'Like Water' Review: Perfect Prelude to Silva-Sonnen Rematch

The new documentary "Like Water" profiles UFC middleweight champion Anderson “The Spider” Silva in the days leading up to UFC 117, the August 2010 match when Silva defended his title against Chael Sonnen, the only fighter who has come close to taking the Brazilian’s belt.

And “come close” he did – Sonnen dominated all five rounds yet, in the greatest upset in UFC history, Silva pulled off a win via a triangle submission in the fight's final seconds.

The two will face off again next month at UFC 148, hence the aptly timed documentary release date. As if this rematch were not already one of the most anticipated events in combat sport's history, "Like Water" bumps up the excitement and interest level even further.

Silva and Sonnen are the sport’s most fascinating men, engaged in the sport’s most fascinating rivalry.

Predictably, "Like Water" presents Silva in a very positive light and, to be fair, such is not due to any concerted bias. Silva is indeed a likable fellow. Generally soft-spoken and quick to laugh, it is easy to warm to the man whom UFC President Dana White once described as the greatest fighter in the world.

The obligatory scenes of Silva as a loving father are standard in such documentaries, but nonetheless touching and genuine as depicted here. One scene in particular of Silva with his pretty wife (they have been together she was a teenager) and their five adorable kids snuggled on the couch watching TV, is indeed heartwarming.

And a later scene at a Motor Cross event, where female fans, including UFC octagon girl Arianny Celeste, attempt to flirt with the champion, while Silva simply stares forward at the field, paying little attention their overtures, is certainly telling of his ethical compass.

Devoted family man? Check. Good guy with friends and family who love him? Check.

But Silva has been no stranger to controversy and the documentary, to its credit, does not shy away from covering this angle. In Silva’s April 2010 fight against Damian Maia, taking place in the United Arab Emirates, a lucrative market for the UFC with sheiks sitting ringside, Silva failed to please the crowd, often standing still or dancing around the ring rather than, well, fighting.

“This is where people have criticized Anderson – moving around and doing nothing,” muses UFC commentator Joe Rogan, as the crowd boo’s loudly. The referee is even forced to pause the bout, warning Silva against such antics. Sure, Silva pulls off the win via decision, keeping his belt but angering the fans and Dana White himself in the process. At the post-fight press conference, White’s displeasure is obvious:

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed in the 10 years of being in this business,” he states, the camera zooming in, his face struggling to contain anger as Silva stubbornly refuses to apologize for his performance. Indeed, White was so disgusted, he walked out of the venue and refused to place the belt on Silva, as he customarily does to title-bout winners.

Like Water

In a subsequent scene, Silva speaks to longtime friendand former UFC champion, Lyoto Machida, about the controversial fight.

“It’s like this… Everyone wants [to see] a brawl, right? But if you get into a brawl in every fight, and end up losing every fight, you can be cut [from the UFC]. [People say:] ‘The fight was bad!’ Really? But who won?” And therein lies the stark difference between Silva and Sonnen – if the August 2010 Silva-Sonnen fight shows anything, it’s that Sonnen does ‘come to brawl.’ As Sonnen notes in his recently released book, having dominated 4 of the 5 rounds, he indeed could have coasted through the 5th round, rounded out the clock as best he could, and let it go to a decision and thus a victory. 

He did not – and it cost him the belt.

Would Silva have done the same? Judging from both the Maia fight and his rationale as explained to Machida, the win is the goal for Silva, not the performance. A few days after the Maia fight, it is announced Silva will next face Chael Sonnen … and thus the saga begins.

Silva moves his training camp to Los Angeles and much of the scenes are dedicated to showcasing Silva in his element -- training. The most memorable is where he, his Muay Thai coach, and his manager Ed Soares sit around watching reels of Sonnen.

Silva: “He’s strong, huh?”

Ed Soares: “Yep.”

While the coach reassures Silva that Sonnen is “nothing spectacular,” Silva does not seem so sure – and orders the tape turned off. So what else do we learn about Anderson Silva? Like Sonnen, Silva is a devout Catholic, praying before the fight. Glimpses into a UFC fighter backstage following a fight are rare (Dana: can you start those video blogs?) yet "Like Water" gives the viewer that access.

What does Silva do? Clutches his golden rosary, kneeling in prayer -- a moment of privacy that the camera sneakily captures through a doorway.

Curiously, the documentary’s most fascinating profile turns out to be Silva’s longtime manager, Ed Soares. One feels sympathy, actually, for he who bears the unenviable task of managing the sometimes-difficult champion. During one scene of a media conference call on which Silva and Sonnen participate, Silva refuses to answer most of the reporters’ questions. Whether Silva is understandably tired and annoyed by answering the same old questions over and over, or whether he is behaving as a spoiled celebrity, is up to the viewer to decide. But watching the irritated Soares cringe as he listens in on the call via speaker phone, shaking his head in frustration as Silva answers each question with a curt “no”, and watching as Soares nervously takes a call from a none-too-happy White, one realizes the difficulties of managing the champion.

