MMA Column: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Anderson Silva - Part 1



By Steve Borchardt

If I'm being honest with myself, I suppose it all started with that dance.

When Anderson Silva made his UFC debut back in June of 2006 and knocked out Chris Leben in less than a minute, I was pissed. It wasn't so much that Silva made one of my favorite fighters look like a stumblebum off the street whose only prior combat sports experience was shadow boxing in front of the bathroom mirror while blasting Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" at neighbor-annoying volume. Fighting is the ultimate game of chance and I could accept it as one of many logical outcomes to that game when Silva brutalized an obviously outclassed Leben with a series of pinpoint combinations en route to a consciousness-severing knee. What I couldn't accept was Silva's reaction to his handiwork.

If you blinked you missed it, but for some reason the image remained indelibly etched in my brain for the next six years. As the ringside physician tended to the insensate Leben, Silva ran towards the cameras with both arms rigidly extended in front of him like a vision of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster on methamphetamine. That's when it happened: Silva broke into a victory dance that combined the lascivious pelvic gyrations of a male stripper with some awkward air guitar heroics straight out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

One wouldn't think two seconds of bumping, grinding, and imaginary fretboard wizardry would provide a solid basis upon which to form a judgement of a person's character, but that's exactly what I did. Through some metaphysical miracle that spits in the face of Newton's Second Law of Motion, the moment Silva sent Leben's brain throttling up against the inside of his skull like a crash test dummy thrown against the windshield of an SUV, he simultaneously delivered a jolt to my cranium that overloaded whatever cerebral circuit breaker it is that governs rational thought. I was disgusted by what I perceived as Silva's smarmy self-satisfaction in victory. In my mind at least, that dance offered incontrovertible evidence he was a complete asshole.

From that night forward I went into every Anderson Silva fight brimming over with anticipation, like an overfull pint of beer that splashes over the rim of the glass with each step you take. I was dying for Silva's unpardonable arrogance to come back and bite him on the ass.

I would be left waiting a long time.

***

To better understand my antipathy towards the greatest middleweight in the history of the sport, indulge your humble author in a glance back at the state of his life when Silva was beginning his UFC run.

Like many young people who make their first tentative steps upon life's career after spending their formative years ensconced in the protective cocoon of scholastic endeavor, in the summer of 2006 I was already beginning to be disabused of certain notions I had theretofore found myself blissfully suffering under. To wit: The ability to crank out A-level papers with the instinctive ease of a cat in heat giving birth to a litter of kittens doesn't mean shit in the real world.

This lesson came by way of my first full time job after graduation. My plan had been to find a gig teaching English in Tokyo as soon as possible, but in order to save money I found myself working as a clerk in a law firm. I took to it like a duck to a tank of crude oil.

The job made me feel like I had come out on the losing side of a gamble with fate by laying all the chips my student loan procured for me on a major as esoteric as Japanese. If you wanted someone to parse a short story by an Okinawan magical realist author for symbolism related to the abundance of US military bases on that island and the concomitant sense of disenfranchisement they engender among the Okinawan people, I was your guy.

Not a single employer wanted that though. In the case of the firm I worked for, what they wanted was for me to make copies, deliver inter-office mail, and keep the rest of the staff supplied with what they needed to most efficiently protect the interests of the firm's wealthy clients.

My ego throbbed with indignation at the thought of doing what I considered menial labor. When I first enrolled in college I never imagined I would be putting my degree to use mopping floors yet here I was doing just that. The most humiliating part of my day was delivering mail to lawyers who were just a few years older than me and were already driving Mercedes to work. It made the bus pass in my wallet feel like a badge of shame.

The denouement of this all too typical tale of unrealistic expectations exacerbated by a rampant sense of entitlement?

I was eventually fired for spending too much time in the bathroom listening to my iPod.

I didn't suspect it at the time, but life in the real world had only begun to kick my ass.

***

Meanwhile Anderson Silva kept on winning. In his next fight after starching the iron-jawed Leben, the Spider challenged for UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin's crown. Silva laid a beating on Franklin that made his knockout of Leben look positively humane by comparison.

The beginning of the end came early in round one when Silva locked his hands around the back of Franklin's neck in a vise-like Thai clinch. Silva used this to set up a barrage of knees to his opponent's midsection. He followed up with a wrecking ball of a knee delivered to the champ's face. This broke Franklin's nose and dazed him, allowing Silva to land another knee that went off like a bottle rocket between his eyes. Franklin crumbled to the mat and referee John McCarthy stepped in to signal the end of the fight.

