Like many, my introduction to the world's most fascinating sport, mixed martial arts, was through the earliest iteration of the UFC's reality show, The Ultimate Fighter—a TV program which, I fear, has long been nearing its sell-by date.
As an inquisitive teen with a penchant for research to serve my thirst for rounded knowledge—something which borders on OCD levels—I stumbled across the flourishing MMA scene in Japan through forums such as the UG and Sherdog, becoming instantly enthralled with Pride FC and its extensive roster of superstar fighters and larger-than-life characters. Alongside the howling Quentin "Rampage" Jackson, the absurdly tough Fedor Emelianenko and the equally solid-chinned Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, my two main favourite fighters were Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva.
With both men entering the Pride ring to the strains of "Wild Boys" by Duran Duran and Darude's now-infamous "Sandstorm" on September 10th, 2006, in the Pride 2006 Heavyweight Grand Prix semi-final—the second fight between the pair following a "special rules" bout scored as a draw back in 2002—it was hard to pick a winner with both men being universally respected and adored in the vast colliery of MMA fandom. As heavyweight Cro Cop punctuated the fight with a signature head kick knockout at the Saitama Super Arena, you would be churlish to not respect Silva's losing efforts in fighting in much bigger men in the hope of carving out his own modern-day David vs. Goliath story.
In September, I was tasked by Fightland to cover the opening round of Rizin Fighting Federation's—the latest incarnation of Pride following its close in 2007—inaugural edition of their openweight World Grand Prix. Both Silva and Cro Cop were among the names to be involved in the tournament, but only the latter fought that night.
Following Cro Cop's slick submission win over Hyun Man Myung, which was as impressive as it was unexpected, the Croatian kickboxer respectfully addressed Silva and tried to set up their fight in the next round of the tournament in what turned into a 15-minute long car crash alongside Nobuhiko Takada and Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Despite its sloppy delivery, fans were excited by the prospect of a third fight between the two Pride legends.
Negotiations for both parties were successful and the pair was set to face off in a perfect nostalgia trip of a rematch on December 29th in the Rizin open weight tournament quarter-final. Cro Cop initiated this impromptu match-up, but Silva had been calling for his old foe for some time. In fact, Silva spent much of his time at this event ranting and raving, continually picking fights with the likes of his arch nemesis Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett (his new nickname is "Felony"); a man who's diminutive in figure—which perhaps explains why it's so easy for him to get under The Axe Murderer's" skin—but big in personality.
Buying into the bizarre brand of MMA an openweight tournament provides—the Japanese, of course, being the masters of putting on a night of good ol' freakshow fights—many of those fans yearning for a glance at JMMA's golden era were excited at the prospect of Silva vs. Cro Cop despite their age and years of additional wear and tear. However, any hopes for this mid-2000s throwback were dashed as Cro Cop revealed Silva had pulled out of the fight with less than a month's notice.
Cro Cop was less than kind in his criticism of Silva's decision to pull out of his contest, calling him a "bitch," a "chicken," and took a leaf out of the Diaz brothers' book when stating Silva is "a scared homie." Oh and Cro Cop also said he would slap Wanderlei if he shows up to the upcoming Rizin show. It's not necessarily wise to insult Silva, given his proclivity for violence and his inarguably thin skin—a corrosive combination. He is called The Axe Murderer, after all.
In the style typical of the Brazilian living legend these days, Silva sent a ranting response in his native tongue. Translated by MMAFighting's Guilherme Cruz, a moustachioed Silva said: "My recovery, I couldn't be able to be 100 percent for this fight. I'm a professional; I'd never fight against Mirko or anyone else not being prepared. But what astonished me is that this Croatian, this Mirko Cro Cop guy, called me the best in the world, a legend in front of me, but behind the computer he's talking a bunch of crap.
"What kind of man are you to say this crap online and not to my face? Are you only a man in front of the computer, pussy? Who do you think you're talking to? Don't worry. It won't be now, but you'll get what is yours. I know really well how to catch you. I know you're afraid of me, coward."
"I was offered a large amount of money, I was offered a million dollars," Silva said. "I could go in there and see what happens. If I fought 30 seconds or a minute, I'd get my prize the same way. But I'm a professional, straightaway, and I'd never do this not being 100 percent to fight. Everybody knows I'm coming off a serious injury. I'm training well and training to be back to my old shape, the real 'Axe Murderer'. I won't fight just to fight, I'm fighting to win. Silva is back. Wait for it."
Silva suffered injuries when hit by a car back in May and he claims to still be suffering from those effects. It's hard to doubt the legitimacy of Silva's reasoning, given his attitude and how many times he has fought against tough, top-tier opposition with numerous issues in the past. But, my gripe is Silva called for the Cro Cop fight, as well as one with the aforementioned Bennett, in late September. If he knew he was hurt after his accident in May, why would he willingly deceive his promoters and adoring fans into thinking he would be healthy for Rizin's Grand Prix quarter-finals? This may be unfair, but Silva is promising plenty and is seldom delivering these days.
This latest episode harkens back to the brief feud between Silva and Chael Sonnen. Silva posted numerous highly-edited, pro wrestling-style videos of him calling Sonnen out for a fight and the UFC loved the idea enough to put the fight together and promote it through Brazil's version of The Ultimate Fighter—pitting the pair as opposing coaches.
