The predominant story line heading into UFC's card this weekend has focused on Wanderlei Silva's Nippon homecoming. After all, the legendary Brazilian spent his best years mauling stud light heavyweights and hapless punching bags alike inside the Pride ring. Since he hasn't been back for fights since 2006, this is a fine angle to take so long as it's acknowledged that Silva, 36, is hardly the Axe Murderer he used to be.
In some ways Silva hasn't changed much from the man who ripped out hearts and shattered faces. This was Silva as Pride's first light heavyweight champion. This is the guy that predicts violent knockouts with a matter-of-factness. So, in case you weren't aware, he said he’ll finish American Brian Stann in the third round of their main event at Saitama Super Arena.
"I'm so proud to fight back here," Silva said Wednesday during a press conference promoting the Fuel TV card from Tokyo. "That stadium, Saitama, has given me some of the best moments in my career."
After going 27-3-1 from Nov. 1996 through Oct., 2004, Silva came back to the pack in a big way. He steps into the cage with Stann sporting a 32-12-1 record. If nothing else, and it's almost come down to that, the Brazilian icon remains, in bursts, fun to watch. Silva's last two contests earned money bonuses from the UFC for their frantic action.
"He's forgotten more about MMA than I'll ever know," Stann, 32, said of Silva. "He's done more for the sport in any two years than I've done in my career."
Stann and Silva fight Saturday at 205 pounds, the Brazilian's fighting weight during his best years as a pro. He hasn't campaigned there since Quinton Jackson knocked him out in the Octagon at the end of 2008. Silva admitted having a difficult time making 185, and catch-weight fights are in short supply in the UFC, so The Axe Murderer has bulked up, again, and he should be as wild as he can be against the 32-year-old decorated U.S. Marine.
"The popularity of my opponent, Wanderlei Silva, is very well deserved," said Stann (12-5). "I myself, when I first thought about coming into this sport, my favorite fighter was Wanderlei Silva. I would watch his fights in Pride and I would just marvel at the tenacity that he brought inside of the ring and how he fought. Not only that, but the way he treated other people and the way he conducted himself, I've always admired all of those qualities in him."
Like Stann, heavyweight Stefan Struve, who fights another Japanese mainstay, Mark Hunt, spoke in reverential terms.There’s no shortage of fighters and fans willing to speak similarly about Silva, remarkably a day away from the 49th bout of his career.
Make no mistake, Silva is not the fighter he once was. There was a time when pressure and pace were Silva’s closest allies. One way or another he was going to overwhelm the man opposite him. Silva was so dominant his coach at the time, Chute Boxe maestro Rudimar Fedrigo, famously promised Silva would remain unbeaten for 10 years and retain the Pride title the entire time. Silva lasted about half of that. Technically he held onto the title for six years, though he lost non-title bouts prior to getting knocked out by Dan Henderson in 2007 and was clearly slipping. That crystalized when he entered the Octagon.
Since returning to the UFC for the first time since losing to Tito Ortiz in 2000, Silva is 3-5 in the Octagon. He’s only 1-5 against American fighters, though, and they don’t get much more American than Stann, who agreed to move up 20 pounds to fight Silva at 205.
“I would watch his fights in Pride and I would just marvel at the tenacity that he brought inside of the ring and how he fought,” Stann said of Silva. “Not only that, but the way he treated other people and the way he conducted himself, I've always admired all of those qualities in him."
That was when Silva burned like a flare. Now he may very well just be burned out. There won’t be any conjecture about that, unfortunately. Silva has all the markings of a fighter that won’t know when it’s time to walk away. He loves the show, like he always has. He’s not a UFC lifer, so don’t expect much lobbying from the promotion to leave fighting behind. Or a job to walk into when it’s all done.
There was so much more to Silva than what we’ve seen from him the past few years, which is why Stann and Struve and others regard The Axe Murderer the way they do.
Speaking about his return to Japan, Silva confirmed that fighting there again means a great deal to him. Indeed. Memories run deep.