In 1870, Jem Mace and Joe Coburn were tossed into competition with
each other to decide the world’s bare-knuckle boxing champion -- a
sport that played host to some horrific injuries. (Death, for
Mace and Coburn contested the title for an astounding three hours
and 45 minutes.
Neither man landed a single blow.
Not long after, someone made an attempt on Mace’s life.
To say it was someone who bought a ticket to that fight is perhaps
Last Saturday, Anderson
Silva fought not to lose. It was a bizarre change of pace from
a man who had reeled off seven successive finishes in the UFC.
Silva gave Thales Leites
no chance to mount an offense. He landed kicks to Leites’ thigh at
will. He would stare at Leites for what seemed like hours. He
professed satisfaction at emerging from the fight unscathed, which
is a little like an Olympic diver bragging that he never got
So you didn’t get wet. You also didn’t get in the water.
Silva’s performance -- the second in a row featuring a
counter-attack methodology designed to remove most of the risk --
brought questions of whether athletes have any obligation to
acknowledge the crowd. We do pay his salary, after all, albeit in a
roundabout way. Is it not expected that he will endanger his health
Fighting is a calculated-risk business. Smart athletes go in with
designs on doing the maximum amount of damage to an opponent while
sustaining the minimum amount of damage to themselves. Ducking
helps. Having good takedown defense helps. Blocking punches
Remaining stationary because your opponent refuses to enter your
range does not help. It allows you to remain safe, of course, but
it doesn’t allow you opportunity to win. That’s a pretty important
part of the equation: creating opportunities to win.
Silva’s supporters argue that it was Leites who was at fault --
that his refusal to engage, to the point of flopping to his back,
cheated Silva out of those opportunities. But that ignores Silva’s
obligation to invent openings as often as he chases them. If MMA is
about waiting for someone else to make a mistake, and making a
zero-risk game of it until then -- well, we’re all in some serious
Timidity is an actual violation of the Unified Rules. You cannot
refuse to engage an opponent. Like most of the regulations, this is
designed to homogenize a messy conflict. This is no longer the
landscape of jiu-jitsu guys “cooking” opponents for hours on end,
or punching someone in the crotch until they cough up a lung. It
has been streamlined for television, for public mass consumption
and for Burger King.
Sports do not exist in a vacuum. “Spectator sport” is redundant.
What is a sport if not played for the amusement of others?
Silva -- or any fighter -- isn’t at blame. They do what’s
appropriate in the rules. If he had gotten a point deduction for
passivity, perhaps the fight would have played out differently.
Better: Since Leites was told to stand up after flopping to his
back, where’s the fairness in forcing Leites to play Silva’s game?
If Silva didn’t want to engage standing, why not bring him to the
mat in the same way Leites was brought to his feet?
None of this happened, of course, and Silva was allowed to
cherry-pick only the most opportune times to land strikes. The
fight is almost MMA’s version of “The Blair Witch Project,” hailed
as brilliant minimalism by some and an eye-gouging disaster by
There’s no accounting for taste. And if Silva ends his next bout
with a vicious knockout, this will all be forgotten. But if his
stature in the sport now compels him to compete with no momentum
and no aggression, seeking only to preserve a sterile legacy, then
observers can do worse than simply deduct points -- they can deduct
Silva might be the best fighter in the world. But if he chooses
not to fight, does that even matter?