Win, lose or draw, Wanderlei Silva is one of the all-time greats

Watching a barely conscious Wanderlei Silva trying to grapple with Josh Rosenthal, my heart sank.

I had this twisted feeling in my stomach. It was a mixture of anger, disappointment, pity, and sadness.

And to be honest, I've been having that feeling a lot the past five years.

Last night at UFC 132: "Cruz vs. Faber," two knockout artists in Chris Leben and Silva stepped inside the Octagon in a fight that basically promised early fireworks this Fourth of July weekend.

And fireworks there were. A brutal first minute knockout ended the fight nearly as quickly as it began and when the dust settled, it seemed that the sun had set on a mixed martial arts (MMA) legend.

I'm not here to say "The Axe Murderer" should hang up his gloves or convince anyone that he's still got some fight left in him. But if this is the end to a storied career, I just want to take some time to reflect.

Here goes.

The first time I saw Wanderlei Silva, he was getting blasted by a machine gun-like Vitor Belfort. From one side of the cage to the other, "The Axe Murderer" ate shot after shot before the referee stepped in.

Obviously, it wasn't the best first impression.

But in the following years, the madman from Curitiba went on a tear that included only dropping one bout in five years. 

He became one of the legendary fighters from Pride Fighting Championships alongside the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Kazushi Sakuraba.

These men and others -- along with the promotion itself -- seemed larger than life. Fighting in giant arenas filled with tens of thousands of cheering fans, it seemed almost as if the experiences weren't real. Like we were watching some absurdly violent Japanese version of Days of our Lives.

Silva's trilogy with Sakuraba made him a star and his pair of knockouts over Quinton Jackson turned "The Axe Murderer" into a legend.

When a fourth bout with the Japanese grappler for the company's New Year's Eve show in 2004 fell apart, the Brazilian accepted a last-minute fight with super heavyweight Mark Hunt.

It would be his first loss since April 2000.

I remember, sitting in shock, that Silva had lost. Silva... never lost. Every time I saw him step into the ring, his hand was raised by the referee. It was a weird feeling to say the least.

But lately, I've grown more and more accustomed to it.

It started when Silva got knocked out by Mirko Filipovic, a victim of one of "Cro Cop's" patented left high kicks. It continued five months later when the Brazilian again lost consciousness, this time at the hands of Dan Henderson.

The luster was beginning to fade, fight by fight and loss by loss.

Despite this, "The Axe Murderer" engaged in a 15-minute war with longtime rival Chuck Liddell.

From my History in the Making:

In the most anticipated match-up in mixed martial arts short history, Chuck Liddell faced off against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79. Years of debate, years of hype, years of what if's would all come to an end.

After year heaped upon year heaped on year, how could any fight live up to the hype?

The cynic in every fan feared the worse. A quick, flash knockout or a plodding three-round affair with neither fighter wishing to engage.

What fight fans got instead will forever be etched in their memory.

The fight was... perfect.

And even though "The Axe Murderer" extended his losing streak to three that night, he seemed revitalized. And when he entered the Octagon five months later to face Keith Jardine, fans were treated to a classic Silva performance: brutal and quick, chock full of violence.

But any hope that the personified reign of terror that ran roughshod over Japan for five years was back was extinguished by a "Rampage" hook.

Five fights, four losses, and three awful knockouts.

Combat sports doesn't usually have happy endings. Fighters don't go out when they're on top. They're forced out by the fists, elbows, and knees of another opponent. They don't walk away with full knowledge that they are the best in the world, they leave -- sometimes with the help of others -- with bruises on their bodies and egos.

Despite knowing this, we kidded ourselves with Silva. We were so enamored of him -- his beautifully, violent style and the "favorite uncle" relationship he had with fans -- that we ignored history.

Which brings us to UFC 132. The reality of the situation has muscled its way to the forefront, leaving our hopes behind.

So if this is the end for "The Axe Murderer," I just want to say thank you.

Thank you for Guy Mezger, for Sakuraba, for "Rampage," for Yuki Kondo, for Hidehiko Yoshida.

Thank you for everything.

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