Occupy The Throne – Edition #17
Jeremy Lambert: When running down the greatest fighters of all-time, it doesn’t take long before you get to the name Wanderlei Silva. His run in PRIDE is one of the most memorable stretches of dominance in MMA history and he’s one of the most beloved fighters in the sport. He’s fought and beaten a who’s who list of MMA legends but, like all great fighters, his time is coming to an end.
This Saturday Wanderlei fights in his home country of Brazil for the first time in 12 years in what could be his last headlining fight. Just a couple of weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Silva has been gradually slowing down for years now and appears to be on his last legs as a high-level competitor.
Samer Kadi: The term “legend” gets thrown around far too much for a sport that has only been around for about eighteen years. When it comes to Mixed Martial Arts, legit legends are few and far in between. And while the term is subjective and largely dependent on your interpretation of the notion, there remain a handful of fighters whose status as MMA icons is undisputable. One of the few fighters to fit the bill is former longtime PRIDE middleweight champion, Wanderlei Silva.
For years, everything about Silva – from intense stare-downs to a brutal fighting style – struck fear in the hearts of opponents. The unique violence that the head-shaking, wrist-rolling, and face-smashing Brazilian brought to the ring made him a can’t-miss proposition in the sport. If you were a fan of MMA, you were a fan of Wanderlei Silva.
Jeremy Lambert: Wanderlei Silva’s run in PRIDE is arguably the best run of any fighter in the history of the sport. Fedor’s dominance in PRIDE was great and Anderson Silva’s current dominance in the UFC is outstanding, but there was something special about Wanderlei in PRIDE. Maybe it was how he put opponents away or how he captured the Japanese audience and became the biggest draw in the organization despite his Brazilian ethnicity or his willingness to fight anyone at anytime. Whatever the case may have been, it’s a stretch that will be tough for any fighter to match as the sport moves forward.
Silva amassed 22 victories, 15 by knockout, with only three losses during his eight year PRIDE career. He really took off when he destroyed Kazushi Sakuraba at PRIDE 13. Wins over Dan Henderson and Guy Mezger were impressive, but the way he blasted through Sakuraba put the MMA world on notice. Silva captured the PRIDE middleweight title at PRIDE 17 by once again defeating Sakuraba, which led to him successfully defending the title more times than any champion in any weight class in the organization’s history. Silva wasn’t just defending the title though, he was putting people unconscious with his aggressive style that included a barrage of punches, knees, and kicks.
Of everything Silva accomplished in PRIDE though, nothing stands out more than his 2003 middleweight Grand Prix victory.
Samer Kadi:. Back in 2003, MMA was not the known commodity it is today, and the UFC was hardly the powerhouse it later went on to become. In part, that is why longtime MMA fans have such fond memories of PRIDE. They felt a sense of belongingness that others could not relate to. Watching what is, from a US perspective, an obscure Japanese martial arts event provided them with a unique feeling of excitement. For these fans, the 2003 middleweight Grand Prix represents the pinnacle of their love for the sport.
To put matters in perspective, the 2003 middleweight Grand Prix was so big that Dana White and the UFC co-promoted with PRIDE, and sent one of their top 205′ers, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, to compete in the tournament. While the MMA world braced itself for an eventual showdown between Liddell and Silva, another – and more intense – rivalry would play itself out. As Quinton Jackson left the UFC boss speechless on commentary as he beat down one of his top stars, “Rampage” was setting his sights on the man he disliked the most, the PRIDE middleweight champion, Wanderlei Silva.
The two ultimately locked horns in the final, and what resulted was a brutal beatdown of epic proportions that later on proved to be a mere chapter in a storied rivalry. Wanderlei Silva brutalized his American foe with knees in the clinch to become the Grand Prix champion and cement his status as the greatest light heavyweight on the planet.
