MMA: Thiago Silva
BURBANK, Calif. -- Tyrone Spong stands with a presence. He fights with one, too.
A legit 6-foot-2, Spong's height is aided by good posture. The well-proportioned 27-year-old Surinamese-Dutchman has made good use of his frame, and is reputed to be among kickboxing’s best athletes and technically superior combatants.
Spong is well aware of how he's viewed, and is comfortable saying so.
This is why he was driven to YouTube to search for videos of Bo Jackson after media comparisons caught his attention. He hadn't heard of Jackson, though it didn't take more than a few clips for Spong to understand why the iconic hybrid is universally lauded among the dominant athletes of his generation.
"It's not to sound cocky, never, because I'm a real humble guy," the light heavyweight said this week during a media lunch promoting a World Series of Fighting card Aug. 10 in Ontario, Calif. "But some guys are blessed with that ability. And I'm blessed even more."
The "King of the Ring" has lived kickboxing since he was 13 and randomly stumbled into master trainer Lucien Carbin's gym in Amsterdam. Carbin is old-school. Water breaks during an hour and a half of hard training didn’t happen. The gym was kept stifling, like a wet sauna. Condensation poured off mirrors and walls. If there wasn't enough steam in the atmosphere, Carbin would dial up the temperature and intensity.
Looking back on it, Spong says this style of training is "not right."
"But," he said, "for me as a young kid at 13 years old, starting like that in a gym, it gave me a mentality like I don't care what situation I'm in, I'm always going to work hard."
Spong split from Carbin a few years ago and now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where he teamed up with the Blackzilians. Yet the mental fortitude forged at Carbin's remains deeply ingrained in who he is and how he conducts business.
Since he's gifted with the ability to copycat technique, Spong said his progression in MMA and boxing has come quickly.
"Sometimes," he said, "it goes automatically and I surprise myself. I pick it up so good I can probably teach it to somebody, too. That's not the hard part. You have to be able to apply it in that moment, under the pressure, and that's the hardest part."
Spong's focus this week is MMA.
For the second time as a pro, he'll enter a cage this Saturday against Californian Angel DeAnda in the main event of World Series of Fighting 4 (NBC Sports Network, 10:30 p.m. ET). Ali Abdel-Aziz, the upstart promotion's matchmaker (among other things), made Spong the headliner because it reflects his potential and the kickboxing convert is "the biggest draw on the card."
Splitting time between boxing and MMA, Spong has not abandoned kickboxing, though it's less of a priority, he said, because it's as natural as breathing -- all he needs to do is show up in shape. His next contest on Oct. 12, promoted by Glory, is a rematch against Nathan Corbett in Chicago.
"I've been doing it for so many years," he said. "At the same time you need something new to bring a spark. I found that in MMA and boxing."
Spong's commitment included, not inconsequentially, transplanting a life in Holland, where he and two sisters were raised by his mother in a tiny apartment, for Florida. With the chiseled fighter came his three children, six dogs and 15 finches (known for their aggressive tendencies, singing ability and difficulty to breed). Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Thiago Silva, Alistair Overeem and others have helped Spong on the MMA side. For boxing, trainer Pedro Diaz took the reins.
Spong should be used to Diaz's M.O. because it's similar to Carbin's -- ritualistic 5 a.m. training sessions replaced hotter-than-hell gyms. Known for his work with Miguel Cotto, Diaz is a perfectionist. Spong is fine with this, and his first attempt at pro boxing could come later this year.
Spong envisions opportunity and enrichment in his chosen trifecta of combat sports.
"For all the sports it comes down to the athlete," he said. "Who are you? How marketable are you? How good are you? So it depends. In all of the sports you can make good money. You see even in all these sports the guys really making the money are the best guys."
World Series of Fighting signed Spong to a nonexclusive deal that allows him the freedom to pursue other things. Abdel-Aziz said because of the light heavyweight’s fighting prowess, WSOF "didn't have the right to ask Spong [72-6-1 in kickboxing] to focus only on MMA." Perhaps it wasn't the best business decision, the promoter conceded, but it's how WSOF intends to operate. But, more to the point, Spong will have space to develop his MMA game, which mostly means getting his grappling right.
"Sometimes I ask myself what do the fans want? They want me to fight Jon Jones tomorrow? Is that fair? If Jon 'Bones' was 1-0 in kickboxing, would he fight me?" Spong pondered. "I guess not. I'm the champion. So give me some time. I'm working on it."
With each fight his striking becomes sharper and more accurate. His footwork has improved to the point that, coupled with a stiff jab, he easily controls how much space exists between himself and an opponent.
Getting hit by Gustafsson is a given; returning the favor is proving more problematic for the opposition. Fighters are finding it very difficult these days to get close to Gustafsson.
But there is much more to his game than what’s been on display thus far.
Gustafsson, who is ranked sixth among 205-pound fighters by ESPN.com, will face former titleholder Mauricio Rua on Saturday night in Seattle.
Both fighters enjoy competing on the feet. But if you think Gustafsson, who is 14-1 with nine knockouts, will only find success against Rua by dominating the stand-up battle, think again.
“Oh man! Alex’s striking has gotten better,” fellow UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis told ESPN.com. “But he’s a guy who’s not content with where he is as a fighter; he’s constantly growing.
“His wrestling has gotten better. He has some really slick takedowns. He’s dangerous on the top and bottom now. He has always been dangerous from the top with his hands, but now he has some pretty good submissions, too.”
This ringing endorsement from Davis isn’t to be taken lightly. He knows first-hand the progress Gustafsson has made in the past two years. Davis is the fighter who handed Gustafsson his lone professional loss. And Davis is quick to admit that Gustafsson is not the same guy he submitted in April 2010.
And Davis should know. After their showdown at UFC 112, Gustafsson and Davis decided to become training partners. It’s a partnership that has paid off handsomely for each fighter: Davis’ striking has improved immensely since sparring regularly with Gustafsson at Alliance MMA in San Diego.
Gustafsson, who still does the majority of his training in Stockholm, has taken his ground skills to a much higher level with Davis’ help.
“I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s learned a lot from me,” Gustafsson told ESPN.com.” We have a great relationship. “We’re teammates; we train together.”