Talking to Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, Sonnen claims there were issues with Silva from the very get go. "We were in Brazil, and the first day of the filming of The Ultimate Fighter, he quit," said Sonnen. "He quit the whole show. He goes, 'I'm done and I'm leaving.' And that was real. They didn't show very much of it, but it was a mess. We couldn't leave the set. We had to get Wanderlei back, but we had Dana (White) on the phone. It was an absolute mess. We had Vitor (Belfort) on the phone, wondering, hey, if this guy really walks, will you get on a plane? It was that [bad]. We thought the show was over."
"So, I'm trying to be real with him," Sonnen said. "I'm trying to be as real as I can, because this whole thing is about to blow up. I go, 'Wanderlei, here's the script, okay? I'm the bad guy. I insulted this entire nation. You wear the white hat. You get to come in and be the good guy. When you're bullying me, when you're physically starting fights with me, when you're quitting and walking off set and leaving this whole thing hanging, you're now making me vulnerable. If I'm vulnerable, then I become the good guy. I don't want to be the good guy. But you do, so enjoy being the good guy. I'll keep being the bad guy. But stay with me on this, because you're ruining everything.'
"And [Silva] goes on and on about sportsmanship and honor. It's like, dude, this isn't little league baseball, man. You could take all those great little sayings that your coach told you or you got in a fortune cookie and you can shove them up your ass when I'm around, because I don't care about any of them. This is a fistfight in a steel cage. There's nothing about honor and sportsmanship. This is about an applause and a paycheck. That's what it is."
Silva did indeed stay on the show, returning days later. And while TUF Brazil 3 was a success in introducing talents such as Warlley Alves and Vitor Miranda to the UFC, the season was largely chaotic and most, if not all, of the blame could be levelled at Silva for that. A post-weigh in brawl between Silva and Sonnen—arguably started by Silva's aggression, though Sonnen pushed his foe first—almost brought that series to a close. In the end, Silva's assistant coach, Andre Dida, was pulled from the show as the footage revealed he had repeatedly punched a grounded Sonnen in the back of the head as the melee ensued.
That particular TUF season was also a dud in the sense its main purpose, cynically speaking, was to promote the two coaches' light heavyweight bout at UFC 175 in July, 2014. The fight was first slated to be contested on that season's finale night before being moved. Then, the fight was pulled altogether as Silva failed to submit an application to fight in the state of Nevada, while he was also reprimanded for fleeing a random drug test—a charge which earned the ire of former Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) nightmare Pat Lundvall, who insisted on a lifetime ban for Silva, essentially prohibiting him from ever fighting in the USA again.
Thankfully, Lundvall's inane suggestion was overruled by the courts, with the Nevada judge stating her ruling was "arbitrary, capricious and not supported by substantial evidence." That's despite Silva confirming he fled the test for taking a series of banned diuretics. The commission later agreed on a three-year suspension, due to end in May 2017, and a $70,000 fine for punishment.
Despite the ban from competition in the States, Silva could have legally participated in professional MMA competition back in Japan in the meantime—though that would have been looked unfavourably upon by the NAC and other US-based athletic commissions. Regardless, he signed to both Rizin and Bellator in the meantime.
While he couldn't legally compete in the USA for Bellator, fans were excited to see the return of The Axe Murderer in Japan under the Rizin banner—and what did we get? A peculiar two-on-two grappling match, which looked like laboured sparring, pitting Silva against old opponent Kazushi Sakuraba and Hideo Tokoro while partnering up with Kiyoshi Tamura. Wandy's grand entrance at Rizin's event in April was hardly the arrival to fanfare we had all been expecting and hoping for.
Including the Cro Cop loss in 2006, Silva has lost seven of his last 11 fights since September of that year—four of which came by way of brutal knockout. In addition, the Brazilian hasn't fought since 2013—a KO win over Brian Stann in an absolute barnstormer of a fight. But, the sheer magnitude of his previous achievements in the sport and his aggressive, reckless fighting style means Silva still holds a lot of clout in the combat sports world—proven by the aforementioned two bumper contracts signed despite having not competed in close to four years.
It would be unfair to criticise Silva for taking on these lucrative opportunities, especially how seriously his livelihood was threatened under the archaic Lundvall's overturned ruling. But, to me, Silva has become a frustrating figure from MMA's glorious past. When he has fought since the turn of the last decade, you fear for his health. But, when Silva is announced to fight, you can't help but buy into it, entrapped in the pure excitement he produces in plentiful supply.
However, his last two escapades with both Cro Cop and Sonnen are the most exasperating of all. Silva's petulance and poor decision making initially cost us a chance to watch him take on Sonnen in 2014's most heated grudge match, though it would be amiss not to mention that Sonnen also failed a drug test later on anyway. Meanwhile, the announcement of a third fight against Cro Cop got every true mixed martial arts fan excited for Rizin's December return, only for them to be left bitterly disappointed when Silva pulled out less than a month in advance. Silva must have known he was hurt long before the tail end of last week, given he cited injuries stemming from a May car accident being the reason.
Every so often, it's hard to disconnect the inner fan that started watching the sport in his mid-teens from the MMA writer of today. I respect Wanderlei Silva greatly. But, as the most cynical of natural sceptics, I will now only believe the talk of a hyped comeback of Silva's when I see it materialise for myself.