Though earlier in the film, Soares chides that Sonnen “has mental problems!” while listening to Sonnen joke about Soares in a TV appearance – one wonders if Soares does not, at least in that moment, regret that characterization of Sonnen – for Sonnen, love him or hate him, at least promotes the heck out of a fight.

Like Water

Soares, dejected after the disastrous conference call, questions whether Silva does not understand promotion … or if he does yet simply does not care to make the effort. “Dude we’re in the fight selling business… We gotta promote a fight…. [But] he’s not gonna change – this is the way that he is.” And despite all the flack Sonnen has received from some in Brazil regarding his comments about the country, Silva’s own team seems to realize these are simply jokes made in good-natured fun.

Soares, who himself was born to Brazilian parents, relays in one scene:

“[Sonnen said] ‘If you bow your head down in Brazil, they’ll hit you over the head and take your wallet.’ [laughs heartily] It’s kinda true, though!”

Bone to pick? The closing credits state: “One month after the fight it was revealed that Chael Sonnen’s pre-fight drug test came back with a high testosterone toestrogen level, which is indicative of anabolic steroid use.” Technically true but misleading. Sonnen was 1/10th over the legal limit (.7 vs .6). And yes, a high level can be indicative of anabolic steroid use… OR it can be indicative of someone under testosterone replacement therapy (to bring his testosterone up to normal levels due to a medical condition requiring such) – as Sonnen is, under a doctor’s recommendation and administration, and as Sonnen has disclosed repeatedly. The closing credit is thus an unnecessary and unfair slight on Sonnen that unfortunately stains an otherwise fair documentary.

"Like Water" fails as a pro-Silva fluff piece (assuming it was intended as such?) for, while it extolls Silva in some aspects, it confirms his detractors in others.

FIRST: After a fan signing event in Vegas, Silva and Soares ride in the car and Silva notes that he enjoys “playing with the fans.” By ‘playing with,’ does he mean ‘messing with’? Soares laughs and assumes Silva wrote: “Go f**k yourself!” to one fan. Silva didn’t … but it begs the question if Silva has mocked his own fans this way in the past, prompting Soares’s assumption. The scene awkwardly edits away any further discussion.

SECOND: The much-discussed ‘rib injury’? (At the UFC 117 post-fight press conference, Silva claimed he fought with an injured rib, offering it as a sort of explanation for his near-loss.) Interestingly, there is no scene of Silva complaining about a hurt rib, per se, nor his seeing a doctor about such an injury – and one would think a camera crew following him for the 60 days leading up to and including thefight would have been privy to such. So the controversy on that note will continue, particularly in light of recent rumors that Silva’s knee is injured. Some say this is Silva lining up excuses again, should he fail to retain his belt – others say such is hogwash. But "Like Water’s" failure to prove Silva did in fact fight with an injured rib will only add fuel the fire.

THIRD: Steven Seagal? Yes, he makes an appearance. Seagal is, after all, one of Silva’s trainers and has been for a few years. But the cameo almost hurts rather than helps Silva’s profile – we’ve already seen Silva in his shiny Range Rover, the impressive house with a mural of himself on the wall, the big diamond earrings, and now even a Hollywood movie star trainer ... versus the country-boy from Oregon volunteering with kids in his local community’s wrestling program. Though Silva has most certainly earned his fame and riches by crawling his way up from nothing (he once worked at McDonald’s), does he remain modest? The flashiness works against him –a mental parallel of the established, wealthy Apollo Creed against up-and-comer Rocky is inevitable.

All that aside, the most riveting scenes are naturally those the day of fight. As Silva leaves the arena, his voice concludes on this note: "Life is about how much you can take and keep fighting, how much you can suffer and keep moving forward."

Well said. One cannot help but note, however, that the quote could just as easily,if not more aptly, fit Chael Sonnen himself, a man who has overcome a seemingly insurmountable string of personal losses and struggles to gain this title shot rematch.

As Sonnen’s book relays, the fighter has pushed forward despite endless obstacles, dating back to the loss of his beloved father to whom he made a promise of someday winning a championship. If anyone apart from Silva embodies that quote, it is Silva’s own opponent.

Perhaps the one thing to take away from "Like Water" is the lingering question: Are Sonnen and Silva, on a personal level, much more alike than either is willing to realize? Are they two sides of the same coin? Polar opposites? Bitter enemies? It’s anyone’s guess. Only this is certain: who is the better fighter will be answered once and for all next month.

“Like Water” is now showing in select theaters, On Demand, and is available for rental on iTunes. Sonnen v. Silva’s rematch will headline UFC 148, taking place July 7 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and is available via your Pay-Per-View provider.


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