A glace over my shoulder revealed a riot of green, yellow, and blue Brazilian flags dancing wildly in the rows above me. It was the same story to my immediate left and also in the seats below. I hadn't noticed until then but I was in the middle of an ad hoc Brazilian diaspora.
A speck in the distance appeared and then the storm broke. A thunderclap of 15,000 simultaneous screams announced Sonnen's walk to the Octagon. Here and there scattered fans clapped their hands and appeared to be cheering but it was impossible to hear them over the prodigious downpour of bass voiced boos rumbling throughout the arena. My heart raced as I took in the spectacle. It hit me I was living the moment I had been anticipating for months.
That's when I lost it.
"Chael! Let's go Chael! Fuck him up Chael," I shouted from all the way up in row N, seat 21 as though the microscopic spec of a man traversing the arena floor could hear me over the the storm raging inside the MGM Grand. Like a true believer at a gospel revival, or better yet a shirtless drunk painted head to toe in his home team's colors, I had surrendered myself to the rapture of abject abandonment before an ideal.
Silva entered the cage to a hero's welcome from the Brazilians surrounding me. I glanced down at my hands and noticed they were clapping, almost as if my subconscious was rebelling against my irrational loathing and paying homage to a man who was indisputably one of the all time greats. My hands may have been showing Silva a measure of respect, but my heart still wanted Sonnen to crush him like a ripe tomato.
Ring announcer Bruce Buffer announced both men's names and the fight was on.
Sonnen once again laid claim to the center of the Octagon, but this time he took Silva down with a sudden power double just eight seconds into the round.
Here it was, happening just like I'd dreamed of.
Silva did a much better job defending on the bottom this time around and used an active guard to keep Sonnen from landing any significant shots. The challenger eventually worked his way to half guard after a minute or so of Silva stymieing his attempted ground and pound. Sonnen wasn't able to get anything going from this position because Silva tightly clasped his hands behind his back, thereby keeping him from being able to posture up and throw effective strikes. As both men struggled for position thunderous chants of "Silva" and "USA" rang throughout the arena. Finally with a minute left to go in the round Sonnen broke Silva's guard and achieved full mount. Even from there he didn't land more than a few elbows due to Silva's efforts to control his posture. Nevertheless, it was a 10/9 round in favor of Sonnen.
I rode a wave of elation into the second.
Sonnen once again pushed forward. This time he initiated a clinch up against the cage. Silva defended Sonnen's attempts to muscle him to the ground but ate a few knees to the ribcage for his trouble. Sonnen then dropped down to attempt a double leg takedown which Silva stuffed easily. From there Silva pushed Sonnen off, breaking up the clinch. The challenger was undeterred. He wrapped his arms around both of Silva's legs and went for another takedown. It too was stuffed by the champ.
A standing scramble ensued that ended with Silva standing in front of the cage. Then, for some inexplicable reason, Sonnen went for a spinning back fist, slipped, and fell to the ground. The challenger sat with his back to the cage like a stag frozen in an unscrupulous hunter's high beams. A helpless, panic stricken look flashed across his face as he looked up and saw Silva measuring him for the kill.
That was it. With the irrevocable velocity of a bullet fired from an assault rifle, Silva hit Sonnen with a pinpoint knee to the body, knocking the wind out of him. Sonnen was finished right there but he struggled up to his feet and tried to fight on. Silva immediately knocked him back down again with a point blank right hand. Sonnen's knees buckled and he fell to the mat. The champ pounced and began blasting him with punches until the referee stepped in and waved the fight off.
Once again Sonnen found a way to beat himself and Silva had capitalized on the error.
I was crushed.
If the Vegas strip on a Saturday night after a big fight is like an artery clogged with fatty deposits of drunken humanity, eight or nine large beers gulped down in rapid succession had rendered me just another particle of LDL cholesterol.
I was standing outside on the strip while my girlfriend, who had accompanied me to Vegas, was inside a nearby shop looking for souvenirs for her co-workers. I had hoped the night air would help clear my head. Instead the sultry humidity and the dizzying masses of revelers only made me feel more drunk.
Every couple minutes a crowd of Brazilians still jubilantly chanting Silva's name would pass by. Each syllable felt like a drop of battery acid poured on a festering shingle.
