Sometimes a fighter can lose six of his last nine fights and still be considered both watchable and admirable. And sometimes reputation is greater than record. In the case of Wanderlei Silva, both statements are true and if you don't believe me, listen to the wall of sound that greets his entrance to the Octagon this coming Saturday night (June 23) at the UFC 147 Pay-Per-View in Brazil.
At that precise moment, as the opening bars to Darude's 'Sandstorm' kick in, nobody -- not Wanderlei or the thousands in attendance and millions watching at home -- will care for resumes, winning streaks or statistics. Instead, Wanderlei, national hero and celebrated scrapper, will prepare to step into his office, stare menacingly, connect his hands and roll them, before attacking his foe -- in this case, America's Rich Franklin -- like a bloodthirsty zombie, all perpetual motion, arms jutting out from his body in a fog of violence.
It is this style and, indeed, this mentality that has pushed Silva's stats to the background and moved his personality, history and iconic fighting style very much to the foreground. Yes, Silva, one-time darling of Japan, may nowadays lose more than he wins, but, despite the slump in fortune, he remains consistently thrilling. And, when all's said and done, that's all that matters. To us, anyway.
The truth of the matter is this: Wanderlei Silva will soon turn 36, but already looks twice his age. Facially, he resembles a different man to the one who first started out as a skilled Vale Tudo artist in November 1996, the result of heavy blows to the face and essential plastic surgery. Ten years ago he was PRIDE middleweight champion and the best fighter in the world, now he's a famous gatekeeper of the UFC's middleweight division, a man attempting to claw back time in an era of younger, better and more versatile fighters. For fans, and I include myself in this bracket, it certainly hasn't always been easy watching Silva of late. After all, since joining the UFC in 2008 he has won just three fights, against Keith Jardine, Michael Bisping and Cung Le.
In claiming those wins the Silva of old -- foaming at the mouth, popping veins -- reared its head just twice, for a few seconds of mayhem while finishing off both Jardine and Le. Such glimpses provided fans with timely reminders of what Silva was once capable of -- the knees, the aggression, the haymakers -- and also demonstrated that, if kept at a certain level, Silva can still find some kind of success in this day and age.
Of course, dip him back into the sort of talent pool he once roamed and the vehicle stutters and the wheels come off. UFC losses to Chuck Liddell, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Rich Franklin and Chris Leben are nothing to be embarrassed about, yet Silva has been losing to these fellow veterans of the sport, rather than vicious up-and-comers. This sort of form doesn't exactly indicate a title run waits around the corner and, in fact, it goes some way to highlighting the very real possibility that Silva may have even slipped behind peers from the same era.
Whether accidental or planned, he's also been steered away from the young guns making their way up the middleweight rankings, the kind who would presumably exploit his comparatively one-dimensional skill-set and, in doing so, paint a sad picture of a withered former champion. I, for one, am pleased to have been spared that.
Stick Silva in with a Cung Le or Rich Franklin, or any other 30-something gladiator, and chances are you'll see a bit of the old 'Axe Murderer.' In 2012, that's the best we can hope for, and whether these cameos result in victories or defeats, so long as nobody gets hurt, everybody's a winner. Because, until you've seen Silva fight, you'll never understand just what this great Brazilian means to both his countrymen and the entire sport of mixed martial arts. Remember, for nearly twenty years, Wanderlei Silva has been a fighting culture all of his own, poster boy for the Chute Box Academy and, at least as far as intimidation goes, the closest thing MMA has ever had to a Mike Tyson.
Believe me, nothing excites like a Silva night and, in many cases, his ring entrances and stare-downs surpass most actual fights in terms of spine-tingling entertainment. Who can forget his epic head-to-heads with Mirko Cro Cop and Rampage Jackson? How about Chuck Liddell? And Dan Henderson? Show me a person capable of sitting through those stare-downs and not get excited and I'll show you a liar in need of testosterone replacement therapy. It is, quite frankly, impossible to do so and, even now, years removed from his prime, Silva still generates this same kind of teasing of the senses in the minutes and seconds before a fight. Emotional, visceral and immensely likeable, once you invest in the Silva story, you're there for life.
Best jump on board quickly, too, as there likely won't be many more chapters left to write, despite his best intentions. Of course, earlier in the week Silva ridiculed the prospect of retirement, claiming he still had plenty left to offer. That might be true, of course, but, are we really expecting Silva to conjure many more highs as great as beating Franklin, in a rematch no less, at home in front of 20,000 Brazilians? If that does occur on Saturday night, and Silva heads home with his second straight UFC victory, then what better time to call it a day? The picture perfect ending and all that, name in lights, a national hero.
Who am I kidding? If Silva gets his way and flattens Franklin, the last thing on his and his fans' minds will be retirement. He's far more likely to react in the manner countryman Jose Aldo did when he recently scored a knockout win in front of his home fans. Pure, undiluted joy, and perhaps a tour of the arena, his disciples grabbing at whatever available piece of him they can find. After all, he means the world to them, and to us, and there are few greater sights than seeing Wanderlei snatch victories at this advanced stage of his career, offering fleeting reminders of the monster he once was. But, while wins can paper over cracks, defeats rip them wide open for all to see.
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