Anderson Silva's UFC career has long been a showcase for the transcendent and the absurd. There were the action movie knockouts against Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort. There was the straight-up listlessness against Demian Maia and Thales Leites. There was the last-minute, career-defining submission over Chael Sonnen. There was the shock of losing to Chris Weidman, then the leg-snapping, career-threatening horror of the follow-up.
In a decision loss against Michael Bisping this past weekend, Silva added another plot point to an increasingly strange career arc: the greatest champion that mixed martial arts has ever seen forgot how to win a fight.
That's not to say that Silva is no longer a good fighter, or that he has no future in fighting if he wants one, or that the fight with Bisping wasn't competitive. Quite the opposite: atop an otherwise forgettable Fight Night card at the O2 Arena in London, the five-round bout was as compelling as it was occasionally bizarre.
And in many ways, more than three years removed from his last victory—and a year removed from a failed test for PEDs—the Silva that showed up on Saturday was the Silva we all used to know. He pantomimed tornadoes with his hands, danced, egged his opponent on, and landed hard on the occasions when he chose to throw. Bisping, meanwhile, threw often and on mobile feet, pressuring Silva with volume and without getting entranced by his theatrics. And unlike in the old days, when so many of Silva's challengers emerged simply because he hadn't smashed them yet, Bisping regularly put his fists on Silva's frequently exposed chin. And after Silva gave away the first round—as he often does—Bisping knocked the former champion on his butt to take the second.
But near the end of the third round, Silva showed self-actualization, swarming and stunning Bisping and capping it off with a near knockout that gave way to the fight's strangest moment. Bisping signaled a timeout to referee Herb Dean to grab his mouthpiece, Silva landed a flying knee that crumpled Bisping to the cage, Silva walked away and celebrated atop the Octagon after the bell—until Dean told him that he hadn't stopped the fight. The fight restarted, Bisping took the fourth with the same relentless strategy, and in the fifth, Silva won the round and threatened another knockout with a kick. When it was all over, the judges handed Bisping a unanimous 48-47 win, a verdict that had Silva complaining of corruption.
It's hard to say that Bisping fought efficiently, since the effects of Silva's handiwork rendered his face into a five-dollar Halloween mask by the end of the night. It's also hard to look at those five upright rounds and envision him having the same measure of success against the terrifying grapplers currently clustered in the top five at 185 pounds. But consider where Bisping was a few years ago, an outspoken middleweight whose ascents toward a title shot always ended with him getting knocked down, often by opponents pumped full of commission-approved exogenous testosterone, and of course those losses were blessings because Anderson Silva would murder him. Now, a few days after his 37th birthday and with performance enhancing drugs rightly maligned, Bisping scored the most meaningful victory of his career over the bogeyman.
As for Silva, all post-fight analyses point to the same culprit, that he's nearly 41 and still in a sport that's particularly unkind to aging men. And sure, every fighter with crow's feet finds inspiration in Randy Couture's renaissance as a 40-something, but Couture's success owed to a conservative Greco-Roman that's the polar opposite of Silva's fast-twitch reflexes and penchant for counterpunching. Despite flashes of brilliance, enduring power, and a poise that made him look like he thought he was always in control, Silva was a beat behind. Against Bisping, a fighter never regarded for his knockouts, his chin looked vulnerable. If Silva were an artist of a different sort, he'd have an undiminished sense of color and composition, but his hands would have begun trembling when he picked up a brush.
But just as concerning, Silva lacked urgency. Sometimes we forget that fighters lunge for desperation takedowns and throw flurries that don't land because they're difference-makers—the five-minute rounds, 10-point must system, and three judges make them so. Meanwhile, Silva approached the first and second rounds like he could win just by being headstrong, by portraying confidence and tenacity even if he wasn't actually trying to hit his opponent. Some suggest that Silva's fourth-round power-down came from that premature third-round celebration and that he struggled to regain composure, which might be true. But by the final moments of the fifth round, what we might have once seen as Silva setting a 20-something-minute trap instead seemed a strange refusal to heed the structure of an MMA fight.
In the fallout from his loss to Bisping, the knee-jerk calls for Silva's retirement ignore a few important truths. The loss wasn't without dispute: notably, on the broadcast, UFC president Dana White said he thought Silva won the fight. It was also Silva's first fight since an overturned victory over Nick Diaz in January 2015, and just his second since returning from the injury he suffered against Weidman in December 2013—not exactly a schedule that makes a fighter feel comfortable under bright lights.
And whether or not Silva is in the twilight of his career, he has skills that cast a long shadow over any future opponent. The blood flowing from cuts scored into Bisping's face is a testament to that. Silva is still a genius of fighting. But if this past Saturday was any indication, genius and stubbornness are dangerously close together.