Wanderlei Silva

The Brazilian legend remains one of the most important fighters in the history of MMA. As he picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fighters Only World MMA Awards, we took the opportunity to salute a man who has never taken a backward step either inside or outside the Octagon.

There is that feeling shared by many of its recipients that a Lifetime Achievement Award is a sign that they are near the end of their careers. Or perhaps that it really is over. Or perhaps that this is the moment, a sign from the industry that has defined them, that it is time to enjoy a venerable retirement.

Has that time come for the great Wanderlei Silva, aka ‘The Axe Murderer’?

Let’s be straight, and may this arrow hit hard and stay fast in the target bullseye. Wanderlei Silva is a legend in mixed martial arts many times over, but perhaps a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fighters Only World MMA Awards in Las Vegas is a nod towards Father Time, that cruel shadow that creeps up on all fighters. The greatness leaves, then the performances become mediocre, perfunctory even, and we find ourselves hoping that that once-great figure, will either summon up the magic one more time or leave the arena with their pride intact

But it is no longer there. A shadow, a ghost of what was there before is what remains. The clock is always unforgiving, particularly in the realm of combat sports. We see them come, they have their time, and then they are gone. But never forgotten. Perhaps that time is now for Wanderlei Cesar da Silva, the “Cachorro Loco” (Mad Dog).

Indeed, if the reports of Wanderlei’s “concussion like symptoms” reported by the man himself, are fundamentally true, then given current practice these warning signs must be heeded and taken very seriously.

We know Wanderlei is one of the greats, revered by the old-school MMA fans and fighters, and that he has given his body and soul to the fight game. Doing what he loved, entertaining the fans. But the longer a career goes on, and Wanderlei has gone on through thin and thinner, surely the harder it becomes for current fans to recall that greatness? Surely the separation of memory becomes more clouded. The 22-year fight veteran, standing 5ft 11ins tall, with massive arms powerful legs and who was billed rightly as one of the greatest wrecking balls in MMA from 1999 to 2006 (between his age of 23 and 30) could so easily have called time on his career had he retired after his Rich Franklin fights, after his contest with Cung Le, or perhaps even after the fight with Brian Stann in Japan. That was when he was in his mid-thirties.

All four of those aforementioned scraps were ‘Fight of the Night’ winners in the UFC. Wanderlei, to the educated fight fan, will always be a winner. It does not matter that he never got his rematch, revenge fight with Vitor Belfort which he still calls “personal, bitter” after his defeat in 44 seconds way back at UFC Brazil in 1998. (“I only became Wanderlei Silva after that loss to Vitor. I didn’t study him, I didn’t know he was that explosive. Everyone knows Vitor, if he can’t explode right at the beginning, he’ll probably surrender. For me, being the gladiator that I am, it pissed me off that I lost that fight. You know how it goes, I’ll lose to anyone, but not to that guy. It turns out I did lose to him, what can I say? It’s been 20 years I’ve been chasing him and he has not done anything but run.”).

Nor does it really even matter that when he did actually fight Chael Sonnen – after all the feuding and fighting in their TUF series which did little for the Brazilian’s public image – in a Bellator event four years later at Madison Square Garden, he lost. Nor indeed, that ill-advised flight from a random drugs test. Look down the list of greats in this sport and show me those without aberration..

What Silva did best was in that seven-year period in PRIDE, and then only sporadically afterwards. The UFC was never his prime hunting ground. Times had changed, and by then, Wanderlei had been to the bank too many times, writing checks his body couldn’t cash, sacrificing his body to the cause.

It was the Silva-Stann fight that will always live long in this observer’s memory. I was there that night doing post-fight interviews for FUEL TV, and looking back, it might have been the perfect way to end his fight resume after a coruscating, brutal toe-to-toe fight with an American hero, and one that he ended with his arms aloft. It would probably rank in the top five fights of his career, along with the contests against Kazushi Sakuraba at PRIDE 13, often seen as the Hagler-Hearns of MMA, Rampage Jackson in PRIDE 28, or the same foe in PRIDE Final Conflict, Dan Henderson in PRIDE 12, Keith Jardine at UFC 84, against a 70lb heavier Mark Hunt at PRIDE Shockwave 2004. I could go on and on and on. Enough fights and explosive action to fill a tome.

But that night in Japan against Stann, and indeed in the build-up that week, in March 2013, Wanderlei was fascinating. The very same PRIDE legend and UFC star who earned his fighting sobriquets for those devastating hands, knees and feet that have accounted for so many victims in combat. Let us remember that night, as it was another brilliant performance from him on a night when he displayed why we all loved to see him fight

The Brazilian – beast on the outside, beautiful person on the inside (‘Thanks God’ tattooed onto his forearm) – prepared for his 29th fight in Japan (22-4-1, 1 No Contest). He was almost philosophical. Even then. Not perhaps thinking that it was his last fight – he clearly wasn’t thinking that – more that he knew what he could deliver, but knew there were other ways to claim victory.

It was his first fight in Japan since September 2006, and he faced the most decorated US soldier ever to grace the UFC Octagon. The fight having been set at light-heavyweight, 205lbs, was a bonus for both men. Both knew how to stand and trade, and we had been promised fireworks from them, with both having openly stated that they planned to put on a show to delight the fans. The kinds of battles we had witnessed in PRIDE from ‘Wandy’ against a modern Who’s Who of fan-favorite fighters.

We were in an interview room high in the Hilton Hotel in Tokyo, with one photographer taking pictures of him, framed in a large window with a scape of the city behind. Silva told me that while his body felt good, retirement was not on his mind. He had been much more comfortable in camp, not having to cut to middleweight, where he had fought in his last four contests. Then Silva admitted to me that although the fight against Stann was expected to play out as a stand-up battle, it had crossed his mind that he may take the fight to the floor. It came as a shock. But he does, after all, have a black belt in jiu-jitsu.