The Grand Prix final victory over Jackson however, pales in comparison to Silva’s much awaited rematch “Rampage.” Very seldom does a fight manage to combine all the necessary elements of a true classic, and yet, it is exactly what Silva vs. Jackson II was able to achieve. The hatred was real, the backstory was compelling, the title was on the line, and the anticipation was at its highest. When Silva and Jackson finally exchanged blows again, they made for one of the greatest fights in the history of our sport.
After thirteen minutes of intense back-and-forth action that saw Jackson floor Silva with a straight right, the Brazilian landed a trademark right hook on Jackson’s chin, and proceeded to end his night with a brutal flurry of knees that left the latter unconcious. The shot of “Rampage’s” motionless body squirting blood through the ropes remains one of MMA’s most iconic, and it marked arguably the greatest moment in Silva’s stellar career.
Jeremy Lambert: After an amazing PRIDE middleweight run, Silva finally tasted defeat inside the ring when he took on Mark Hunt. While the weight difference between the two was pretty obvious, Wanderlei, never one to back down from a challenge, took the fight and found himself on the wrong side of a split decision.
He returned to the middleweight division for the 2005 Grand Prix and in the semifinals, he once again found himself on the wrong side of a decision, this time to Ricardo Arona. It was the first time in his PRIDE career that he lost at 205 and sort of signified a changing of the guard in PRIDE as his teammate and friend “Shogun” Rua went on to win the 2005 middleweight Grand Prix, thus catapulting him into MMA stardom. Wanderlei did go on to avenge his loss to Arona, defeating him via split decision in a rematch, but his mystique was never quite the same.
Wanderlei once again got in over his head when he faced Mirko Cro Cop in the PRIDE 2006 openweight Grand Prix. Replacing the then heavyweight champion and consensus best fighter in the world, Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei once again proved that he was afraid of no fighter, but he was unable to stop what turned out to be the Croatians crowning achievement in MMA as Cro Cop added Silva to his list of head kick victims.
As 2006 turned to 2007, PRIDE was slowly dying and Wanderlei’s skills were decaying right alongside it. He unsuccessfully failed to defend the middleweight title that he had held since 2001 when he was KO’d by Dan Henderson in what was the last fight of his PRIDE career. While he tried to fight at PRIDE 34, which turned out to be the last event the organization ran, back-to-back KO losses prevented him from doing so, denying him the chance to wreak havoc on some poor Japanese soul one last time or possibly concluding his trilogy with Arona.
Samer Kadi: It takes a special kind of fighter to crush both cans and elite fighters with the same ease. It takes an even more special type of fighter to generate the same type of interest in either event. In other words, whether Silva was separating helpless Japanese overmatched fighters from consciousness, or stomping down Dan Henderson and Quinton Jackson, Silva’s fights in PRIDE were simply MMA at its violent and most exciting best.
Jeremy Lambert: With the UFC buying out PRIDE in early 2007, it led to a lot of PRIDE mainstays coming to America to compete in the octagon. Finally, in December 2007, Silva vs. Liddell would happen. However, it would take on a different shape than the fight both parties were trying to set up in 2003 and 2006. During those times it was going to be a fight to determine the best light heavyweight in the world, but in 2007, with both men coming off two losses, it was a fight to determine who could make one last run at glory. Despite the light heavyweight title unification fight at UFC 75 between UFC champion Quinton Jackson and PRIDE champion Dan Henderson, Liddell vs. Silva was really the UFC vs. PRIDE fight for supremacy. This was the fight that would give “nut huggers” of either organization bragging rights because it was the face of both companies finally squaring off.
Despite almost impossible hype to live up to, the fight delivered. Personally, it’s my favorite fight of all-time because of the storyline leading up to it, the atmosphere, and the fact that it turned out to be a great fight. Both men were known for their knockouts, but it was a blessing that neither man went down and out after 15-minutes of almost non-stop action on the feet. Liddell’s hand was raised in victory, but no one walked away and thought Wanderlei was done in the sport.
Samer Kadi: Despite coming off second best against Liddell, Silva put on a valiant effort that earned him praise from fans and pundits alike. However, despite the thrilling nature of the bout, there was a near unanimous sense that “The Axe Murderer” was standing on his last legs.
