Viewpoint: Sun Has Not Yet Set

By: Tristen Critchfield
Mar 5, 2013
Wanderlei Silva turned back the clock against Brian Stann in Japan. | Photo: Taro Irei/

It was far from a tense atmosphere at the UFC on Fuel TV 8 post-fight press conference on Saturday, and for that, we have a victorious Wanderlei Silva to thank.

Attendees applauded dutifully as the star of the evening described what it was like to return to his old Pride Fighting Championships stomping grounds and author a performance that harkened back to an era when the Brazilian was the most feared fighter on the planet.

“I feel really happy,” Silva said. “I don’t know what happens in Japan, but it makes me feel young.”

Now 36 years old, Silva is far removed from his reign as Pride’s inaugural middleweight champion, and it has been nearly a decade since he memorably won the Japanese promotion’s 2003 middleweight grand prix. While Silva once went unbeaten over the course of a 20-bout stint with the organization from 1999 to 2004, he entered his matchup with Brian Stann having lost seven of his last 10 fights, four by brutal knockout.

Had it been Silva, not Stann, hitting the canvas after a little more than nine minutes of furious action, the mood surrounding the beloved brawler at the Saitama Super Arena would have been decidedly more somber. The questions, as they seem to do more frequently with each passing fight anyway, would have revolved almost exclusively around Silva’s post-MMA plans, or lack thereof. As it is, it has become practically obligatory to inquire “How many more?” of Silva, regardless of the in-cage result.

When a similar question was posed after he knocked out Stann, Silva was more thoughtful than defiant as he basked in the afterglow of a vintage triumph.

“I’m fighting one fight at a time right now. I feel healthy. A couple of injuries are normal, you know? Sooner or later, I’m going to need to stop this job, but I’m happy for this feeling and this energy from my fans,” he said.

It was a realistic answer from a man whose physical appearance has changed drastically after years of brutal battles have taken their toll. There is no set timetable for the onetime Chute Boxe Academy standout to call it a career, however. Sooner or later tends to become “sooner” after a humbling defeat and “later” when the aim of a knockout blow proves true.

The idealist in all of us would prefer to see Silva go out a winner; to see him do so in Japan, the fighter’s home-away-from-home for so many years, would make such a graceful exit that much sweeter. However, none of us are writing Silva’s story. Take a moment to consider how close Silva was to a second-round stoppage of Rich Franklin at UFC 147. Had things gone differently then, he could very easily be 3-0 in his last three appearances -- and he still owns notable victories over Stann and former Strikeforce champion Cung Le. That cannot make it easy to walk away.

It is important to remember after all that we are talking about a man with the moniker of “The Axe Murderer.” Although Silva is one of the meanest-looking nice guys in combat sports today, it is difficult to imagine him comfortably following in the footsteps of Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, both of whom have settled into executive-type roles with Zuffa. The current difference between Silva and his two contemporaries, of course, is that Silva is still winning. Back-to-back first-round knockout losses ushered Hughes into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s front office, while Liddell needed three knockout losses and repeated prodding from promotion head and close friend Dana White before settling into a new job as the company’s executive vice president of business development.

Before Silva stopped Le at UFC 139, White was hinting that the Brazilian should begin to consider life after the Octagon. Back then, Silva was certain his time to say farewell had not arrived.

“I think my performance is going to make me fight again,” he said during a pre-fight conference call.

Silva was correct then, and the statement holds true after his victory over Stann, as well. “The Axe Murderer” has no true weight class -- his last three bouts have been held at 205, 195 and 185 pounds -- and no serious title aspirations, but under the proper circumstances, the man still can perform with the best of them.

Not every opponent is going to wildly engage Silva as Stann did, but when it happens, the results are spectacular. The flip side of that coin is that the unharnessed aggression and sturdy chin that carried him for so long are not nearly as reliable as they once were, particularly the latter. Occasionally, Father Time will rear its ugly head, like at UFC 132 when Chris Leben delivered a brutal 27-second knockout of the former Pride standout. Times like those are when we begin to question the sanity of our legends, even as they remain resolute in their intentions to carry on.

In a perfect world, we would remember Silva as he was on Saturday: smiling and grateful, brutal and assertive, and most of all, coherent.

“There is no way Wanderlei can go after that performance,” said Fuel TV studio analyst Michael Bisping, who lost to Silva at UFC 110. “It proves he still has a lot left in the tank.”

Our interests often seem to contradict one another. While we want our fighters to attack with unbridled ferocity, we are quick to become indignant when those same athletes begin losing their faculties as a result of the very same nature we once praised. We blame the organizations, the athletic commissions or the fighters themselves for hanging around too long, as if it was our choice to begin with. In reality, it never was.

Silva’s drive to compete might be fueled by the fans, but nobody with an “Axe Murderer” T-shirt and a few Pride DVDs truly has a right to question his decision making. They do not live with the consequences if he chooses to fight or if he does not.

Rare is the occasion in any professional sport that a superstar rides off into the sunset unscathed. For every Barry Sanders, there are 10 more stories of athletes who held on too long. In MMA, Chris Lytle, who retired after beating Dan Hardy in 2011, is the exception, not the norm.

At the moment, the future looks fairly promising for Silva. A fight or two down the road, his prospects might not be so rosy. Whether he continues to proceed or not from there is entirely up to him.

As someone who has put his heart into the sport, Silva has earned that right.

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