But then the real Wanderlei crept out. The one who fights for the fans. His raison d’etre. “I think about it, because I have the black belt in jiu-jitsu and he does not have the ground game, but once I get into the fight, I like to prove things with these,” the Brazilian said, his hands rising towards his face.

And so it proved against Stann at the Saitama Super Arena. The fight itself was edge-of-your-seat fare. It resembled the years of their pomp as the two devastating finishers produced the denouement for which they are revered. Silva registered his 23rd victory on Japanese soil, stopped Stann in the second round, flooring him with a straight right hand and left hook combination and then followed up with a barrage of punches. It was compelling, brutal action, the first round like a tear-up in a phone box as punches flew and both men were decked. It might have been set up as a five-round contest, but neither man looked like they fancied overtime. That night, Stann, the former US Marine Corps officer, went to hospital immediately afterwards with sutures across the split bridge of his nose, which had poured claret on Silva as the two engaged on the ground as the first round drew to a close. “Brian Stann is a really tough guy, he nearly had me out of there in the first round,” admitted Silva to me afterwards, almost as an aside. Forty-nine fights into his career, and having fought his last four prior to this one at middleweight – Bisping, win, Leben, loss, Cung Le, win, Franklin, loss – I ventured to suggest to Silva that he had looked and seemed so comfortable at 205lbs, he might consider staying there. “No, I can’t. The guys at light-heavyweight are too big these days for me to fight in that division. I will go back to middleweight,” he replied. At the time, any thoughts of retirement were quickly forgotten. Even coming into that fight with Stann in Japan, Wanderlei had lost seven of his last ten fights. Yet on he has gone. A four-year break, and then back-to-back defeats in Bellator, to Sonnen and Rampage Jackson (their fourth encounter).

It was a tough tenure in the UFC for the aggressive sportsman who holds the record for the most wins, knockouts, title defenses, and longest winning streak in the history of the PRIDE fighting championship organization. Since joining the UFC five years earlier, he had amassed a 3-5 win/loss record, though always facing elite opposition. There have been no gimmes for Wanderlei. None. Silva has seen it all in his career. He once took a fight on two days’ notice, though that was a different era, the sport has moved on enormously, and although there is always pressure on him to show his best fighting skills, he simply loved his job. Nothing has changed really, certainly in mentality. Just in human frailty. And it comes for all fighters in the end.

Let’s go back, though, back to his best. His very best. The bristling Silva was always a wrecking ball, drawing opponents into fights they either weren’t expecting or prepared for; a pure warrior, with timing, bull-rushing skills and brutal counter-striking, right in the heart of the storm. Later in his career he has fought in bursts, in surges. And even in the fights he lost, he was very rarely dominated. He always hurt opponents, looked to create damage, threw at awkward angles with awkward timing that opponents found hard to mimic in sparring. Imagine training for the prime ‘Cachorro Loco’?

Silva has made it harder and harder for us to remember him for who he was, rather than who he’s become. But Silva is a special fighter. Or at least he was. The days in Brazil and then in Japan, defined him. What is it about a great fighter not being able to give up the ghost? They stick around because it’s the only thing they’re capable of doing brilliantly, the rush cannot be replaced; it’s the quickest way to make money, the only thing they know.

So next time you see a PRIDE legend falter in the cage as a shadow of their former self, don’t ridicule their decision to fight, or scoff at the sight of yet another defeat. Instead, consider why these veterans continue to fight. Perhaps they know nothing else. They say the fighter is the last one to know. But Wanderlei probably does know.

Silva admitted some time ago that having been to a medical seminar on concussion, he had concerns about his own health. Hearing of the symptoms of concussion, he said he experienced 80 per cent them. Some confession. Currently signed with Bellator, the fight league’s president Scott Coker told me that Wanderlei “is still under contract but for him to participate in a match he will have to go through all the neurological clearances that are in place.”

“The safety of fighters is foremost,” added Coker, and for that reason, who knows if Wanderlei will ever be allowed to fight again. Silva clearly does not need to ever fight again for his legacy. Any student of our sport can tell you that.

Wanderlei has competed in 51 professional fights throughout his 22-year professional career. In that time, he has been defeated on seven occasions by knockout or TKO but when you add to that the famed ‘gym wars’ he regularly undertook in the celebrated Chute Boxe Academy in Curitiba, Brazil, the tally of strikes his head has absorbed is really frightening.

Yet his participation in the seminar on the risk of concussion and its relationship to dementia pugilistica, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) opened his eyes and ears. “I was at this lecture about concussion and I had eight out of the 10 symptoms the guy talked about,” Silva said to Portal do Vale Tudo. He recited “mood swings, forgetfulness, trouble sleeping’.

He recalled his gym wars, the belief that the more punches you took in sparring, the harder it made you. Now Silva wants his brain to be donated to science on death to help understand the dangers facing professional fighters. Props on that.

Often though, fighters’ reasons for fighting center on two things: a desire to entertain their legions of fans, and the refusal to give up the very thing that defined them for so long, in spite of the recurring and lasting damage. There are many, many others, just like Wanderlei. They have a habit which has become impossible to kick. But let’s be clear: Silva, in the context of his era and at his best, belongs up there with the very greatest in the history of the sport. Nailed down. Irrevocable. A soldier to the cause. And for that, Wanderlei Silva should be forgiven the odd slip, the lack of PC, for what he truly gave, and what he has given of himself. Wanderlei joins former fighters Royce Gracie and Randy Couture who have won this Lifetime Award. He promised violence. We got it. Perhaps now it’s time for that to end.

Gareth A. Davies