Months removed from his third loss in 17 fights, Anderson Silva stepped into a cage with Jorge Rivera in London. This was spring 2005, more than a year prior to the lanky Brazilian middleweight entering the UFC and embarking on the longest title reign in the organization's 19-year history.
Rivera, a recently retired slugger from Framingham, Mass., knew, like most everyone else at the time, that Silva was a raptor. But Silva was also far from perfect. After lifting his record to 11-1 and winning a respected championship at 170 pounds, Silva was submitted twice in 18 months under improbable circumstances.
First it was a triangle choke against undersized underdog Daiju Takase. Then came arguably the greatest submission the sport has produced: Ryo Chonan's flying scissor heel hook (as stunning to watch as it sounds).
Coming off the Chonan shocker, Silva certainly wasn't thought of as the best mixed martial artist in the game, not as he is today. Still, middleweights including Rivera took heed of Silva's impressive sparring exploits in Brazil. They also saw enough of Silva in action to realize the depth and threat of his potential.
"I knew he was great," said Rivera, whose confirmation was punctuated in the middle of the second round by laser-guided concussive knees and punches. "I just wanted to see where I stood against a guy at his level. It was a very humbling experience."
Indeed, since stopping Rivera, now an MMA analyst for ESPN, Silva has been nothing short of brilliant. There's that bogus disqualification against Yushin Okami in Hawaii, but remove it from the ledger and Silva, 37, has won 17 straight (including revenge over Okami last August -- one of 15 memorable stoppages during that stretch, eight in less than a round).
Numbers frame Silva’s dominance, but they don’t explain what makes him special. To get a glimpse, just watch him at work. Silva doesn’t merely employ quality footwork, he dances. “A ballet of violence,” coined UFC color commentator Joe Rogan during an interview with ESPN in 2008. He isn’t just accurate. He’s a Ranger sniper who moving backward can snap out the fabled jab that ended Forrest Griffin’s night. Or, without tipping it off for one millisecond, slam a front kick off Vitor Belfort’s chin.
He dances and, never to be overlooked, prances on the faces of his UFC challengers.
The middleweight division became so simple for Silva that it was ridiculed for a lack of depth and quality. That’s not fair, sighed Rich Franklin (twice), Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Belfort. And it’s also not true. But such was the state of things until Sonnen pushed Silva to the limit in 2010.
Saturday in Las Vegas, Silva (31-4) meets the man for whom he holds no love. He has come to detest Sonnen, the acerbic American who nearly beat him, then acted as if he had, among other equally annoying transgressions. That makes sense because there are only two opinions to be had when it comes to Sonnen. Love him; hate him. Silva loudly sides with the latter, but he can’t deny Sonnen is the best thing that could have happened to his outstanding career.
Silva finally found an antagonist destined to draw out his best.
"I don't think we've seen all this man's skills yet,” Rivera suggested.
Helping to smooth out consecutive sloppy, odd and disinterested title defenses, Sonnen’s challenge prompted Silva to dramatically seal a miracle finish with a technique he told his camp before the fight he would use. That’s legendary stuff. Sonnen dominated Silva to the point where there won’t be any questions to ask about the Brazilian’s championship spirit. Sonnen brought more than enough promotion for the both of them, something Silva never excelled at. And, germane to Saturday’s rematch, the challenger’s haranguing pushed Silva in a way that surprised even the people closest around him.
A ninja is as angry as he’s ever been and, because confident killers rarely show their hand, it’s all so very interesting. Will the elegant southpaw counter-fighter reboot long-forgotten Chute Boxe programming and make like a predator drone? “I would love to see a guy who’s really agitated looking to take someone's head off,” Rivera said of the champion. “I want to see what he looks like."
For as much as Silva’s already done, handling Sonnen within ballistic range of the DEFCON 1 he promised could top an amazing list of finishes.
But say it’s all a trap? Sonnen sucks Silva into overaggressiveness, a mistake and bad position. Chael Sonnen, UFC champion? If that happens, Silva’s legacy atop the sport as one of its truly special combatants won’t change. His run, now official, is saved in the record book. One way or another, it’s going to end. That’s inevitable. So is the utterance of Anderson Silva among MMA’s all-time best.