a need to perform and prove himself the best in the world. He quickly became champion.
As middleweight title defenses began to mount up, Silva sought fresh challenges in the light-heavyweight division. His middleweight peers had become timid cats and Silva had ran out of trees to climb. As a result, he blitzed 205-pounder James Irvin in July 2008 and thus kickstarted a process of leaping between the two divisions.
He retained his middleweight crown, of course, but, with the lure of bigger men and bigger punches up above, Silva would never appear the same back down in the 185-pound weight class. In one-round dismissals of Irvin and then Forrest Griffin, a purposeful Silva seemed on edge and in a hurry, and struck a similar pose to the one held when first entering the UFC. He knew the light-heavyweights hit harder, were physically stronger and boasted dimensions on him. There was a tangible sense of risk, despite his success.
When the time came to return home and continue saving cats from trees, however, Silva cut a bored and forlorn figure. Since defeating Irvin in his initial light-heavyweight cameo, the middleweight king has labored to victories over Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, Demian Maia and, most recently, Chael Sonnen. He successfully retained his belt against each challenger, but pitched performances draped in curiosity, controversy and anti-climax. The impatient destroyer of past UFC triumphs had made way for a petulant, pretentious and painfully patient pacifist.
Jiu-jitsu experts Leites and Maia didn't suit him and went five rounds, while Cote defeated himself via injury. Last August, a rampaging Sonnen bagged four rounds and appeared seconds from beating Silva, before falling foul of a triangle choke in the dying embers of the fifth session. Unlike Silva, the challenger couldn't escape. Four rounds down, Silva's escape was Houdini-esque.
The champion's last four title defenses have been as perplexing as his first few were thrilling, and many have wondered how we got to this point. Some have said that Silva finds the running of his natural domain too easy and that he is only enthused by physical challenges in the division above. Understandable, perhaps, were he not actually fighting better opponents at middleweight than he has been at light-heavyweight. The myth of Silva being unopposed as a middleweight no longer rings true. Cote was a dangerous puncher, who enjoyed spurts of success, Leites and Maia had the ground skills to trouble him, and Sonnen, of course, bullied the Brazilian on his feet and on the ground. Whether it's due to his own complacency or the styles of his opponents, the middleweight Silva has certainly been tested of late.
So this brings me to the concept of age and wear-and-tear. Whisper it quietly, but Silva isn't Superman and will eventually age and slow down. The Brazilian turns 36 in April and has been fighting his entire life. He is older than namesake Wanderlei Silva and both the Nogueira brothers and has fought professionally as a mixed martial artist for more than a decade now. Though never one to ship too much punishment, Silva boasts a style that relies heavily on explosive movement, expert timing and unparalleled speed. As any follower of combat sports will tell you, those are the three elements most desired by Father Time when he comes-a-knocking.
So, if complacency isn't a reasonable excuse for recent showings, perhaps age and the inevitable slide of a 36-year-old fighter is. After all, nobody can pinpoint the moment when it happens. Sometimes it just creeps up on a man. Would the Silva of 2006 really have taken five rounds and 25 minutes to defeat the likes of Maia and Leites, two pure grapplers with a clear aversion to any potential fisticuffs? I don't believe he would have.
The Maia 'performance' in Abu Dhabi last April was perhaps the most revealing and ominous of Silva's recent outings. While one can excuse him for struggling with master wrestler Sonnen, the champion's bizarre date with Maia disturbed fans to a far greater extent. Explosive and spiteful to begin with, Silva burnt up plenty of energy kicking, punching and taunting a hapless Maia in the opening round of their middleweight standoff. However, by the third round, Silva's tank appeared to empty and Maia, astonished he was still upright and firing, started to come on strong down the stretch.
Boasting rudimentary striking skills and flimsy technique, Maia nevertheless fell back on immense heart and strength of mind to push Silva and connect with a series of left hands from the southpaw stance. Merely content to dance away and occasionally poke out his tongue, most assumed Silva was simply hitting cruise control, seeing out the contest and, in the process, mocking his fellow Brazilian.
He wasn't. The comedy routine occurred early, but, by the time Maia wiped the blood congregating beneath his nose and began to fight back in the fourth and fifth rounds, Silva was out of puff and unable to sustain any of his attacks. The snap and explosiveness had departed his limbs, and he was only left with the annoying ability to pull faces from out of range.
Maia didn't boast the skills nor power to capitalize on Silva slowing down that April night in Yas Island. However, next Saturday (February 5) at UFC 126, Silva defends his belt against another fellow Brazilian, Vitor Belfort, a man armed with more than enough striking prowess to derail Silva, should the champion become either complacent or old.
Two years younger at 33, Belfort possesses the kind of punch power that could either install necessary fear within Silva's mind or, alternatively, switch out the champion's lights. If Belfort's fists inspire and terrify Silva into action, we could all witness something special from the self-styled 'Spider.' We may reunite with a fighter keen to eradicate memories of that epic struggle with Sonnen last August. Remember me, guys?
Conversely, by Sunday morning, we may also come to terms with the next stage in the decline of a legendary fighting champion. We've reached a fascinating juncture in Silva's career and, at 36, you can never rule out the possibility of natural progression overtaking any desire the eccentric champion may have or have not to fight. Though he always looks to be in control whenever he competes, nobody can control passing days, weeks, months and years. If recent form is anything to go by, for whatever reason, the unbeatable has never looked more beatable.