I am fairly new to the sport of mixed martial arts. I began watching passionately during the Liddell-Ortiz rivalry in 2004. Since then, I have sought to appreciate fighters, fighting styles, strategies, techniques, rules, and the intrinsic beauty of the sport. Having said all that, what I witnessed on Saturday night left me pretty confident in saying Anderson Silva is the best fighter in mixed martial arts today. With due respect to Goerges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo, Fedor Emelianenko, BJ Penn, Rashad Evens, and whomever else, Silva is in a class of his own. Before backing this statement up, I want to make it clear that I am not well versed in the history of MMA. While Silva may have an argument as the proverbial GOAT, I will couch this discussion on the assertion that he is without a doubt the best fighter in MMA today and has been for the past five years.
It is always difficult to make a “best” or “worst” argument without clearly setting out what makes something the best or worst. For example, when we discuss the best film (Godfather), best tv series (The Wire), best dancer (Michael Jackson), best female singer (Mariah Carry) best university (Berkeley) or worst freeway (405), worst actor (Keanu Reeves), worst candy bar (abba-zaba), worst car dealership (Buena Park BMW), worst university (Stanfurd), etc., we typically consider a host of factors that help strengthen our arguments. Similarly, in mixed martial arts, there are some agreeable markers that help us distinguish between the talent and accomplishments of some amazing fighters. Some of those qualifiers are predicated on a fighter’s striking ability, ground game, stamina, pain threshold, balance, improvisation, and discipline. Other qualifiers deal with accomplishments, period of dominance, sustained level of performance, and the quality of one’s opponents.
If we were to look at the first set of attributes, Anderson Silva scores off the charts. He is without a doubt the most skilled fighter in the MMA today. Silva’s striking ability is second to none. He has an outstanding ground game, amazing stamina, few if any weaknesses, and can fight off his back better than anyone since Royce Gracie. The only fighter that comes close to his god given skill is BJ Penn. The only fighter that comes close to his discipline and game planning ability is GSP. During training sessions, Silva spars fifteen five-minute sessions back to back to back. That’s like a marathon runner prepping for a 20-mile marathon by running 60 miles. His stamina, as we saw after each round on Saturday night, is ridiculous. It is almost offensive. It is difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea of a man having 200 pounds on top of him, trying to prevent his face from being pounded in, and some how coming out in the 5th round jumping up and down in an effort to get the crowd going. His ability to take shots on his chin and keep ticking at optimal speed is freakish. Finally, his use of combinations, kicks, elbows, legs, feet, and everything else on his body is really something to admire.
As for the second list of qualifiers, Anderson Silva has not legitimately lost a fight since 2003 (yes, I know about the DQ and the craziest flying scissor heel hook in the history of heels and hooks.) He has the longest win streak in the history of the UFC at 12 consecutive contests. Until Saturday night, I think it is fair to say he did not drop a round -a single round- on points since June 8th of 2003 against Daiju Takase. Think about that, he arguably did not lose a round on points in seven years! Since his debute in the UFC against Chris Leben on June of 2006, Anderson Silva has ravaged, pillaged, and destroyed his competitors. He was not doing this against chumps either, during his UFC win streak, Silva has beaten the stupid out of Chris Leben, Rich Franklin, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Patrick Cote, Forrest Griffin, and Damian Maia. Finishing each with a generous mix of TKO’s, KO’s, and Submissions. He has put so many people to sleep, that he is considering exploring a post-MMA career as an anesthesiologist (I know … whomp whomp … I had to go there.) With the exception of the first round in the Hendo fight, none of these fighters were even remotely close to touching him. In fact, the Maia fight was such a joke that Dana White, President of the UFC, threatened to suspend Silvia for not taking fights seriously. Like a few other great champions (including GSP – one of my favorite fighters) he meets all of my “greatest in the octagon” qualifiers.
The last element “the guy” must have, and this can be applied to any great in any sport, is an ability to over come serious adversity. When I speak of adversity, I don’t want to understate it. By serious adversity, I mean the kind of adversity where an athlete is up against increasingly unfavorable odds. It is a moment or moments where the athlete has to look into him or herself and assess how they will respond to the venom of defeat. The adversity is not only about appreciating the seriousness of the situation and the odds against them succeeding. No it is more than that. It is facing the grim reaper in the eye and telling him to fuck off, and them making him fuck off. It is Michael Jordan erasing a three point deficit with 35 seconds left in game 6 of the NBA finals (drive to basket, steal, jump shot, GAME http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkDUY6fu7Uk) It is Muhammad Ali taking a pounding from George Foreman and then knocking him out in the 8th round (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10ZIxV9KWgY&feature=related) It is Joe Montana leading his team on a 92-yard drive in the Super Bowl to win it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fquUbTZ9uzw) It is Floyd Mayweather getting rocked in the second round, having to grab Mosely’s arms to keep from falling to the ground, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhnRO9NeXFI&feature=related) and composing himself to recover and win. It is performances like those four, and many others, that help illuminate what I mean when I say overcoming serious adversity. These moments are the ultimate, “how in the hell did he …” moments. Don’t get me wrong some greats never get the opportunity to find themselves in high stake movements like these, but all athletes have at one time or another faced adversity. Pick any athlete and apply this test, think back to the one moment where he found himself in a dire situation, how he reacted, and if he prevailed. If you answer all three of these in the affirmative, than chances are that athlete, who was already one of the best, was THE best player on the planet that season or that moment.