As the former champion lay on his back writhing in pain, Silva collapsed to his knees. Overcome with emotion, he rolled to his back and indulged in a moment's solitary repose as tears began welling up in his eyes.

By the time Silva's team pulled him up and swarmed around him in celebration he was uncontrollably weeping. The tears were still flowing as he felt UFC President Dana White strap the UFC middleweight title belt around his waist.

It would grow to become a familiar sensation. From that night forward all Silva did was win. A standing right hand delivered from former King of Pancrase Nate Marquardt's guard earned him his first successful title defense. His next title defense was a rematch with Franklin that once again saw the finish come by way of a devastating knee. Dual Pride middleweight and welterweight champ Dan Henderson fared no better as he found himself choked out by a Silva rear naked choke in the second round.

And so it went. Every six months or so the UFC would come out with a new marketing campaign designed to convince fans that fighter X, Y, or Z presented a novel stylistic match up that could perhaps crack the Anderson Silva code. One by one they all found themselves caught in the Spider's web and devoured like flies.

After a few years it became apparent we were witnessing something special. Watching Anderson Silva fight was like peering over Tolstoy's shoulder as he wrote War and Peace or living in Vienna at the turn of the Nineteenth Century and experiencing Beethoven's progression as a composer in real time. In Silva the MMA community was graced by the presence of a consummate artist whose every masterpiece was infused with a radiant harmony echoing the transcendent mystery of all existence.

What mask does the ineffable wear when it deigns to show itself before us temporally-bound mortals?

It was there in an Anderson Silva right hook if you knew how to look for it.

***

Hatsumi was crying.

As I squatted down and attempted to console her a sudden weight landed on my arched back with the impact of a microwave oven dropped out a second story window. It was Takeru -- all 50 pounds of him. I attempted to tell him to get off me, that I was trying to console his classmate who had just been hit upside the head with a toy truck, but he didn't understand English and I wasn't allowed to speak to him in Japanese.

In desperation I reached behind my back and unfastened the cape from my Aladdin costume, hoping this would be enough to distract Takeru. As luck would have it, it was. He took off running through the classroom with the cheap satin cape billowing behind him like a boat's headsail as he held it outstretched high above his head. Hatsumi was still bawling like a four year old human car alarm though and I had to find a way to get all 30 kids in the class on the same page in a hurry before anybody else got hurt.

The above slice of my life was served up roughly around the time Anderson Silva knocked out Forrest Griffin in thoroughly embarrassing fashion. Griffin may have thought he was humiliated that night when Silva all but laughed at his best shots before knocking him out with a pawing jab, but he didn't know what humiliation was.

What was losing one fight badly in front of millions of people compared with being used as a human jungle gym by Japanese children on a daily basis? Had Forrest Griffin ever been forced to don a Disney-themed Halloween costume and speak to affluent mothers while clad in it because he was the only American teacher who spoke Japanese? Did he ever work a job where one of the requirements was to say "take off my pants" in front of a gaggle of bathroom-bound toddlers while pantomiming dropping trou?

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the answer to all the above questions is "probably not."

Yes gentle reader, after a two year detour spent substitute teaching in my home state of Minnesota, I had finally made it to Japan. I was working for what the Japanese call an eikaiwa, or English conversation school. Please don't make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion I was a teacher though. Although we were ostensibly referred to as teachers I was often reminded by my boss -- a heavily made-up fortyish Japanese woman who had a penchant for rubbing my shoulders and telling the rest of the staff how I was her "new boyfriend" -- that our primary objective was to entertain and, as she put it in her stunted English, "just give kids good feeling." This meant all the traditional classroom management techniques I'd picked up working as a sub were off the table. It was school-wide policy that we couldn't reprimand kids for any behavior, no matter how disruptive it was.

The reasoning behind this edict was that, like all private language schools, this was a for-profit business. My boss was afraid kids would beg their parents to let them quit if we bored them with too much of that pesky educational business. What she wanted me to do was to play rodeo clown for Japanese children and then use my Japanese to lie to their parents about how much they were learning. If nothing else it taught me what a con-man with an overactive conscious must feel like.

Thanks to this job, which ate up around 60 hours of my week due to numerous split shifts, my vaguely defined dream of living in Japan had turned into an acutely felt nightmare.

***

Anderson Silva had a problem.

He had just ruined the UFC's debut in Abu Dhabi by putting on a performance so universally panned that after it was over Dana White publicly contemplated the idea of scheduling his middleweight champion's next title bout for an untelevised prelim.