I looked up at a gargantuan TV screen affixed to the side of a casino directly in front of me. There was a news program on showing highlights of the fight. I watched it all play out before me again: the spinning back fist, the slip, the knee, and the barrage of punches. Then I saw it for the first time: Silva's face beaming with pride, overjoyed at having just proven once and for all he was a better man than Sonnen.
I blame what happened next on the booze but in a way it had been building inside me for six years. Like a broken down drifter putting his impotent curse on a deity who doesn't even know he exists I raised both my arms in the air, flipped off the gargantuan image of Silva, and shouted, "Fuck you Silva! You cocky bastard!"
"Hey!" I heard a booming voice call from behind me, "Hey, you! Why you gotta be hating on Silva man?"
The voice belonged to a stocky man with long flowing dreadlocks. He was clad in a tight Ed Hardy shirt and had a cocktail in his hand. At his side was a redwood of a man whose well-cut white oxford shirt and close cropped hair projected an air of understated refinement. His face looked rather placid, but his friend was obviously pissed. The guy with dreadlocks shot me a glare that demanded an immediate answer.
I was mortified to be called on my childish tantrum. After a three second eternity spent searching for a reply, I finally resorted to an old standby I hadn't pulled out of my repertoire of excuses since somewhere around third grade.
"Because!" I indignantly shouted. "He's so arrogant he makes me sick. Look at the way he dances around the ring after he knocks people out. He's got no respect."
"You can't hate on him for that," the guy with dreadlocks shot back. "When you win, that's your moment man. You gotta let him get down however he wants."
A valid point. There were hundreds of fighters who broke into victory dances after a win. Why was my ire focused exclusively on Silva?
"Yeah, but look at the way he danced around for five rounds in Abu Dhabi," I shot back, knowing I was outgunned and rapidly running out of rhetorical ammunition. "That was a slap in the face to everyone watching at home and everyone who bought a ticket to see him fight. He's a prima donna!"
It didn't even sound convincing to me.
The redwood cut in, "Abu Dhabi? In UAE? You owe it to yourself to go there sometime. It's an incredible place. I studied biochemistry there in college."
I pounced on the change of subject and made mention that some of my students at my most recent job -- a charter school geared towards Muslim children -- had been from UAE.
This seemed to soften the guy with dreadlocks' anger.
"Hey, you taught at a Muslim school?" he asked, the excitement of finding a sympathetic ear resounding in his obviously intoxicated voice. "I went to a Muslim school for all of elementary school and for middle school. Then I went to a Christian high school just to get both sides of it.
You know, what's important in life is what works for you. Can't no one else tell you how to live. You gotta figure it out on your own. And it's hard! Look at me. What I know in my soul and in my heart are true Islamic teachings but I've got a drink in my hand. But I feel like it's all good with God if I slip a little bit now and then as long as I got him in my heart. You feel me?"
I felt him.
"For sure," I replied. "Every one's gotta be true to themselves."
What happened next changed my life.
"Are you being true to yourself?" The redwood suddenly cut in. "You say you're a teacher, huh? I think you're a writer."
My soul was laid open before him like an organic chemistry textbook. How had he figured me out so thoroughly in just two minutes of drunken conversation? I was flabbergasted.
"I guess you could say I'm a writer," I answered after taking a second to collect my thoughts. "It's what I love doing more than anything else but I've never made any money at it. How did you know I wanted to be a writer?"
"I'm a writer too. I could tell," replied the towering former student of biochemistry.
As if on cue my girlfriend arrived just then holding a black plastic bag full of souvenirs for her coworkers. We were running late for a party so I said goodbye to my new buddies. Things had gotten uncomfortably personal and I was glad for the excuse to cut the conversation short.
"Well, I guess we better get going," I said. "We've got a party we've got to be to. It was nice meeting you guys"
We shook hands. Then, from the guy with the dreadlocks, "Nice meeting you too. But next time ride with Silva!"
"I couldn't do that, I'm not a bandwagon jumper. Besides, I always back the underdog."
"Oh, you an underdog, huh? I can respect that. Enjoy the rest of your trip."
We exchanged another round of goodbyes and parted ways. My girlfriend turned and gave me an inquiring glance. As I began filling her in on what had just happened I heard a shout from behind.
