Sometimes, being the best in the world at what you do just isn't enough.
James Joyce's "Ulysses" was voted the greatest English language novel of the 20th Century by the Modern Library, but Joyce died financially dependent and unrecognized by the majority of the book-buying public. During his prime he received but a fraction of the attention afforded to considerably dimmer literary lights such as Warwick Deeping and Zane Grey -- both of whom are all but unknown to modern readers.
Similar to Joyce, Anderson Silva is unquestionably an artist possessed of the rarest genius. Also like Joyce, trying to figure Silva out can feel like attempting to use your forehead to hammer a nail into a wall -- not only will you end up with a splitting headache, but try as you may, you're just not going to get anywhere with it.
At first, "The Spider's" inscrutable nature wasn't such a big deal. After all, in the early part of his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tenure, his actions inside the cage spoke loud and clear.
When Silva burst onto the UFC scene with a knee that laid waste to the iron-jawed Chris Leben just 49 seconds into their Ultimate Fight Night 5 main event bout back on June 28, 2006, it was obvious he was a special talent.
So much so in fact, that in his very next fight, UFC saw fit to match him up against 22-1-1 middleweight champion Rich Franklin. That fight ended up resembling something out of a medieval slaughterhouse, with Silva wielding the axe and Franklin playing the role of the helpless calf. It took Silva a little under three minutes to dispose of Franklin.
Once again a bone-shattering knee to the face led to the victory.
Not long after, the mixed martial arts (MMA) world began to realize Silva was likely going to be holding onto the belt for a long time to come. UFC set Silva up with the best challengers available in an admittedly thin middleweight division, and one by one Silva knocked them down with the ease of a petulant kindergartener smashing ant hills in the driveway with his dad's hammer. "The Spider" destroyed Nate Marquardt, neutralized the crafty veteran Dan Henderson, and stole former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin's soul with a step away jab knockout that had the effect of a bullet fired from a sniper's rifle.
Despite all this, Silva still wasn't a top attraction on pay per view (PPV) at the level of Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar. His title matches were often propped up with big co-main event fights, such as Chuck Liddell vs. Mauricio Rua at UFC 97 and B.J. Penn vs. Frankie Edgar at UFC 112.
Perhaps it was the language barrier that kept the Brazilian from connecting with the American fans, or maybe it was Silva's increasing reputation for unpredictability inside the Octagon. Fans never knew what they were going to get with the dominant middleweight champ: was the combative genius who destroyed Franklin's nose with the unerring artistry of Picasso painting a grotesque face nature never intended, going to show up? Or were fans going to end up paying $50 to see the temperamental artiste who disdainfully refused to engage with common hack Thales Leites at UFC 97?
Silva's mercurial temperament came to a head at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. The royal family of the United Arab Emirates had just purchased a 10-percent share in UFC and the company had scheduled a stacked card for the nation's capital city as a means of celebrating the relationship. Silva took on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) ace Demian Maia in the main event, but in a fit of pique worthy of the most self-important diva, refused to engage for the majority of the fight.
Instead of disposing of the obviously outclassed Maia, Silva contented himself with dancing around the cage, beating his fist against the mat, and taunting Maia with a steady stream of verbal abuse en route to a decision victory.
For fans who had paid $50 to see a fight, it was an infuriating display.
After the debacle in Abu Dhabi, Silva was damaged goods. He may have been, as UFC President Dana White was fond of saying, the greatest fighter alive, but the idea of watching the best in the world ply his trade became a hard sell considering the piss-take of a fight he turned in at UFC 112.
Luckily for UFC, and for Silva, the perfect answer to their promotional woes was waiting in the wings.
On the surface, former NCAA Division I wrestler and longtime-veteran Chael Sonnen didn't look like much of a challenge for Silva. However, at the time, the career journeyman was on a roll that made him the best challenger in a thin division. Sonnen had just dominated perennial top contender Marquardt at UFC 109, and was coming off victories over Yushin Okami and Dan Miller, as well.