But expanding his training camp would have meant little if Gustafsson hadn’t committed completely to mixed martial arts. Before his bout with Davis, MMA was a part-time gig for Gustafsson. Much of his day was spent working construction.
But the loss to Davis served as an eye-opener. Determined to unearth all his talents, Gustafsson decided to quit the construction job and become a full-time mixed martial artist.
“To be at the top level of the division and to compete in UFC, you have to do this full time,” Gustafsson said. “You can’t just do this as a hobby. You have to fully commit to it.
“Every fight is a learning experience, whether it’s a win or a loss. You have to improve; that’s how you develop. I try to get better with every fight -- my boxing, my wrestling, my jiu-jitsu, everything. It’s been an ongoing process and it hasn’t stopped.”
Striking alone makes Gustafsson competitive with Rua; the improvements he’s made in other areas make him a genuine threat.
Davis for one believes Saturday night will be Gustafsson’s coming-out party. It is in this fight that Gustafsson will likely get to put all his skills on display.
“The timing [of the fight with Rua] couldn’t be any better,” Davis said. “Alex has come into his own as a fighter. There’s so much about his game the public hasn’t seen inside the Octagon.”
Rua (21-6, 18 wins by knockout) is arguably the toughest test of Gustafsson’s career. But that doesn’t concern Gustafsson. He welcomes the opportunity to square off against a seasoned striker like Rua. He’s also confident that his hand will be raised when the bout is over.
While Gustafsson is focused on Rua, his confidence allows him to sneak a peek at what awaits after Saturday night. And Gustafsson likes what he sees.
UFC president Dana White has hinted that the Rua-Gustafsson winner could become the top contender at 205.
“When I win this fight with Shogun, I will be more than ready [to win the light heavyweight title],” Gustafsson said. “I know I have the tools to beat [Jon Jones].
“Shogun is my only focus right now, but when I beat him I know I will be more than ready to fight for the title. And I know I will take the belt. I just know it.”
Quick: What’s 1-2-0-1 since 2009, recently fired yet brought back via a strange case of inhuman urine, that beats up the occasional “Fireman?”
That would be Brandon Vera, a fighter who had such a big buzz on his name back as a heavyweight that he finds himself headlining cards almost in spite of himself.
Vera is one of the fight game’s great enigmas -- he’s cut from a particular kind of fabric that, no matter how much you squint, never fully materializes. Yet his promise was so sincere back when he was beating Frank Mir in 2006 that he still has a sort of ever-lasting curiosity. There’s this hunch about him that just around the next corner is the “real” Brandon Vera, the one that annihilated Justin Eilers and Assuerio Silva en-route to Mir.
This curiosity landed him into big headlining spots against Randy Couture at UFC 105, and then against Jon Jones. And it’s landed him a main event against Mauricio Rua on Aug. 4 in Los Angeles. The UFC had a very small list of available guys that it could grab to stand in against “Shogun” at UFC on FOX 4 after Thiago Silva went down with an injury. Vera -- on fumes and swears -- was available.
Isn’t it funny how things play out? Vera was slotted to rematch Silva a couple of months ago, but wasn’t quite healthy enough to make it happen. So Silva was given Rua. Now with Silva out, Vera is inserted.
But even with the improbable circumstances that led to Vera getting a headlining fight on broadcast television, there’s a sneaking suspicion that there is a vintage form waiting to resurface. Vera himself has alluded to his old self leading up to plenty of fights over the last half decade. He was talking about it as far back as 2008 when he had lost two in a row and Reese Andy along with a new weight class looked like the road map. Vera won unspectacularly in his light heavyweight debut, and has been turning over rocks ever since looking for the “Truth.”
At this point the truth looks more like the helix.
Since Vera beat Mir in 2006, he has won four fights. There was Andy, then Mike Patt, whom he kicked the legs out of. There was Krzysztof Soszynski, arguably his best win in six years, and then Eliot Marshall in his last fight. Andy, Patt and Marshall are no longer in the UFC. Soszysnki is a doctor’s note away from retirement. Vera’s losses to Couture and Keith Jardine were close. Otherwise, the Vera we’ve seen hasn’t been the Vera of all those early notions.
At 34 years old, potential is a funny thing to try and will back into existence.
But if there’s ever been a platform to come soaring back to life, this is it. A win on national broadcast television over a former champion would play wonders for a late run back towards that early thing. The guy still shows up with bad intentions every time he steps in the cage. His legs and knees still induce winces for guys like Patt and Couture. A win against “Shogun” keeps the Vera story alive. It’s a fantastic opportunity for him.
And if Vera leads the fight game in anything for the last five or six years, it’s in opportunities.
Should he squander this one though, it’s safe to say the old Brandon Vera -- the one we thought we knew -- isn’t coming back.
The first ever UFC card to take place on Swedish soil saw a main event that featured two fighters seemingly headed in completely opposite directions.
On the one hand was 25-year-old Alexander Gustafsson, who cruised to a decision victory in what, at times, resembled a sparring session for him. In doing so, he drew generous comparisons to champion Jon Jones from UFC commentators.
Then there was 29-year-old Thiago Silva, making his first appearance after serving a one-year suspension for altering his urine sample in January 2011. The greatest compliment Silva received was that he showed heart.
Hey, you got utterly dominated, but at least you're still standing, right?
Both are still young enough to believe the best years lie ahead but after watching Gustafsson completely own Silva for 15 minutes, it’s hard not to think that theory only applies to one of the men here.
Gustafsson (14-1) managed to come off very impressive, despite the fact he was never really tested. The comparisons to Jones might be premature, but the observations on his footwork and elusiveness -- a testament to the work he’s done with trainer Eric Del Fierro -- were spot on.
The 6-foot-4 Gustafsson is not ready for a fight against the untouchable Jones, but at least there’s a foundation here hinting that somewhere down the road, he might be.
The same could not be said about Silva (14-3). The Brazilian’s return to the Octagon could very easily (and accurately) be described as nothing short of a disappointment.
To be fair, it was a difficult set of circumstances for Silva. It was just his third contest dating back to January 2010, making it tough to establish any kind of rhythm in the cage. He also accepted the matchup against Gustafsson on short notice.
Those excuses, though, aren’t enough to justify what amounted to a sloppy performance.