Silva had looked apathetic in title matches before, first against Patrick Cote at UFC 90 and then against Thales Leites at UFC 97, but this was something entirely different. This was a big, fat gob of phlegm hacked up from the most petulant recesses of Silva's psyche and spit directly in the face of his opponent Demian Maia, UFC brass, the fans in attendance, and everyone watching at home who paid $50 to see Silva fight. As if that wasn't bad enough, it also pissed off the royal family of the United Arab Emirates who had recently purchased a 10% share in the UFC's parent company Zuffa and were in attendance that night.

In the annals of combat sports there have been innumerable fighters who failed to engage and left fans feeling unsatisfied; few have ever done so with the haughty air Silva assumed that night in Abu Dhabi. Unlike most fighters who get cold feet inside the cage it wasn't that Silva was hesitant to mix it up with an opponent whose skills he respected. It was more like, in a fit of pique worthy of a pop star forced to share a dressing room with the lowly members of his backup band, Silva was fucking around to stick it to the UFC for matching him up with what he deemed an unworthy contender.

Silva did everything he could to show his contempt for Maia's standup ability: He crouched down in a ten point stance while standing directly in front of him, kept his hands hanging at his side like the branches of a weeping willow, clapped his hands, stamped his feet, pounded his chest, and stuck his chin out while daring Maia to hit him.

This display would have been one thing had Silva used it to set up a sudden knockout like he did against Forrest Griffin -- and a flying knee Silva threw in round two that broke Maia's nose proved he could do it -- but instead he spent the final three rounds circling away from Maia and throwing the occasional half-hearted leg kick.

The audience, who had cheered Silva's antics in the first two rounds, began to grow restless with the champion's lack of aggression somewhere around the middle of the third. That's when the boos started. They didn't let up for the rest of the fight.

White, in a fit of disgust, broke with tradition and refused to walk into the Octagon and strap the belt around Silva's waist after he was announced the winner. When you're in the business of selling pay per views, there are few things as undesirable as a champion who shows up on fight night and acts like it's beneath him to give fans their money's worth.

Silva may have been the greatest fighter alive when he wanted to be, but thanks to his increasingly maddening caprices he was also damaged goods.

****

I was beside myself with anger after that fight.

Rooting against Silva had always been something of a casual affair for me up until that point. I'd get excited before Silva fights in hopes I would finally see him lose but when he invariably won it never kept me up at night. As disappointing as it was to see the self-satisfied grin on his face whenever the UFC title was once again placed around his waist, I could accept it and move on with my life.

Not this time. For some reason the disrespect Silva showed Maia and the fans who paid to see him perform made me come unhinged. It was like Silva had taken my $50 and pissed on it right before my eyes.

I lay in bed for hours that night marinating in my own righteous indignation. I finally fell into an uneasy slumber long after sunrise and woke up in an agitated state. Silva had no idea who I was but he had gotten to me from over 7,000 miles away.

Incidentally, I had just returned to the USA after quitting my job in Japan. The end came one year into what I had originally planned on being a five year stay. Depression stemming from my eikaiwa gig was the primary reason for the move. After giving my notice I was too mentally exhausted to look for another job, so I gave up my long-cherished dream of living in Japan and returned to substitute teaching in America. Thanks to my own lack of fortitude I was now thirty years old, back at square one, and without the first clue what I was going to do with my life.

There was an all too clear pattern emerging. It wasn't that I had drifted into some shoals before eventually righting my ship; rather I was never going to be able to reach my destination. It was right there staring me in the face every second of every day and it was getting increasingly harder to keep averting my eyes: I was a serial loser.

And Anderson Silva, despite his hubris, kept on winning.

***

Here's the thing about Chael Sonnen: he was supposed to be a walk-through for Silva.

Sonnen, a former US Olympic wrestling team alternate and NCAA Division I All American wrestler at the University of Oregon, may have been coming off a one-sided victory over perennial top UFC middleweight contender Nate Marquardt, but he also had a number of loses on his record to middling fighters. If Sonnen couldn't deal with the Terry Martins of the world how was he going to dethrone the greatest champion in the sport?

However, Sonnen had one thing going for him as a title contender that put him far above everyone else in the division. He cut blistering old school pro wrestling promos that tapped into the anti-Silva sentiment festering in the months after Abu Dhabi.

"This isn’t going to be a war," Sonnen boasted when talking about his upcoming fight with Silva. "It’s going to be a one-sided pounding and I’m swinging the hammer."

I knew Sonnen's bluster was nothing but a pro-wrestling hype job but I ate up each verbal morsel with the gusto of a recently released prisoner of war sitting down to his first home cooked meal in years. It felt like he was giving voice to years of impotent hatred I had been harboring towards Silva.

