The stakes in the UFC’s Saturday night middleweight championship bout couldn’t be higher.
Chris Weidman merely fights to retain his newly won middleweight belt. Anderson Silva competes to determine whether his remains the name fans speak most often when the discussion turns to the greatest mixed-martial artist in the short history of the sport.
Because of this, UFC President Dana White–acting here more in his role as pitchman than truthteller–predicts that UFC 168 will generate more pay-per-view buys than any card in the history of the company. That’s hype. Surely the buzz surrounding UFC 100 more loudly struck our ears. But that doesn’t mean the financial stakes aren’t higher than Stefan Struve.
This is a legacy bout that will determine how fans will remember Anderson Silva. Was he so great that he ultimately defeated every man he ever faced in the UFC, made three times the number of title defenses as his middleweight champion predecessors combined, and ruled the division for almost seven years? Or, was the Brazilian so great that he allowed himself to get lazy and lackadaisical?
Silva’s skills and athleticism are such that he can perform poorly and still dominate. Case in point? Nearly four years ago, Silva shucked and showboated his way to a unanimous decision victory over Demian Maia that left fans booing and UFC President Dana White enraged. “If he ever acts like that again in the ring I will cut him,” White told talk host Jim Rome. “I don’t care if he’s the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. I don’t care if he’s the middleweight champion. I will cut him, absolutely.” Silva’s antics evoked comparisons to Michael Jordan’s departure from the NBA for minor league baseball at the height of his basketball career–the act of an elite competitor completely bored by the lack of competition.
A humbled champion, publicly chastised by his boss and the fans who made him rich, initially appeared to have gleaned a valuable lesson from the debacle. But July’s fight with Weidman proved that the lesson was forgotten as quickly as it was learned. It also showed that Anderson’s Silva’s blessings can act occasionally as a curse. He’s so good that he believes he can still win being bad.
The Brazilian’s knockout loss to Weidman serves as the most recent example of this paradox. Silva, winning in 33 of his previous 37 fights, had every reason to be confident. He didn’t just beat great fighters. He embarrassed them. Silva kicked former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort into unconsciousness. He sent former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin fleeing from the octagon. He made Rich Franklin, the fighter he took the middleweight strap from, look like a child fighting a man–twice.
But he crossed the fine line between confident and cocky once he disrespectfully dropped his hands in July. When the 38-year-old offered the powerful Weidman his chin, did he really think the undefeated wrestler wouldn’t take it?
And like the few losses that preceded it, Silva’s fans could call it a fluke. He didn’t really lose to Yushin Okami; he got disqualified for an illegal upkick that would have been legal in his earlier fights under the Pride banner. And that absolutely incredible out-of-nowhere Ryo Chonan submission? Silva dominated every second of the bout save for the last one.
Chris Weidman fights to show that his knockout victory over a clowning Anderson Silva was anything but a fluke. Anderson Silva fights to show that it was just that.
And in doing so, the Spider will determine whether his is the first name that comes to mind when we talk about the best of all time.