Once viewed as a legitimate threat to the light heavyweight title, Silva was blatantly one-dimensional in his approach Saturday. Against a rangy opponent like Gustafsson, many expected Silva to try and get on the inside, push the action against the fence or test his abilities on the ground.
Silva ended up doing none of these, opting instead to stand at the end of Gustafsson’s punches. Basically, his only offensive attempts came in the form of the same one-two combination over and over again. And for a fighter who’s known for his intimidating demeanor, Silva showed a surprising lack of killer instinct. He visibly hurt Gustafsson with a right hand in the second round but refused to go after him.
His only legitimately aggressive moment came in the fight’s final 10 seconds, long after the outcome had already become clear. He was easily frustrated during the fight and looked as he might have been winded as early as the second round.
“It was bad,” Silva said, immediately after the fight. “I couldn’t feel my legs. I did my job. I tried to push as much as I could. Alexander is a tough guy. I couldn’t find the distance. He deserved the victory.”
Silva is in no way in danger of losing his job in the UFC, but that’s not really the point here. The point is, he just returned from a situation in which he was caught cheating. After serving a one-year suspension, he deserved to come back and I didn’t rip the UFC when that comeback came in the privilege of a main event fight. He paid his dues. If the promotion needs him to headline a card, so be it.
But to see him perform so badly in that kind of opportunity though, was disappointing. While the sky is certainly the limit right now for Gustafsson, we may have already witnessed Silva's peak.
But beginning Saturday in Stockholm, the UFC gets back to its furious pace. Over the next several weeks, there will be UFCs to keep us busy, all of them stubbornly numbered in pay-per-views, in FOX, FX and Fuel shows -- not to mention the occasional Strikeforce event. As such there will be a lot of debuts from guys like Yoislandy Izquierdo and Sweden’s own Magnus Cedenblad. The producers of Starz’s Spartacus could never have invented such fitting names for its crop of warriors.
Here’s a look at five things to keep an eye out for at UFC on Fuel TV 2, and some storylines that might (or might not) be of immense interest to you.
Gustafsson’s handling of the spotlight
It’s not only a homecoming for Alexander Gustafsson, but it’s his first main event on a card specifically designed with him in mind. And it’s his first time fighting as a true cusp contender from both a marketing standpoint as well as from the general notion that he’s part of what’s left out there for Jon Jones at 205 pounds. That’s a lot of pressure for the 25-year-old from Arboga, Sweden. But it’s the kind of pressure that comes with sustained success in a league founded more or less on attrition.
Gustafsson will be fighting Thiago Silva, who was originally supposed to be Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Which is the more imposing foe? Probably Silva, who has only lost twice in his career, and each of those were against former champions (Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida). Silva would be a huge notch for Gustafsson, enough of one to rev up the title talk. And coming in, it’s hard to find much wrong in the Swede’s game since losing to Phil Davis at UFC 112. It’s not that he beat four guys in a row, but he finished them all, twice by TKO (Vladimir Matyushenko and Matt Hamill), and twice by rear-naked chokes (James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate).
If he adds Silva to that casualty list, it means the “Mauler” has truly arrived.
Silva’s potential ring rust and mental state
In a time when commission findings get more headlines than the fighters themselves, we must remember that Thiago Silva was the original bizarre. After his UFC 125 drubbing of Brandon Vera, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Silva when it was discovered that his prefight urine sample turned up “inconsistent with human urine.” He tried to mask banned substances by submitting urine that he ordered online. This didn’t work out. To his credit, Silva admitted right away to his course of folly and took his punishment, which included a yearlong suspension.
Well, it’s been 16 months since the Vera fight, and through a beneficial set of circumstances he ends up in a main event. The UFC tried to set up a rematch with Vera. When Vera was a no-go, the UFC tried to stick Silva in there against a tough but not-so-glamorous Igor Pokrajac. Then they needed a viable opponent for Gustafsson when Lil Nog went down. Enter Silva, who is still a top-10 light heavy in the UFC. Yet you have to wonder if the time away from the cage, the mental taxation, the travel, the fact that he’s fighting a rising star in a rising star’s homeland, and the oppositional musical chairs will hinder him in some way.
If none of that matters, it means Silva right where he left off before those ongoing back issues led to some monstrously bad decision-making.
Dennis Siver as a featherweight
He was no slouch as a lightweight, but German fighter Dennis Siver wanted to try his hand as a 145-pounder after losing his footing in the 155-pound title race to Donald Cerrone. His first opponent as a feather? Diego Nunes. And if you remember, when Kenny Florian made his much-ballyhooed drop to 145 pounds, he was greeted by Nunes in his new weight class, too.
As a symbol, Nunes has helped more people lose weight than trainer Mike Dolce.
How will the weight cut play a role for Siver? It remains to be seen, but the kickboxer was knocking off some pretty tough guys as a smallish 155er -- guys like Matt Wiman, Spencer Fisher and George Sotiropoulos. In other words, he’s a wily vet.
Brian Stann getting his brawl back on
The bane of Brian Stann’s existence so far as a professional mixed martial artist is wrestling. He was dominated on the ground by Phil Davis and, after dropping down to 185 pounds, ran into Chael Sonnen at UFC 136 and suffered the same fate. It’s been a long six months since then.
Yet lucky for Stann, Alessio Sakara -- the free-swinging Legionarius -- would just assume gather up all the singlets and have a bonfire. He was recently outwrestled by Chris Weidman, and it left a bad taste in his mouth for no other reason than it wasn’t his kind of fight. That is to say, it wasn’t a brawl. In fact, going back to his 2006 bout with Drew McFedries, any Sakara fight in which there was a finish has always come by KO or TKO. He was on the wrong end of those nearly as often as he wasn’t.
Think this thing is tailor-made for Stann? Could be. But there are plenty of people in Italy thinking the exact same for Sakara.
Damacio Page on the plank
This might be the fight of the night -- two tightly wound bantamweights coming off of losses, each of whom brings it every time. Between Brad Pickett and Damacio Page, Page is the one on the slipperier slope, having lost back-to-back fights to Brian Bowles and Demetrious Johnson. In both of those he was choked out via guillotine.
That’s not likely to happen against Pickett, whose nickname is “One Punch.” If Page loses here, it’ll likely be by decision or because he got caught. With Greg Jackson in his corner and some intangibles (read: survival mode), it might set up a perfect storm to revisit the Page of 2009, the one who fought a grand total of 1 minutes, 20 seconds in finishing off Will Campuzano (via rear-naked choke) and Marcos Galvao (via punches).