But none of his recent accomplishments in the cage were what made Sonnen the right man at the right time to face Silva.
Rather than any challenge Sonnen's wrestling-based style may have presented for Silva, the thing that made their upcoming title bout at UFC 117 so fascinating was Sonnen's attitude leading up to the fight. Sonnen didn't fall back on route cliches about how his bout against Silva was going to be a war or, even worse, resort to some mealy mouthed b.s. about how much he respected Silva and all he had accomplished.
Instead, Sonnen tapped directly into the anti-Silva sentiment that was festering at the time and, through a series of supremely self-confident promos, cast himself as the man who would finally expose Silva as a fraud. Or as the outspoken challenger put it, their fight wasn't going to be a war -- it was going to be a five-round pounding, and Sonnen was going to be the one swinging the hammer.
Putting Silva on blast may have served the dual purposes of making Sonnen a hero to the anti-Silva crowd and galvanizing the champ's fanbase against the upstart challenger, but few believed Sonnen would actually make good on his promises on fight night. After all, this was the great Anderson Silva versus a guy with a loss to Terry Martin on his record.
There was just no way Sonnen could deliver the goods against Silva once the cage door shut.
So imagine how the MMA world's collective jaw dropped when Sonnen came out in the first round of their UFC 117 main event, took the center of the Octagon, hit Silva square on the jaw with a stiff right hand, unloaded on the champ with a series of combos, took him down with ease, and proceeded to batter Silva's face in with a series of punches and elbows from the top.
Rounds two through four were largely a repeat of the first. Silva looked like an over-matched rookie going up against one of the best in the world as Sonnen ragdolled him to the ground and unloaded on him with a steady diet of ground and pound.
The atmosphere inside Oakland's Oracle Arena was electric, as were the blazing nerves of fans watching at home. Four years of dominance on Silva's part had led to this: the moment where, after 11 UFC wins in a row, the supposed greatest fighter in the world was about to be knocked off his perch by an everyman who was finally realizing his potential after a career plagued by numerous setbacks.
Going into the fifth round, the outcome of the fight felt like a foregone conclusion. Silva just didn't have an answer for Sonnen's takedown, so it appeared we were just five minutes of ground-and-pound away from a new middleweight champion.
Then, with just two minutes left to go in the round, it happened.
Silva caught Sonnen unawares, grabbed hold of the arm the challenger had been leaving on the mat throughout the fight, and locked in a tight triangle choke. Unlike so many last-minute submission holds that fail because the executing fighter is either gassed out or his opponent is just too slippery with sweat, Silva was able to get Sonnen to tap out with the triangle.
The win proved Silva wasn't just a front funner who was able to bully around outmatched opponents -- he was a consummate champion who would look for the win every second of every fight no matter how down he was on the judges' scorecards. For 22 minutes, Sonnen had made him look human, but Silva's Hail Mary submission at the end proved once and for all he was a generational talent on a different level than everyone else out there.
With the heart he showed in coming from behind and defeating Sonnen, all of Silva's prior sins were forgiven in the court of public opinion. His next title defense, against Vitor Belfort at UFC 126, did monster business on PPV, as did his eventual rematch with Sonnen at UFC 148.
Silva could still be frustratingly unpredictable -- see his frequent interviews where he took an almost Bob Dylan-like joy in fucking with the media -- but after UFC 117 it became easier to understand what he was. In Anderson Silva, UFC had its answer to Michael Jordan. Silva wasn't just the best fighter alive; his athletic genius was such that it was almost a force of nature.
You may not be able to predict the path of a tornado or what kind of damage it will cause, but you damn sure have to respect it.
And that's exactly the kind of unequivocal respect Silva earned with his victory over Sonnen. It may have taken a feud with a heated rival and the worst beating of his professional career to do it, but Silva's come-from-behind victory at UFC 117 cemented his place as a legend.