Cult Grade: The Streak
Is there a time in your life that you look back on and think: 'those were the days'? A period that wasn't the arduous fucking slog life usually is, when, for whatever reason, everything was just going right for you? Maybe you had a house that didn't smell of damp and ash. Maybe your commute was less than 45 sweaty minutes. Maybe you even had a relationship that didn't feel like a subliminally competitive sport. You weren't worried about the flaps of skin creeping over the top of your jeans; shit you could even afford to buy some nice jeans to have your skin creep over in the first place – maybe.
You look back on those times and think: 'how do I get them back?' Well, let me tell you, buddy, nine times out of 10 you can't. They're gone. Forever. Your new flat is a mildew party. Your commute requires three bus changes. Your new relationship is your right hand and sneering cynicism about your mates' loved-up happiness. The skin is cascading over your now-crusty jeans. You are out of the groove, my friend. Your winning streak is over and it feels like an insurmountable task to ever get it back.
When it comes to sport, this groove, this aura, this winning way, is even harder to recapture. When it leaves you, more often than not the only way is down. It could be argued that Arsenal never really recovered from the defeat that snapped their 49-game unbeaten run; after Mike Tyson and Prince Naseem Hamed lost their "0" they didn't shine as brightly; and Rafael Nadal never regained his status as King Of Clay when his run of 81 consecutive wins on the surface came to an end.
Sometimes it's psychological: the aura of invincibility has been removed, opponents sense weaknesses while the competitor feels it more acutely. It can sometimes simply mark the passing of time: the competitor getting older, their skills fading, losing the burst of speed and that half-inch to a younger opponent. Regardless of what happens afterwards, though, those winning streaks are always remembered. The record makers are forever legends.
In the case of Anderson Silva and his unmatched 16-win UFC streak, it has become the apex of his career. It was a defining era for the gangly Brazilian, during which every fight went his way and he became what many regard as the best mixed martial artist of all time. But, like all good things, it had to come to an end – and few believe that the good times will return.
Point of Entry: High, Via Flying Knee
Silva didn't simply dive head-first into a pioneering MMA career. He grew up in extreme poverty in the city of Curitiba, Brazil, and his first foray into martial arts was learning Brazilian Jujitsu from other children in his area because he was too poor to take lessons. Finally, his parents saved up enough money for him to learn Taekwondo which, as was the case with Jujitsu, he became a black belt in. He would earn a black belt in Judo and a yellow rope in Capoeira too, while also becoming an extremely tidy boxer and ferocious Muay Thai competitor. Before the acronym MMA even existed, Anderson Silva was the natural embodiment of it, and it was this eclectic mix of striking and grappling-based martial arts schools that laid the groundwork for him to become one of the greatest attacking forces that ever lived.
Before the UFC grew into the brash-but-glamorous MMA monopoly it is today, there were a variety of similar low-level promotions that fighters could cut their teeth in. The young Silva did just that, fighting as a welterweight in Japan and the UK for Pride and Cage Rage respectively. Although he wasn't the impervious force in these promotions that he later became in the UFC, he nevertheless showed flashes of an emerging genius, typified by a knockout via flying knee on the then highly rated Carlos Newton at Pride 25.
It wasn't until 2006 that Silva was signed up to the UFC roster as a middleweight, but it was then that his fighting – and winning streak – became the stuff of legend. He embarked on a still unmatched record of 16 straight wins and 10 middleweight title defences. The run spanned 2,457 days which, given how wildly unpredictable an MMA contest can be, is almost unheard of. It was then that, under the guidance of his new gym, Black House, he galvanised an aggressive counter-attacking style that combined the sharp head movement of boxing, the full body fluidity of Capoeira, the precise kicking of Taekwondo, and the deadly, unrelenting high knees of Muay Thai. Mix all of that with a precise striking accuracy, the ability to switch stance between orthodox and southpaw, and a decent ground and submission game, and you are getting close to the perfect mixed martial artist.
There are examples of Silva's fighting genius in nearly every one of his fights. He basically took the piss out of Stephan Bonnar, who had never been knocked out in his career. Silva goaded the Indiana-born fighter to attack him as he rested his back on the edge of the Octagon, then side-stepped a spinning kick like he was allowing someone to pass in a tight corridor. Silva dutifully knocked Bonnar out with a flying knee after the American missed, doing it all with an air of disinterested aloofness, as if he were disposing of a soiled diaper.