Either way, this looks like the great unsung fight that could steal the show.
Sorry, my apologies for using one of mainstream sport’s more insipid buzzwords here, but there really is no other way to describe the talented 25-year-old Swede. A few days out from his fight with Thiago Silva at UFC on Fuel 2, Gustafsson has already been issued a ticket to the top of the light heavyweight division.
Now all he has to do is cash it in.
As ESPN.com’s Chuck Mindenhall expertly illuminates, there is a lot riding on this fight. In a sport where we often write the postscript before the action has actually happened, people are expecting big things from Gustafsson. With Rashad Evans at the plate and Dan Henderson on deck, he’s already speculated to be in the hole for Jon Jones.
Never mind the fact that this weekend marks his first ever main event for the UFC.
Never mind that the kid has never been out of the second round, or that the signature win of his career so far is a 9-minute TKO over a version of Matt Hamill who already had one foot out the cage door.
Never mind that we have no idea how he’d fare in the kind of five-round war of attrition it could take to wrest the title from Jones, a champion so young and dominant that he’s forced us to take this long lens view of the light heavyweight ranks in the first place, eager as we are to see what the future holds for him.
Barring the emergence of a breakout presence on the order of Jones himself, it’s Gustafsson or bust for the 205-pound division. Despite a UFC 112 loss to Phil Davis, he’s been judged by most to be further along in his development (to be the most ready for Jones, you might say) after Davis’ unanimous decision loss to Evans in January.
This is no one’s fault, obviously. Gustafsson is simply possessing of the kind of size (he’s listed at 6-foot-5), athleticism and finishing ability that naturally spark the imagination. He’s simply established himself as the most interesting and exciting young light heavyweight not named Jon Jones and that makes him the object of our great expectations.
The flipside of those expectations, of course, is that anything less than claiming that title shot will be judged as a personal failure for Gustafsson. If he slips up and loses to Silva this weekend, not only will he be found wanting by the scores of pundits who’ve already put him in line for that opportunity, but the 205-pound division might well lose its dominant and marketable champion to the heavyweight ranks before the end of this year.
Does all that add up to unneeded and unfair pressure for a kid who is already making his maiden voyage at the top of a card by headlining the first ever UFC show in his home country?
It sure does. Then again, to get to where he’s going, Gustafsson might as well make peace with the fact that his most difficult task won't be simply defeating his opponents, but living up to the hype.
So what happened to the well depth at 205 pounds?
Jones happened. Jones happened so fast and Jones pummeled so furious that people are already talking about what he can do to as a heavyweight. Everybody knows that imagination is always first to round the curve, but in this case it feels like meteorological forecasting. Jones is a storm front. In fact, he himself says his days at 205 pounds are numbered, because those skinny legs that earned him the nickname “Bones” will eventually fill in.
And all of this is conversational because Jones has yet to meet his equivalent in a weight class that had for so long been defined by parity. He’s already defended the belt more than anybody since Chuck Liddell’s run from 2005-2007. Since then Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida -- remember the Machida Era? -- and Mauricio Rua have tried on the belt, couldn’t handle its weight, and ceded it. They’ve all become afterthoughts to Jones’ run -- except for Griffin (who no longer looks like an imposition) and Evans (whom he faces in Atlanta on April 21).
None of the above has made it even so far as the judge’s scorecards.
If Jones defeats Evans at UFC 145, he will still have to get by Dan Henderson, who has been patiently waiting in line since November. After Henderson? As much of a stretch as it seems, it’s Gustafsson. That is, if Gustafsson continues to win. If Silva triumphs in Stockholm over its native son, it could be the heavyweight division sooner rather than later for Jones.
In other words, it’s possible that Jones will have cleaned out the division by summer of 2012. Nobody cleans out divisions nowadays -- nobody. And you know the power of his star is immense when there’s nothing far-fetched in any of this, except for the usual cautions that come with taking anything for granted. For as dominant as Jones is, this sport was not founded on foregone conclusions. If there is a wrench, it looks like this: Jones beats Jones. This is what Greg Jackson and the entire Albuquerque crew are guarding against as much as they are Evans’ takedown ability.
But the next two weeks could clue us in a little bit on Jon Jones’ (extrapolated) future. If Gustafsson holds court, he will have effectively graduated to title talk, which is big in a division of expiring names. Gustafsson might still have to win one more in pursuit of the 205-pound title, but he’d at least appear as viable. In the game of marketable matchmaking, appearances might have to do.
Would Silva look as viable? It’s possible. But right now Silva’s biggest wins are against guys that looked far more imposing before he fought them than after. Guys like Houston Alexander, Keith Jardine and Brandon Vera (which was overturned to a "no contest" due to steroids). Silva is set further back than Gustafsson. Even if he beat the Swede he’d have a harder time convincing the masses that he’s the fork in Jones’ road.
The bottom line is this: If the two favorites in the next two UFC main events win, that means a collision course is setting up. If Jones wins and Gustafsson doesn’t? It’s one last defense with Dan Henderson, and then a lot of talk about how Jones will match up with the likes of Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez.
Or -- in the interest of accuracy, I guess -- a drug-related suspension.
After all, Silva didn’t get handed a one year ban from competition for shooting an illicit substance into his spine prior to UFC 125 so much as what he did to try to cover it up. Instead of taking the rap for the injectable itself, Silva opted for what is probably the most hilarious way to fail a commission administered drug test: Submitting a sample that ultimately proved “inconsistent with human urine.”
If you know you’re going down, might as well go down in flames, right?
At the time, we all had a good laugh. Fast forward a little more than 12 months, however, and Silva is about to step back into an MMA landscape riddled with high-profile steroid scandals. After Quinton Jackson voluntarily confessed to hormone replacement therapy, Cristiane Santos got pinched for using an old school bodybuilding drug and Alistair Overeem submitted a urine sample consistent with a human who is totally jacked out of his mind on testosterone, fight fans could conceivably be in a fairly unforgiving mood these days.
There is no telling how this second tour of duty might go for Silva. With a record of 14-2 (now with one no contest), his only previous losses came against former 205-pound champions Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida but he also hasn’t exactly defeated a “who’s who” of top talent during his UFC career.
