For as memorable a year as 2011 was for Jon Jones, it was the polar opposite for fellow light heavyweight Thiago Silva.
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.”