Which brings me back to Anderson Silva. Some might argue the fight on Saturday night makes a case for GSP to be the best fighter in MMA. Understandably so, Silva looked human. He got clipped on the jaw in the first round, and spent the next four getting out wrestled and dominated from the top by a world-class wrestler. Taking that into consideration, I ask that we consider some of the nuances of the fight. First, observe the body language of the fighters prior to the start of each round. Silva was the fresher more engaged fighter each time. He was ready to trade with Chael Sonnen and had success at hurting Sonnen. While Sonnen was landing shots, those shots didn’t seem to disorient Silva (no matter how much those two idiots for announcers wanted to yell “OHHHH SILVA GOT ROCKED!!” “SILVIA IS HURT BAD!!” … on one occasion, Silva slipped and fell … sure enough, twiddle dee and twiddle dum followed the slip up with “SILVA’S HURT!!!”) Also, when Sonnen was on top pounding away, most of his shots were missing Silva. A few bombs found there way to Silva’s mug, but for the most part there were a series of love taps on the face, and haymakers that missed. If you really want to get technical, they both inflicted an equal amount of punishment on each other throughout the whole fight. Sonnen’s face was ripped up, and he admitted to getting hurt by a lot of Silva’s punches. Sonnen, to his credit, clearly outclassed Silva on wrestling (the highlight for Sonnen was going from being on his back, to putting Silva on his back, by wrapping his leg, lifting, and twisting his body.) So lets get it straight, Sonnen was winning that fight, five rounds to none, he was scoring more points, and was more active in the dominant position on the ground. Given that, don’t get it twisted; Sonnen took a great deal of punishment as well.
The fight fell Silva’s way after he responded to the kind of adversity I alluded to earlier. His triangle on Sonnen, while on his back, to win the fight with only 2 minutes left (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scfnrFagF2Q), was the equivalent of a linebacker tackling, stripping, recovering, and scoring a touchdown while a running back was trying to run out the clock in the fourth quarter. I cannot overstate what that triangle -with that much time left, his belt on the line, in a position where he had little success at submission attempts throughout the fight- really meant. To try a justify it with another couple of analogies, it would be like Roger Federer facing Match Point down a set in the Wimbledon Finals, and then catching fire and winning two straight games to take the match. It would be like Albert Pujols batting for his team in the World Series, with one out left, two men on, down 0-2 in the pitch count, and hitting a homerun to win it. It would be like Manny Pacquiao getting his face pounded in by my Miguel Cotto, and then, knocking Cotto out in the final round to retain his title. You might think I am exaggerating what happened to finish that fight, but it really was that unexpected and that improbable. It is not like Sonnen forgot how to fight, or that he suddenly failed to realize the only way he could lose the fight was by submission. He knew that stuff was coming and could not stop it, as Ben Roethlisbergeronce said, Anderson Silva “just had the will to win.”
Looking ahead, there are a couple of exciting fights: BJ Penn and GSP are both scheduled to compete against quality opponents very soon. While GSP has most of what Silva does, he still needs to improve his ability to finish fights (winning on points is great, but the profession demands a fighter show versatility and closing ability). Furthermore, GSP needs to face a situation similar to Silva’s this past Saturday night. In the Thiago Alves fight, he did grind his way to victory despite suffering a pulled growing in the third round, but we have yet to see GSP in a moment of desperation. Until he does what Fedor did against Fujita, what Lesner did against Carwin, or what any other great fighters have done, I cannot, in good conscious, put him ahead of Silva. GSP is the future and might go down ranked higher in the pantheons than Silva, but he still has a ways to go. Either way, Silva and Sonnen privileged us to the best finish I have seen since following MMA. Vitor Belfort should get his shot at Silva next (unless Silva’s ribs dont allow him to fight for a while.) If Sonnen beats another Silva, Wanderlei, he should get a rematch. If Silva manages to some how beat Belfort, Sonnen (rematch), and say Jake Shields in his next three fights, I don’t give a damn what GSP or anyone else does, Silva deserves to retain his crown as the best fighter in mixed martial arts today. Those are a lot of”ifs,” but let me add another: If he does all this in the next two years, Silvia has to be given serious consideration as the best fighter in the history of mixed martial arts.