Prior to his suspension, Silva had bounced around the outskirts of the light heavyweight top-10, but after spending a year forcibly removed from the action, his most notable Octagon wins over the likes of Keith Jardine, Houston Alexander and James Irvin suddenly don’t seem overly extraordinary anymore. Most recently, he’d also been slowed by the back injury he eventually blamed for his drug use.
Silva remains something of an interesting talent, but the lack of big wins, the injury trouble and the drug suspension all make it difficult to nail down what kind of future he might have.
Luckily for him, his employer appears ready to forgive past transgressions, accepting his time served and inserting him directly into a nationally televised main event bout against Gustafsson in his first fight back. Even if it is one where Silva enters as close to a 2-to-1 underdog against a hometown hero who some observers expect to mature into a future foe for champion Jon Jones, it’s probably a better assignment than Silva might’ve expected, or deserved.
Perhaps such surprising post-suspension treatment can be chalked up to good behavior. Fact is, Siva was actually refreshingly honest about his drug snafu, at least once it became clear that officials had him dead to rights.
“I used a urine adulterant when giving a sample following my fight with Brandon Vera,” Silva said last year via a prepared statement. “I did so in an attempt to alter the results of the test and knowingly broke the rules of the Nevada [State] Athletic Commission. This was a terrible decision on my part for which I will be punished. I am prepared to accept this punishment, learn from it and move on. I apologize to the commission, the UFC, Brandon Vera and the MMA fans.”
For an MMA drug test mea culpa, that’s about as good as it gets. In light of it, perhaps fans and promoters alike will be willing to give Silva a second chance.
Make that a last chance, as he prepares to reenter a culture that by now should be about one steroid scandal away from its breaking point.
Things started with a bang when Silva put a thorough beatdown on Brandon Vera on Jan. 1 at UFC 125, a fight that left Vera’s nose badly broken and reconfigured via an onslaught of open palm strikes. The fight was decisive enough that Vera was unceremoniously cut afterward, and Silva was booked to fight Quinton Jackson at UFC 130, a bout projected to have title implications.
Then things went downhill, and fast.
First, Silva was mysteriously removed from the UFC 130 card. With well-documented lower back problems that began just weeks ahead of his fight with Rashad Evans a year earlier, an injury was thought to be the catalyst. Then we discovered the real reason why: Silva’s drug test from the Vera fight came back funny. As in, not hot, but not exactly “human” either. The Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed on March 29 that Silva’s sample was inconsistent with human urine, suggesting that he’d altered or substituted his specimen. In other words, he had tried to dupe the commission, and he got caught.
A hearing was held a week later to determine his fate. On April 7, his victory was converted into a no contest, 25 percent of his purse was taken back, and he was made to forfeit $20,000 of his win bonus. He was also suspended for a year by the NSAC.
Now, aside from Brandon Vera being awarded renewed life in the UFC, all of this is unfortunate -- and sadly not all that uncommon. A guy cheats, a guy gets caught, a guy wears a bad-looking asterisk. Yet in a day and age when we’re led to believe that PEDs have a way of sneaking into fighter supplements (and therefore their bodies), the novelty of the Silva case was perhaps his honesty when it came time to explain himself.
Long before all punitive measures were handed down by the NSAC, Silva issued a full confession of what happened, saying, “I used a urine adulterant when giving a sample following my fight with Brandon Vera. I did so in an attempt to alter the results of the test and knowingly broke the rules of the Nevada [State] Athletic Commission.” He went on to explain the specifics, that he’d reinjured his back and had taken injections in his spine that contained a steroid, that he didn’t want to back out of the fight.
Excuses? Yes, but he was up front about trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and cheating. And this almost felt like brazen, unchartered territory. With so many athletes choosing to be dumbfounded by the wrong kinds of commission findings, Silva simply confessed he made a mistake.
“After speaking with my manager [Dan Lambert], he made me realize that it was best to tell the truth,” he told ESPN.com. “And I'm glad I did.”
Silva says his back issues began back in late 2009, just three weeks before he fought Rashad Evans, and that he had taken epidural shots later during his rehab after having backed out of a fight with Tim Boetsch at UFC 117 with three herniated discs. With the injections helping him get through the pain then, he succumbed to that route ahead of Vera when he reinjured his back 45 days before the bout.
“As soon as my fight with Vera was scheduled, I was back at the gym,” he says. “Three weeks before the fight, I felt my back was starting to hurt again, I decided to get an epidural shot to help. My doctor told me that there was steroid in it but I just wanted the pain to go away. Afterwards I started to worry about the testing so I decided to buy a chemical masking agent from the Internet.
“When the news broke out about me failing the test, my manager advised me that if I would have reported to the commission that I took the epidural shot, it may have been OK. A lesson learned the hard way.”
As of Jan. 1, 2012, Silva has served his one-year suspension, but he won’t be officially cleared to fight again until he goes before the NSAC to find out if he’s met all the requirements. He has turned in his application and medicals to the commission and is hoping to be on their agenda for the next meeting in the first week of February. Barring any setbacks, Silva is looking to return as soon as possible in 2012 and put all the miscues behind him. After all, he is still a top 10 fighter in a light heavyweight division that has a relative dearth of name brand challengers right now.
And on the topic of Brandon Vera -- who felt disrespected from the first meeting and has been openly pining for a rematch ever since the news of urine switcheroo and subsequent suspension broke -- Silva says he’d be cool playing it back.
“Let’s do it, I would be more than happy to beat him again,” he says. “[The palm strikes] weren’t planned or out of disrespect, my hands were starting to hurt from all the punches I was hitting him with. I didn’t want to break my hand so I was using my palms and trying to get him to open up because all he was doing was covering up.”
Whether it’s Vera as the opponent or not, there is a card tentatively planned for June in his hometown of Sao Paulo, where Silva fled his home as a teenager to escape an abusive father. Though most homecomings are sweet, Silva -- who now resides in Florida and has been training at American Top Team -- isn’t sure returning to the place he bounced around from one impoverished circumstance to another is best for him.
“I don’t know, what I have been through and seen in Sao Paulo, I don’t want to remember those days,” he says. “Not that it’s Brazil or Sao Paulo’s fault, it was the circumstances that I was in that led me to those struggles. I’m in a good place right now with my family and I'm grateful for that.”