However, a vintage knockout of Keith Jardine seemed to indicate that a return to form would be in the making. Silva had a chip on his shoulder as he knew he could ill afford a fourth consecutive loss. It took him thirty-three seconds to take care of business, capitalizing on a lazy Jardine leg kick, dropping him with a combination, and finishing him with trademark “Axe Murderer” killer instinct.
In hindsight, the win served as a time-buyer for Silva more than anything else. His next fight saw him take on his eternal nemesis, Quinton Jackson, for a third time, and this time, “Rampage” was able to get a measure of revenge by putting Wanderlei to sleep with a textbook left hook. The loss was major alarm bell for Silva, and in an attempt to salvage whatever is left of his career, a move to the middleweight was in order.
Jeremy Lambert: With four losses in five bouts, it was time Silva made a change in order to preserve his MMA career for a little while long. That change came in the form of dropping down to 185 lbs, but before he officially made his middleweight debut, he took a catchweight bout against Rich Franklin at UFC 99.
Their first bout took Fight of the Night honors and the fact that Silva remained conscious was a morale victory in the minds of fans. This Saturday they meet again and Silva is facing the same crossroads that he faced three years ago. Even though he’s 2-1 in his three middleweight contests, he hasn’t fought with much consistency, suffered another brutal KO loss at the hands of Chris Leben, and didn’t look partially stunning against a mediocre Cung Le. Like the first time he fought Franklin, people are wondering if this is the last time we see Silva in a high-profile fight because his chin has taken more shots since 2009 and his reflexes have continued to slow as well. Not only that, but Franklin isn’t the same fighter he was three years ago either. A UFC 99 loss to “Ace” wasn’t seen as a big deal, especially given how it happened, because at that point the former UFC middleweight champion had only been dominated by Anderson Silva and went toe-to-toe with Dan Henderson, losing a very close and slightly controversial split decision.
Franklin is now 1-2 in his last three bouts with his only win coming against a chin shot Liddell, where, even in victory he didn’t look particularly impressive. A loss to Franklin on Saturday won’t really prove that he’s ready to make another run at the title, it’ll just prove that Silva might not be long for the sport anymore.
Samer Kadi: Wanderlei Silva is currently in a spot where he’s mainly fighting on name value, as well as the fact that win or lose, he is going to help produce something memorable – even if he is on the receiving end – every time he steps inside the Octagon. Whatever division he competes in, Wanderlei is never going to be in serious title contention at this point in his career, and that is unlikely to change, even with a win on Saturday.
That however, does not make a victory any less vital for “The Axe Murderer,” if only to avoid the potential repercussions of a loss. In short, if Silva wants to avoid the now trademark Joe Rogan forced retirement post-fight interview, he needs to come out victorious. Moreover, fighting in his home country makes a win even more imperative for one of Brazil’s most popular fighters.
Repeated knockout losses and declining reflexes suggest Wanderlei is better off adopting a more cautious style. However, at this point in time, expecting any serious adjustments in Silva’s game is a major stretch. Furthermore, Silva has been less aggressive in some of his recent fights – namely against Bisping and Cung Le – and the results might indicate that it was the right approach to adopt.
Nevertheless, it was only when he pushed forward and used his trademark aggression that Silva had any success, as whenever he sat back, he was getting picked apart. And that is exactly the kind of fight Rich Franklin will be hoping for, as “Ace” is at his best when his opponent is allowing him to use his footwork, put combinations together and dictate the action.
Of course, Silva cannot afford a Chris Leben kind of mistake, where he got over-aggressive and got knocked out for his troubles, but he certainly needs to force the issue in order to make Franklin uncomfortable, as “Ace” has historically struggled when opponents swarm him. And while that undoubtedly comes with its perils, it is a risk Silva has to take at some point in the fight, as it is what makes “The Axe Murderer” such a dangerous fighter, even at this stage.