And that, more than anything, is what made Chael Sonnen my favorite fighter.

***

History is a funny thing. As it's unfolding in real time we never know how it's going to shake out, but in retrospect it often reads like a well-crafted novel. Sometimes there's even a theme so glaringly obvious it tempts a child of the scientific such as myself age to flirt with the idea of it all being the design of some unseen cosmological author.

Case in point: the Chael Sonnen/Anderson Silva UFC middleweight title match.

Leading up to the fight all Sonnen did was brag about how he was going to punch Silva in the face, take him down at will and beat him up for five rounds en route to capturing his belt. It was a cute act, but most believed it was a delusional one.

Then on fight night Sonnen proceeded to make good on his promises. He took the center of the Octagon, hit Silva square on the jaw with a stiff right hand, unloaded on the dazed champion with a series of combos, flipped the script by stuffing a takedown from a desperate looking Silva and finally put the Spider on his ass with a textbook double leg takedown. As if that wasn't enough Sonnen made good use of the position and landed a series of hard punches from the top for the remainder of the round.

The subsequent 22 minutes were largely more of the same. Sonnen battered Silva with hammer fists, elbows, knees, uppercuts, slaps to the ear and punches. Lots of punches. At one point Sonnen's arm was reminiscent of a windshield wiper blade as he used his fist to repeatedly bash Silva's face from side to side. It wasn't just a dominant performance, it was a complete humbling.

If you were an Anderson Silva hater such as myself there was never a more glorious four and a half rounds. Sonnen beat Silva down like a revolutionary finally getting his hands on a despotic, and incidentally quite nude, emperor. The myth of the Great Anderson Silva was being dispelled one punch at a time for the entire world to see and I was loving every minute of it.

I didn't notice the danger until it was too late. Sonnen, who had been content to sit inside Silva's guard and throw strikes for the majority of the later rounds, made the critical error of leaving his arm on the mat and allowing Silva to grab his wrist and take control. That split second mental lapse was all it took for Silva to trap Sonnen's left arm and neck in a triangle choke. I knew the fight was over before he even tapped.

A historic story had been unfolding inside the Octagon all right, but it wasn't the one I had been anticipating. Instead of teaching the arrogant champion a lesson in humility, Sonnen's dominance only served to provide a background of dramatic adversity to the story of Silva's greatest triumph.

With the come from behind behind victory all of Silva's prior sins were forgiven in the court of public opinion. He was a bigger superstar than ever thanks to that triangle. Sponsorship deals with blue chip multinational corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and Phillips were soon to follow.

I wasn't about to forgive and forget though. I hated Silva more than ever after seeing him come back from the brink of certain defeat. If Silva still couldn't be beaten after what Sonnen did to him who would ever wipe that insufferable grin off his face?

What made the result of the fight even harder to accept was the feeling Sonnen gave it all away. It was bad enough he granted Silva the opportunity to grab his arm and lock on the triangle in the first place, but what was far worse was that it looked like he tapped before even attempting to fight his way out of the submission. It was a failure that resonated with all too distinct overtones of my own mental weakness in the face of adversity.

What was the point of even trying if, despite your best efforts, you were hardwired to make the kind of mistakes that led to one of life's chosen ones submitting your ass with less than two minutes to go in the fifth round?

***

Shortly after the fight it came out Sonnen failed his post-fight drug test due to elevated levels of testosterone. Now is not the time to get into the controversy surrounding the revelation he received medically prescribed testosterone replacement therapy before the fight, but suffice to say I didn't care in the least at the time. A steady diet of needles filled with synthetic hormones or not, Sonnen was still my guy after the beating he laid on Silva. The main problem I had with his test failure was that it made it impossible for the UFC to book an instant rematch with Silva.

A gulf of twenty three months separated the first Silva/Sonnen fight and their rematch. After serving his suspension Sonnen choked out Brian Stann by way of arm triangle in a dominant comeback performance. His next victory came in a narrow decision over Michael Bisping.

Silva, of course, just kept on winning. He knocked out Vitor Belfort with a front kick that was as unexpected as it was beautiful. Following that, in a fight where the result felt like a foregone conclusion from the moment it was announced, he completely outclassed Yushin Okami en route to a second round TKO victory.

Rationally I knew Silva was coming into the fight with more momentum and stood a very good chance of beating Sonnen once again, but emotionally I was pinning for the vicarious elation that comes with one's home team winning the big one. A Chael Sonnen victory wouldn't redeem 32 years of failure but it was all the hope I had so I wanted it.

Desperately.


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