As good of a place as you can be coming off a yearlong suspension and so much chagrin, anyway.
“Man, you don't know how happy I am that 2011 is over,” he says. “I really didn't watch that many fights because it would depress me [that] I couldn’t be out there fighting. I just concentrated on opening my gym in Doral, Flor., teaching classes, letting my body/back heal, and staying in shape.”
One of the official prefight hype videos that’s been making the rounds before UFC 140 dubs the light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Lyoto Machida as, “Art comes alive.”
Likewise, much of the UFC’s hour-long “Countdown” special for the event spotlights the more spiritual aspects of this weekend’s main event combatants, depicting them as serious, studious martial artists and masters of their respective crafts.
Jones often meditates, frequently employs visualization techniques and sometimes heads out to empty sports stadiums to throw slow-mo flying knees at invisible opponents, this show tells us. Meanwhile, Machida still trains with his father, a zen’ed-out master who seems like a mash-up of Mr. Miyagi and David Carradine’s character from “Kill Bill.” Once a week, Lyoto and his brothers get together in their gis to do a shotokan karate kata called the “10 Hands,” which he soberly tells the camera helps with their focus and breathing and whatnot.
So yeah, not your ordinary “two men enter, one man leaves,” type of build-up.
Naturally, they also show enough highlights of jumping front kicks to Randy Couture’s jaw and spinning elbows to Mauricio Rua’s nose to make the overall sales pitch clear: If you pony up the dough for UFC 140 on Saturday, you’re going to see something special, a real life kung fu movie between two MMA prodigies with borderline magical skills.
Question is, can the reality of this fight live up to that billing?
That depends on which versions of Jones and Machida show up.
Both guys are clearly capable of doing extraordinary things inside the Octagon. Jones’ reverse leapfrog of Ryan Bader and bone-cracking elbow to Brandon Vera’s face both come to mind, as do Machida’s GIF-friendly knockout of then-champion Rashad Evans and one-punch finish of Thiago Silva. These are two uber-talented dudes and if you want to promote an MMA fight as something out of the “Bloodsport” tournament, this is probably the one.
At the same time however, we’ve also seen both Jones and Machida look somewhat less like action movie heroes and more like, you know, human beings. Especially in recent performances.
In his last title defense against Quinton Jackson, Jones appeared devoid of his usual urgency. It was obvious from the early-going that he had “Rampage” outclassed in every measurable area, but Jones turned their bout into a glorified sparring session before putting Jackson out of his misery with a rear-naked choke in the fourth round. In that fight he looked like a guy behind the wheel of a racecar who was somehow content to putter along at the speed limit, never really putting his foot on the accelerator.
Criticising that kind of overwhelming dominance might seem nitpicky, but the performance just lacked the excitement we’re used to seeing from Jones. Will we get something similar versus Machida? If the Brazilian is content to hover around the outside and try to counter, will Jones take the spinning, leaping risks we’ve seen from him in his more dynamic performances? Or will he play it safe, as he seemed to against Jackson?
It could go either way.
Machida -- who, lest we forget, is just 1-2 since October 2009 and fell into this title shot when Evans couldn’t go -- has been more and more inconsistent as of late. After winning four of his first five fights in the UFC by decision he had begun to earn a reputation as a boring fighter before suddenly stringing together back-to-back KOs over Silva and Evans. Since then, he’s been remarkably hit-and-miss. A lot of people still think he lost both his fights with Rua at UFC 104 and 113 and during his listless split decision defeat to Jackson at UFC 123, he looked satisfied with trying to score points while waiting for time to expire.
Will he have to be more aggressive than normal against Jones, knowing he'll be giving up a ton of reach? Or will he float and juke on the outskirts of the battle, falling back on the techniques that made him the master of the unanimous decision early in his UFC career?
It could go either way.
Certainly, this fight has the potential to be exceptional and how it plays out may well be determined by how Jones responds to Machida’s elusive style.
It might be great; it might be a scene out of "The Matrix." On the other hand, it might end up being more like "Bloodsport III." Remember that one?
Yeah, nobody else does, either.
Was it "Rocky V" in which Sylvester Stallone numbly intoned that life isn't about hitting, but about how hard you can get hit and keep getting up?
Maybe I'm thinking of "Cobra." Or "F.I.S.T." Honestly, when you've heard one speech from a guy who can drink from only one side of his mouth, you've heard them all. But that one rings true, and it could have easily described Saturday's performance by Frankie Edgar, who survived one of the worst blitzes in UFC title fight history only to come back and put on a clear and focused performance for the next 20 minutes. It was like watching someone stumble away from a car wreck, take a minute break, and then finish the Sunday Times crossword puzzle.
Edgar should be happy about his comeback, but the announcement of a draw -- justified, in the opinion of many -- turned him sour. He shouldn't be: His stock skyrocketed with the attrition and wrestling that had improved to the point he was able to take Gray Maynard down repeatedly and stuff incoming shots. (Not possible in their 2008 fight, which Maynard won.)
Maynard is probably Edgar's biggest headache at 155 pounds, and he was able to keep it competitive.
A rematch is inevitable. And while that first round will be remembered, it'll do far less for Maynard's confidence than it will for Edgar's.
Next for Edgar: Maynard.
Next for Maynard: Edgar.
New questions: UFC 125
Does Edgar-Maynard deserve an immediate rematch?
The first word out of Saturday's postfight news conference was that WEC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis would receive his promised shot against the winner of the Edgar-Maynard bout earlier in the evening. But eventually, organizers admitted to the press that Maynard couldn't be ignored -- Pettis would have to be pushed aside.
It's a bum deal for Pettis, but no promises were broken: He was guaranteed the winner, and no winner was declared. It would be difficult to move on and allow Maynard to start fighting for a contender's slot he hasn't lost.
Is time up for Phil Baroni, Brandon Vera and Marcus Davis?
UFC 125 might have set a record for producing fighters on a steep decline: Brandon Vera, Phil Baroni and Marcus Davis all suffered their third consecutive loss in the promotion, which has become increasingly cutthroat in the wake of the WEC merger.
