Much like the games in all of sports, mixed martial arts fights sometimes end in surprising and disconcerting ways. A fighter who looks like he's been beaten with a bat pulls off an out-of-left-field knockout or submission. A referee jumps in prematurely to rescue a fighter who still has a good measure of fight left in him. Cageside judges see a bout scandalously differently from every other set of eyes in the arena. It happens. We shake our heads, but the official record shows that the one who has his or her arm raised at the end is the winner. Period. We can do nothing but roll with it.
It has been especially challenging, though, to roll with the wins and losses and twists and turns that played out late Saturday night in the main event of UFC 168 in Las Vegas. Chris Weidman retained his middleweight championship, yet in a way it felt like something was taken away from him. Anderson Silva lost the fight, and as unthinkable it is to fathom the thrill from Brazil being on a two-fight losing streak, that seems like the least of his problems. Dana White and the UFC brass weren't even inside the octagon for the big fight but in the end may end up as its biggest losers.
Everything revolves around Silva, of course, just as the sport has for the seven and a half years he's been in the UFC. The graceful, lethal dynamo won his first 16 fights in the promotion, including 10 straight title defenses, firmly establishing himself as the pound-for-pound best in MMA, the greatest ever in the view of many. After "The Spider" was knocked out by Weidman in their first meeting in July, the loss was explained away by the multitudes. He'd beaten himself, some fans and media and fellow fighters contended, suggesting that Silva's excess clowning rendered him vulnerable to a fluke KO. If only he would get serious for the rematch, the thinking of many went, he'd take Weidman apart.
That's not what happened on Saturday night. Silva fought seriously, with no hint of arms-at-the-side taunting, but it was Weidman who did the dismantling. As in the first meeting, the New Yorker dominated on the ground for nearly the entirety of Round 1. While the two-time NCAA Division I All-American's wrestling had taken the bout to the canvas back in the summer, this time it was his potent right hand that did the damage. He clubbed Silva early with a short right to the side of the head, dropping him and pouncing for a ground-and-pound assault that had referee Mario Yamasaki looking on with concern.
The rematch ended not with a Weidman strike but with one from Silva -- one that had an unintended effect. Anderson aimed his left-leg kick toward the inside of the champ's left thigh, but when Weidman lifted his leg to check the kick, as he'd been trained to do, Silva's shin landed hard on the heavily bony area near Weidman's knee. And Silva's lower leg gruesomely went all spaghetti on him.
The fight was over. Perhaps a career was over.
And so left the biggest questions from the fight. Once the fractures in the two long bones that connect Silva's knee and ankle heal from the surgery performed on Sunday morning, will the 38-year-old Brazilian ever fight again? If he does, will he ever be the same? If he doesn't, will MMA ever be the same?
On Monday, the UFC's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Steven Sanders, spoke with reporters and painted a fairly rosy picture. He had been at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night to watch the fight, and had ended up going to the hospital with Silva and performing the surgery. He stabilized the fibula, the smaller of the two long bones, and inserted a titanium rod into the larger bone, the tibia. He said the fractures should heal within three to six months and Silva could begin training within six to nine.
Train again? Really? Sanders insisted that the fighter's age should not inhibit the healing process, and that the titanium rod "adds strength to the limb." And the surgeon noted that Silva had one question for him before they went into surgery: "When can I train?"
It makes sense that an all-time great like Silva would not want the sight of him being strapped to a stretcher and carried out of a hushed-but-for-the-gasping arena to be the enduring image of his final moments as a fighter. He might very well want back in the game, just as many elite athletes have after catastrophic injury. What makes Silva's case different, though, is that his leg, once healed, is not simply going to be called on to help him run toward the end zone or leap toward the rim. Those activities are taxing enough, but they don't compare to what Silva asks of his leg in the octagon. He uses it as a weapon. If he steps back in, will he feel confident to let fly with one of those thunderous leg kicks that have made him so devastating a striker? Combat sport is an assault on the body and a testing ground for the mind that frees the body to perform when it's thought capable.
What lies ahead for Silva -- fighter or ex-fighter -- will remain unclear for the better part of a year, but if I had to guess, I'd say he never steps in the octagon again ... other than to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Few in the MMA world are privy to what goes on in Silva's mystifying mind, but from all appearances his motivation to continue on the grinding treadmill of the sport's highest level seemed to be waning even before Saturday night. Time away will allow for the existential reflection suitable for an athlete -- or simply a human -- approaching his 40th birthday. Silva likely will return to training, as he indicated to his surgeon he's eager to do, but he'll do so because he's a martial artist for life. It doesn't necessarily follow that he'll return to the octagon, and that's quite OK. Silva need not compete ever again in the UFC. His legacy is secure.
If Weidman's next challenger, Vitor Belfort, takes away the 185-pound belt, that would propel to the top a fighter whom Silva already has beaten in as extraordinary a way as possible. No rematch is necessary. And if Weidman takes out Belfort and remains champion when Silva's leg is healed, would the veteran want to put himself through another tussle with the man who dominated both of their fights?
The staunchest Silva supporters will argue that the Weidman fights were flukes, and that one dominant round in each doesn't mean a thing in the long run. They'll point out what happened in Silva's first meeting with Chael Sonnen: 23 minutes of Sonnen as mugger, thanks to takedown after takedown and a smothering top game, but then a Silva submission that pulled out a victory. It ain't over till it's over, the argument goes, and a fluke finish or two is not the end of the story.
This is where Weidman, at least in some eyes, has lost what he earned both in July and last Saturday night. But those eyes deceive. Weidman deserved both victories; no asterisk need be attached to the championship belt he wears. He won the title by beating Silva at his most creative, a fighter who utilizes mind games to set up his opponents for a fall. In the rematch, Silva stashed away the tricks, played it straight, and never got into a rhythm. Of course, that might have been because of the cacophony of bells that were ringing inside his head after he'd taken a succession of punches and elbows to the cranium while Weidman was lead-blanketing him in the first round.
True, if the shin bones hadn't snapped and the fight had gone on, Silva might have pulled it out. But on Saturday he wasn't in with Sonnen, who's been submitted so many times (eight, out of 14 defeats) that his walkout music should be "Taps." He was in with Weidman, an undefeated jiu-jitsu black belt. Yes, Silva also could have scored a knockout -- anything's possible -- but based on the time they've spent together in the cage, it's Weidman who has shown himself to be the assassin in this matchup.
And that brings the sport to perhaps the biggest loss of UFC 168 -- star power. A mere two weeks after Georges St-Pierre vacated the welterweight title and walked off into the Quebec sunset, perhaps only temporarily but maybe for good, the promotion might have just lost Silva as well. Talk about a 1-2 punch to the gut. (What next, Jonny "Bones" departing for the NFL?) Some will decry these marquee losses in terms of their impact on the bottom line. But of greater impact may be one of aesthetics. The UFC already has lost a true artist in GSP, and if we never again see Silva in the octagon, the promotion will have lost its poet laureate. Who'll be left to create the next masterpiece?