I turned my head. It was the guy with dreadlocks.
"God bless you!"
I didn't know what to say. Finally, after a moment's hesitation:
"God bless you too."
We stumbled back out into the night.
Anderson Silva finally lost.
It was the clowning that did it. If Silva's seven year UFC unbeaten streak was a grand symphony in 16 movements, then his habit of reveling in his untouchable greatness while rubbing his opponents' noses in their own impotent mediocrity was his trademark leitmotif. So in a way it's fitting Silva's magnum opus came to a crescendo not with the predictable anticlimax of Father Time silently robbing him of his physical gifts, but with the cataclysmic fortissimo of his own steadily mounting hubris finally blowing up in his face in the form of a left hook that never should have landed.
The end came almost a year to the day after the Silva/Sonnen rematch. Silva was facing 29 year old, 9-0 challenger Chris Weidman who, realistically speaking, got his shot due more to a paucity of top contenders at middleweight than an overwhelming public demand to see him fight for the belt. Many fighters predicted an upset in favor of the relatively unknown challenger but despite this Silva gave Weidman little respect on fight night.
Silva went back to many of his greatest hits from the Maia fight to show his disdain for Weidman. He stuck out his jaw while pointing to it, clapped his hands, and shimmied from side to side feigning injury. At one point he purposely put his back against the cage in an attempt to prove Weidman wouldn't be able to land on him even if he had been rocking a new pair of cement cross trainers. This despite the challenger getting an early takedown and spending the better part of two minutes hammering the champ with elbows and punches from the top.
When the horn sounded signaling the end of the round, Silva embraced Wiedman and kissed him on the cheek. The message was clear: you may have gotten me down once but you're still a little boy playing a dangerous game with the baddest man alive.
Silva began the second by waving his hands in the air and screaming.
"Come on man, come on man," he yelled repeatedly.
It was an obvious attempt to lure the wrestler Weidman into a standup firefight. At first it appeared to be working. Weidman, his face betraying obvious frustration, threw a looping right hand that Silva effortlessly circled away from. The challenger sent out a jab to try and gauge the champ's distance, but Silva was so far away Weidman may as well have been attempting to cast a lure into the Pacific Ocean while standing in the backyard of his Long Island home. He tried a front kick but again no dice. Catching Silva standing was looking like an increasingly daunting prospect so Weidman shot for a takedown. It was stuffed with ease.
Weidman was having such little success standing that Silva decided to have some fun at his expense. He stuck his chin out and and begged Weidman to take a free shot. When the challenger obliged with a left hook, Silva feigned injury and began sashaying back and forth as if in a daze. It was meant to fuck with Weidman's mind, to make him doubt his own power and start believing in the myth of Silva's invincibility. Instead, he followed up with another left hook as Silva was off balance.
This time Silva went down.
Weidman swarmed on Silva and began blasting him with punches. A right hand made Silva's body go rigid and his eyes roll back in his head. The most monumental run in UFC history was over.
Shakespeare couldn't have devised a more poetic denouement. After seven long years spent amusing himself at his opponents' expense like a mercurial monarch venting his spleen on a succession of court jesters, Silva finally felt the punitive humiliation many a tragedian has proposed to be the wages of hubris. The great Anderson Silva got knocked the fuck out by a man with only nine professional fights and all because, in a moment of supreme arrogance, he chose to drop his guard and start wobbling around in his best imitation of a drunk miserably failing a field sobriety test.
Just like with his arch-rival Chael Sonnen, a mental lapse on Silva's part led to his defeat. In a very real way he had finally done what nobody had been able to do for the past seven years.
Anderson Silva had finally beaten himself.
Picture this: Your humble author sitting at home, jaw agape, trying to process the idea that the fighter he spent years loathing had just lost. Here's the kicker though: I wasn't happy to see Silva humiliated.
On the contrary, I felt sympathy him.
A lot had changed for me in the 365 days since the Silva/Sonnen rematch. For one I no longer watched fights with any vested interest in their outcome. I had been trying to break into MMA journalism for the better part of the year and didn't want any bias to corrupt my analysis. Instead of gulping down beers and cheering on my favorites I now stuck to tea and took copious notes.