Both Baroni and Davis may have used up their allotment of reinvention. Baroni initially cut to 170, then returned to 185; Davis had cut to 155 for the first time. All three create enthusiasm for their go-for-broke attitudes, but the UFC has situated itself as the premiere combat sports league and the pinnacle of MMA competition. Going 0-3 doesn't fit that bill.
Did Greg Jackson embarrass his critics?
Jackson's camp in Albuquerque has endured plenty of slings and arrows for its "conservative" approach to fighting, which has seen Georges St. Pierre and others put self-preservation above rabid attacks.
It might be the fighter, not the coach, who makes that determination: Stann was willing to slug it out with Chris Leben on Saturday and managed to TKO Leben for only the second time in Leben's 32-fight career. The win also elevated Stann well above criticisms that he was a WEC favorite solely for his press-ready military background. He came to Jackson as a fighter, and Jackson hasn't turned him into anything else.
Is Nate Diaz in the weight class negative zone?
Nate Diaz fought at 170 for the third time in his career Saturday after a stint as an "Ultimate Fighter 5" lightweight champion. But the loss -- to Dong Hyun Kim -- was his first in the division: Kim was able to control Diaz on the ground throughout the fight.
That strategy isn't going to change much for any of Diaz's future opponents at welterweight: While he might be uncomfortable cutting to 155, he doesn't possess the physicality to keep good wrestlers off of him. Kim dominated; Jon Fitch or Thiago Alves would smother.
• From the I-want-a-pony dept: Kim used his postfight interview Saturday as an opportunity to challenge St. Pierre. It's a strange request given that he has yet to beat a single
top-10 welterweight. Not that Kim doesn't have a chance -- his control is solid and his judo might get GSP's attention -- but it's not an opportunity he's earned.
• More wishful thinking: Stann challenging Wanderlei Silva during the postfight news conference. This makes far more sense, but Stann is running opposite one-man circus Chael Sonnen. Maybe Stann needs to get on Twitter.
• Guida scored an extra $60,000 for submitting Takanori Gomi in the pay-per-view opener. Where does that leave Gomi, once considered a top lightweight? He wasn't smashed, and exciting fights are still out there for him against Donald Cerrone or Melvin Guillard.
• The cloud hovering over Randy Couture's proposed fight with Lyoto Machida in April for Toronto is filming for "Expendables 2," which was last scheduled to begin in March. Training full-bore for a fight while shooting a film hasn't been done at this level; either Couture will wrap in a few week's time, leaving him only a month of dedicated training, or the fight gets pushed back. Doing the movie is exciting, but the reality is that he'll make far more money in the ring. "The Expendables 3" will be there when he's 50; the Machida payday won't be.
For a card that the vocal online community was as enthused about as a tooth extraction, UFC 108 turned out to deliver exactly what it advertised: a sequence of good fights, exciting finishes and implications on title contention.
Both Paul Daley and Junior dos Santos were considered to be fairly lethal standing; those warnings grew louder after quick and explosive knockouts over respected fighters Dustin Hazelett and Gilbert Yvel, respectively. Further up the ladder, Rashad Evans survived a third-round scare against Thiago Silva and issued a report that his loss to Lyoto Machida wasn't the beginning of a decline.
The big names the event lacked may have turned out to be a blessing. The higher the fighter on the marquee, the more he has to lose and the more conservatively he'll fight. This was an event filled mostly with athletes looking to earn or boost reputations, not defend them.
Next for Evans: Apparently Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, fresh off "The A-Team" set.
Next for Daley: Someone who can tackle his legs and test his ability to fight from his back. Anyone else will end up like Hazelett.
Next for dos Santos: Gabriel Gonzaga or Pat Barry.
The finally award: UFC production central, for finally devoting some substantial real estate to the WEC during the broadcast.
The sigh of relief award: Yvel, for protesting what he perceived as an early stoppage against Santos without biting, gouging or blinding anyone.
The win-loss award: Daley, for miming a rifle blast to a prone Hazelett. It's a violent sport, true but without some kind of class, it's just violence.
The contrition award: Daley, for immediately recognizing he misbehaved and apologizing.
The Harold Howard award: Hazelett, for beginning the fight against Daley with a cool and ridiculous forward somersault. Why MMA is more popular than boxing: not necessarily because of what happens, but because of what could happen.
New questions: UFC 108
Q: Can we finally see an end to the old-era recruiting?
The UFC's fetish for outmoded talent has become bizarre. All five men posted losses in their returns: None was likely to call up a return to form in time to outpace age, injuries or ring wear. If a premium-priced pay-per-view event is intended to chronicle the aspirations of title contenders, this isn't cutting it.
Q: Is takedown defense the only thing separating Daley from a title?
A: With Dan Hardy stringing his chances against Georges St. Pierre on KO power he's rarely displayed, Daley has been busy digging graves for respected opponents. There's increasing opinion that he's the best striker at 170 pounds, but someone will force him to play the ground game sooner or later. (Precedent: He looked lost on the mat against Jake Shields in October 2008.) Having a dry run against a Jon Fitch or Josh Koscheck would go a long way toward creating the promotional idea that he's prepared for St. Pierre in all ranges.
Q: Will Evans versus Jackson still sell?
A: In beating Silva via judge's decision Saturday, Evans kept alive a match the UFC had spent 12 weeks promoting in the 10th season of "The Ultimate Fighter." But to capitalize on that business, it likely will have to reintroduce Evans' "grudge" against Jackson through some other platform.
Q: Is dos Santos the beneficiary of good matchmaking?
A: In his four Octagon occupations, dos Santos has ended three of them via TKO in the first round. But none of his opponents possessed any overwhelming ability to drag the fight to the ground, a place where the Brazilian has an excellent Black House pedigree but has yet to display much of it. (He lost via submission in 2007 to an unheralded Joaquim Ferreira.) Until he's up against the wrestling monsters of the division, it's hard to know his place.
This and that
• Evans expressed some hesitancy in taking an immediate rematch with Machida after his win over Silva on Saturday. "If I'm honestly speaking with myself, I think that I need to maybe have one more fight just to integrate everything I've been working on, to make it so when I do get a title shot that nobody will ever beat me," Evans said. The promotion is floating the idea he'll fight Jackson in May, which would coincide with Jackson's publicity duties for June's "A-Team" movie and could provide both entities with a significant boost in crossover publicity.