With apologies for the soundtrack
Only a minute into his first light-heavyweight bout, against a more beefy looking James Irvin, he caught the California fighter's stinging thigh kick in mid air and in the same swift movement punched him in the face while still holding his leg. It sent Irvin crumbling to the canvas in a foetal position, allowing Silva to rush in and knock him out cold with a casual one-armed ground and pound.
When Silva faced his compatriot and fellow Black House fighter Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 – taking on a former light-heavyweight champion, no less – he knocked him out cold in the first round with a front kick to the face. With no warning, no time for Belfort to react, just calm, smooth, liquid movement from the hips of Silva to the end of his foot that rested so neatly on poor Vitor's unsuspecting chin.
All of these fights – and pretty much every one of his winning streak – featured examples of Silva's sporting genius, of artistic movement and flair that rival any aesthetic beauty you could think of – albeit with more blood, tattoos, and the sound of Joe Rogan's shouting as the soundtrack.
But time – like gravity, love and alcohol – inevitably makes a mockery of us all. Not even Anderson Silva was an exception to this rule. Whether it was because his reflexes slowed with age, or he became too comfortable at the top, or maybe the pure volatility, competitiveness and cut-throat nature of the sport finally caught up with him, his winning streak came crashing to an end in convincing fashion. He sufferred a brutal loss to Chris Weidman – although Weidman wasn't the first person to make Silva look vulnerable. At UFC 117 Chael Sonnen landed more strikes on the Brazilian in one fight than anyone had done in his previous 11, and Silva barely scraped a win via a desperate last-minute triangle submission. Though he was victorious that day, a blueprint now existed for beating Silva. Weidman followed it to the letter – not lunging in, not giving him any space and walking him down at all times. Silva tried his usual trick of nonchalant head movement, but Weidman's punches were landing, and eventually he caught Silva flush and knocked him out cold.
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It was this loss that truly marked the end of Silva as the force that he was during his legendary streak. Sonnen, then Weidman, had shown how to beat him, that he wasn't invincible but a fighter with exploitable weaknesses like any other, and from there Silva's career has not climbed to the same heights. This was only compounded further by the Brazilian's horrific leg break in his rematch with Weidman, an injury that many thought would have been the end of his career.
It wasn't, but perhaps it should have been. He returned, but went on to test positive for anabolic steroids after his first comeback win over Nick Diaz at UFC 183. Silva, aged 40 at the time, rather weakly claimed that it was due to a tainted sexual enhancement drug given to him by a friend.
Since then, Silva has lost two of the three fights he has competed in, and the one victory was very controversial. His career, as it stands, is only going downward, and the failed drug tests leave a black mark against his legacy. It is a shame not just for Silva, but for the whole sport of MMA, and the UFC as a promotion.
Many believe that Silva's status as the greatest of all time is unquestioned, that steroid use would not have aided the things that made him the best during that seemingly insurmountable reign: his speed, movement and precision. His supporters will argue that he was only using steroids to recover from his first significant injury, which occurred very late in his career. Whatever the truth of the matter, and whatever the future holds, the one thing you can't take away from Anderson Silva is his streak.
The Moment: Vs. Forest Griffin, UFC 101
Though there are other fights in whch Silva showed a wider range of attacking skills, his encounter with Forest Griffin – then the biggest opponent the Brazilian had faced and a former light-heavyweight champion to boot – was pure wizardry,.
In this fight you'll see three minutes of untouchable stand-up MMA. Griffin is a known kicking specialist and as tough as anyone when it comes to taking punishment, yet Silva is toying with him from the get go. This much bigger, stronger looking guy has his every attack made to look foolish by Silva's slight but deft foot, head and body movement. I don't think Griffin connects with a single punch in the three minutes he's still conscious, and Silva knocks him down three times. The last comes via possibly the most relaxed knockout ever, with Silva calmly dodging Griffin's huge swinging mitts, then landing an innocuous looking jab that sparks a 92kg man out cold.
The beauty of this punch – and the reason it's so amazing, but also weird to watch – is that, like most sporting moments of true genius, it's hard to figure out if Anderson meant it or not. Did he really notice that Griffin had moved all of his weight into his swing, so much so that Silva could use his on-rushing bodyweight against him to make his own precise jab so effective? It seems unlikely that any person could notice such a thing in the heat of the moment, but if there was any fighter that could it was Silva in his prime. Either way, it's such an insanely accurate strike that it appears to have required no effort at all, yet it finished the fight dead in one moment. And so it ranks as one of the most impressive knockouts not just of Anderson Silva's career, but in UFC history.
"I tried to punch him, and he literally moved his head out of the way and looked at me like I was stupid for doing it" –– Forest Griffin recounts what it was like to fight an absolute peak-level Silva.