The question of loyalty in a sport like mixed martial arts can be a delicate one. On the one hand no fighter comes up in a vacuum. Without teammates to train with, no fighter would get anywhere in MMA. Unlike in boxing or tennis or any other "individual" sport, the best mixed martial artists are known for the company they keep. Fans know Jon Jones trains with Carlos Condit and that Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier are devoted sparring partners. But in the end, at the crucial moment, MMA is the ultimate individual sport. You walk into the cage alone and your wins and your losses are entirely yours. Not only this, but your career progress, including the money you make and the opportunities you get, must, by definition, come at someone else's expense. In order for one person to move up in the rankings, someone else has to move down. And often that someone else is someone you train with, someone you'd call a teammate, someone you'd swear up and down you'd rather die for than harm.
Take the case of Anderson Silva and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. The two UFC middleweights are longtime training partners at X-Gym in Rio de Janeiro and old friends. They've helped each other get ready for some of the biggest fights of their careers, Jacare pushing Silva's jiu-jitsu game and Silva improving Jacare's striking. Just this week a video started circulating showing the two men happily sparring in preparation for their fights at UFC 208 on Feb. 11, where Jacare will meet Tim Boetsch and Silva will take on Derek Brunson. Friends to the end, they are.
But yesterday at a media event in Rio, there were indications of possible future tension between the two men, warning signs of the first chinks in the friendship/teammate armor, should certain things come to pass.
The issue comes down to the middleweight belt and the man currently wearing it. Michael Bisping won a controversial decision over Silva last February before shocking the world by knocking out champion Luke Rockhold four months and taking his belt. Silva has already stated that he believes he won that fight with Bisping (and, therefore, deserved that title fight with Rockhold) and that he wants a rematch with the now-champion. Speaking yesterday, Silva reiterated that desire.
"It'd be perfect to fight Bisping," Silva said, "because something was left in the air."
Lucky for Silva, just the day before Bisping told Champions.co that for his next fight he's looking not necessarily to take on the No. 1 contender, Yoel Romero, but to get the biggest money fight he can get, which, considering reputation and economics, would be Silva long before it would be Romero.
"I want the biggest fight I can get," Bisping said. "I don't mind facing No. 1 contenders, but at this stage of my career, I've fought the best guys forever. I want the biggest fight it can possibly be. And by biggest, I mean the biggest money-generating fight I can possibly have. I feel I deserve that. I've earned that. … If that's Yoel Romero, great. [But] if it ain't Yoel Romero, if it's Anderson Silva, great."
Which sounds like bad news for Romero, who's made no secret of his desire for and rightful claim to a title shot, but much worse news for Jacare, who lost to Romero in December 2015, who has never had a shot at the UFC belt, and who is now looking at the very real possibility that his good friend and teammate Anderson Silva, who hasn't won a fight since 2012, could slip ahead of him in line for a title shot: yet another victim of the UFC's new money-fight era.
At yesterday's media event, Jacare sounded resigned to the possibility but not happy about it. For anyone with ears cynical enough to hear, his response to speculation that Silva might get the next title shot was dripping with jealousy and passive-aggression.
"Friendship continues. But I'd definitely be upset because I'm the next in line," Souza said. "I'm not a hypocrite and say, 'Oh, cool.' No, it's not cool at all. I'd be super upset, but God blessed him."
"Man, God really likes Anderson because he does many things and almost everything works," Souza continued, laughing. "Even when he does it wrong, it's right after all. I want to be friends with a guy that is so loved by God. Man, this thing about cutting the line is happening so much with me that I'm used to it already. Go on in front of me. My lawyer is God. I'm cool. I have my house, my family is healthy, I'm fine with my wife.
"Want to cut the line? Do it, just don't turn your ass to me because I'm a man and that doesn't work. But if you want to cut the line, go for it."
Hmm. He doesn't care if Anderson cuts in line? He's happy with his wife and kids? God seems to love Anderson more? "Friendship continues but …?" Call me crazy but that all sounds like the talk of a man who has had it up to here with his more successful, more famous, more blessed friend—the one who seems to glide into whatever success and happiness he wants, the one who never has to worry, God's favorite. If the big money fight does end up happening, if, in the name of ratings and revenue, Anderson Silva gets picked to fight Bisping next and not Romero, meaning Jacare would be moved into third position, forced to watch again as his teammate and friend gets what he's always wanted, don't be surprised to hear that Ronaldo Souza has started looking for another gym. In a game like MMA, team loyalty can only take you so far. In the end it's all about two men fighting in a cage, except when it's about three men disputing relative pay-per-view revenue earning potential.