Breaking with the fan mentality and observing MMA with a dispassionate eye led me to an increased understanding of why I find the sport so compelling. Both competitors in a fight want to win more than anything in the world but by definition only one can succeed. The logical corollary is that in every fight, whether between two unknowns competing on the local circuit or in a blockbuster UFC main event, someone must fail.
Failure. We instinctively recoil at the very mention of it, afraid its taint will somehow contaminate us. In a culture that worships at the alter of success, no pariah is as looked down upon as the failure. But in our rush to get ahead it's easy to forget the flip side to every real failure is an attempt to chase one's dreams. Sometimes the successful realization of our dreams is vouchsafed to us. Sometimes -- perhaps more often than not -- they aren't. However, in the genuine failure's Promethean determination to attempt success despite foreknowledge it's far from guaranteed lies a glory no amount of jeering "told you so's" can take away.
Seen in this light failure isn't an epithet, it's an accolade.
It was an accolade I was unworthy of during all those years I spent hating Silva. After college my life had taken on the trajectory of a satellite that, due to some unforeseen internal malfunction, immediately falls to earth upon launch. Feelings of worthlessness stemming from my numerous crash landings made me think of myself as a failure. But in this, like in so many things, I had been mistaken. The truth was I had been so terrified of failure that I was paralyzed by the thought of it. Consequently I spent seven long years deferring dream after dream to a nebulously defined tomorrow when I believed I would be equal to the task of taking on and conquering life.
It was my chance encounter with those two Silva fans on the strip that night that made me realize it. The reason why every job I tried up until that point had fit me like a straitjacket was because, as my towering interlocutor so astutely observed, I wasn't being true to myself. I wasn't a clerk, a teacher, or even an aimless loser.
I was a writer too afraid to write.
And with that realization I could no longer resent Silva. He may arguably be the best of of all time at what he does, but he didn't come into the world that way. Like all of us he was once an infant whose future was an unwritten page. It might be difficult to imagine when we see the composed grace he exudes in the cage today, but even the great Anderson Silva had to learn how walk as a toddler. What's more he doubtlessly fell down numerous times in his early attempts.
And if that's the case then think of how many blows Silva took in sparring before he finally learned to slip punches with the skill of an Olympic skier zipping down a slalom course. There was no guarantee Silva had a future beyond the favela when he first walked into a Muay Thai gym at age 16, let alone that he would one day become the greatest MMA fighter of all time and an exceedingly wealthy man. He had to work for all that.
It was entirely possible I would never succeed as a writer. Maybe I was never going to make my mark on the world. Perhaps I wasn't the exceptional one in a million, but just another one of the billions of anonymous individuals who aggregate into this beautifully striving, stumbling, and sometimes thriving mass we call humanity.
But here's the rub: even if I would never be able to distinguish myself as a writer it was still who I was. To deny that and capitulate on my hopes in favor of a life of stable mundanity was far more shameful than any failure ever could be.
And that's one thing writers share in common with fighters. The odds of success are exceedingly slim in both professions but the alternative to heeding one's inner voice is suffering from a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that crawls under your skin and never goes away. Imagine a swarm of self-perpetuating scabies mites and you're almost there.
In a sense fighting is the ultimate metaphor for man's eternal struggle for self-actualization. Whether you're an amateur fighter, an aspiring writer, or someone who still has no clue what you want to do, success is never guaranteed. At some point in any maverick endeavor you're bound feel like you've been wasting your time driving down an interminable freeway with nothing but disheartening setbacks laying in wait for you at the top of every off-ramp. Or to put it more eloquently, like the man with dreadlocks said when talking about his own attempt to navigate his way through this labyrinthine obstacle course we call life, it's hard.
Case in point: Back in a 2003, long before he began his run in the UFC, Silva lost by way of first round triangle to the 4-7 Daiju Takase. At the time Silva was an impressive up and comer with an 11-1 record so nobody, least of all Silva himself, was expecting him to lose to a fighter like Takase. Silva was disheartened by the loss and even contemplated walking away from the sport entirely before being convinced to keep fighting by his mentor Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Had Silva succumbed to the nagging feelings of doubt and disappointment that were no doubt eating at him in the days after the loss to Takase, he would have ended up just another promising fighter who hit a rough patch and subsequently faded into obscurity.
Instead he became a legend.