• Unlike the majority of boxers who circulate word of their interest in MMA for PR purposes -- anyone remember Floyd Mayweather's plans from 2007? -- James Toney might be crazy enough to actually do it: The 41-year-old with a 72-6-3 professional record hovered over UFC president Dana White at the postfight news conference and threatened to follow White to his house for a talk. Toney is by no means a currently great fighter, but the sport is probably overdue for a boxer/MMA fight at a higher level than we've seen in the past. Easy story, easy sale.
How beleaguered is the UFC's first card of the new year? Hampered by recurring injuries and illness, it has invited speculation that some kind of occult practices are at work, that the program is "cursed" and that Scott Coker is right now -- as you read this -- covered in chicken's blood and chanting something in a dead language.
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UFC 108 and its promoters are largely blameless parties. With 20 (or more) events planned for the year, not all of them are going to produce incontinence on the part of excited fans. And lack of anticipation isn't necessarily an indication of quality. (This event actually features one fight that's worth maybe half the $44.95 asking price by itself: see below.) It just means we'll probably get some good fights without the boost of an emotional response to their outcomes.
When fans gripe -- as they have, nearly to the point of embedding snoring .wav files into forum posts -- and proclaim that "the show sucks," what they really mean is this: "I am not aroused by this card, but I acknowledge that the fights themselves may be entertaining." Feeling nervous for fighters can make boring fights riveting; a lack of prior interest can make good fights easily forgotten. No one is particularly beside themselves for Rashad Evans versus Thiago Silva in the way they might be about Anderson Silva's 11th UFC win or Randy Couture smashing a clock to pieces or Brock Lesnar displaying some kind of inhumane technique. Sometimes a show is just a show.
What: "UFC 108: Evans vs. Silva," an 11-bout card from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
When: Saturday, Jan. 2, at 10 p.m. ET, with a live, one-hour preliminary show on Spike at 9 p.m. ET.
Why you should care: Primarily because ground specialist Dustin Hazelett (literally) tackling stand-up sensation Paul Daley is a fantastic style-versus-style throwback; because Gilbert Yvel, for whatever character flaws he may possess, has managed few boring fights in his career and likely will stand with Junior dos Santos until neural functions give out.
Fight of the night: Daley-Hazelett, the rare substitute fight that should be better than the originally planned Daley-Carlos Condit bout. This is the kind of thing that, with an easy premise, can induct new fans:
"This guy, Daley," you can say, "wants to stand up. And the guy with the beard wants to submit him."
And your friend, no doubt, will reply: "I hope Kimbo is fighting."
Hype quote of the show: "I'm going into the cage to kill or die." -- a melodramatic Thiago Silva, to Sherdog.com's Greg Savage
(Silva earned a disclosed $58,000 for an August win over Keith Jardine -- good money, but not the dying kind.)
Five (OK, four) questions: UFC 108 edition
Q: Will Rashad Evans be apprehensive?
A: Ugly knockouts tend to deflate delusions of invincibility: Until you've been hammered, you might not believe you can be hammered. Rashad Evans had that mystery stripped away by Lyoto Machida in May. Against Thiago Silva, another intimidating striker, he might back off when he'd normally wade in, take fewer chances than normal or find himself unable to rip off the kind of offensive assault needed for a decisive win. For better or worse, the Evans we see Saturday won't be the same guy who walked in against Machida.
Q: Is Daley the welterweight heavy hitter?
A: For all of the incredible, rounded talent on display at 170 pounds, the class lacks the kind of nervous-anticipation strikers housed at middleweight (Anderson Silva, Melvin Manhoef) and light heavyweight. Daley, a U.K. Thai boxer, might be the best pure puncher in the division -- a fact that raises the stakes for any fight he's in. Beating ground artist Hazelett means the difference between being a scary striker who can cope or excel with grappling (Silva) and a mauler who drowns on the mat (Manhoef).
Q: Has Yvel paid his debt to the industry?
A: Yvel's mental miscalculations in prizefight rings are well-documented. He once struck a referee (Yvel argues the official was acting in collusion with his opponent); he has repeatedly fouled fighters (raking Don Frye's eyes, biting). He has behaved, in short, like a bit of a jerk.
The Nevada commission has granted Yvel a one-fight license, which some would argue is generous in light of his past conduct. But Yvel has largely behaved himself in recent years, and it could be argued that anyone with newfound maturity shouldn't be perpetually condemned for bygone juvenile actions. Alternately, perhaps Dana White is hoping Yvel's reputation will follow him into the event and that he'll crescent kick Steve Mazzagatti into the ICU.
Q: Can the UFC's weakest headliner in months be buoyed by the brand?
A: The last major domestic UFC main event to completely fail to capture anyone's imagination was a Quinton Jackson-Keith Jardine headliner in March. Saturday's Evans-Silva meeting promises to promote similar indifference: Both are coming off violent, one-sided losses to Lyoto Machida -- although Silva squeezed in a win against Jardine in the meantime -- making their pursuit of a Machida rematch mostly dull theater. How many fans will tune in for a holiday weekend card based almost solely on the promise of UFC Action™ is the question mark.
Red Ink: Evans-Silva
Their sometimes-questionable choice of attire aside, fight fans aren't stupid or gullible. So the idea that Saturday's Evans-Silva bout is some kind of "grudge match" may be met with some offense.
Evans is close to Keith Jardine, whom Silva knocked out in an August event. Hype-show editors would have you believe this is sufficient cause for Evans to "seek revenge" against Silva, although both Silva and Jardine were simply doing what they are paid to do. (It would actually be far more offensive for Silva to barely train or put up much effort against Jardine: Showing up prepared tends to indicate a healthy degree of respect.)
Does anyone buy that Evans has any real motivation beyond the norm of wanting to win and get paid? And as fight fans, do we take this increasingly threadbare theater by being insulted or just considering it part of the show?
What it means: For Evans, a chance to prove that the Machida loss hasn't rattled his confidence; for Silva, the biggest win in his career to date against a man who wins 98 percent of the time.
Wild card: Evans comes from a strong wrestling background, but you wouldn't know it on sight: Standing and pulling the shoulder-shake-bravado routine against the murder-stare Muay Thai of Silva wouldn't be one of his better game plans.
Who wins: Evans. He has more tools in the box, assuming he brings everything with him.