Sunday February 1st, 2015

Anderson Silva cried.

This was the second time in a week that a UFC main event had ended this way. But Saturday night’s tearful final act in Las Vegas emanated from a different point on the emotional spectrum than what we had seen a weekend ago in Stockholm. That evening concluded with Alexander Gustafsson hiding his face in pain and shame after having been knocked out in front of 30,000 of his adoring countrymen. A promised title shot had beaded up and was rolling down the fearsome Swede’s quivering cheek.

This weekend’s sobs were far removed from that mournful scene. The tears spilling out of Silva were a manifestation of joy, of accomplishment, of redemption.

Perhaps the greatest mixed martial artist of all time was lying on his back at the center of the octagon, having flopped to the canvas at hearing his name being announced as winner of a unanimous decision over Nick Diaz in the headlining bout of UFC 183 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Silva (34-6) had his hands pressed into his forehead, shielding his eyes from the glare of the arena lights and of the doubts that had been flung his way -- from external sources and perhaps even an internal one -- since he’d last fought 13 months ago. He’d been carried out on a stretcher that night with a gruesomely broken leg, filling the hushed building with his agonized screams. No tears, though. Silva saved those for this night.

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It was an inebriating cocktail of past, present, and future that made Saturday night’s detonation of emotions so chilling.

“I back.” Remember when Silva spoke those determined words over a year ago in his halting English? It was during the leadup to his last fight before Saturday’s, a rematch with Chris Weidman in which the narrative was that the greatest mixed martial artist of all time was returning to the octagon to avenge his first loss in over seven years and recapture the UFC middleweight championship belt he’d worn for nearly all of that time. At the time, this seemed like a big comeback story. In retrospect, it was nothing compared to what Silva was up against this time in order to make it back.

The Weidman rematch, after all, ended up playing out like a final chapter. Silva, indomitable for so long, was returning from a loss that could plausibly be explained away. He’d clowned too much in the first fight and got caught. This time, the thinking of the true believers went, he’d take Weidman seriously and outclass him, just as he had done to 17 straight opponents before the misstep. Well, it didn’t play out that way. The new champ, not the old one, was the fighter who looked to be a class above. That, combined with a debilitating finish in which both the fibula and tibia in Silva’s left leg snapped from the impact of a checked kick, gave the aftermath of the bout a funereal feel.

Silva almost immediately spoke about coming back, but would he? Could he? Even after a bout with Diaz -- a delicious bit of combustible matchmaking -- was announced, questions hovered. Would Silva kick with the repaired leg? Put 100 percent behind those kicks? Would the injury and the two straight losses mess with the head of the game’s psychological mastermind? Or would the Brazilian simply be done in by the calendar, which is within a couple of months of flipping the page to his 40th birthday?

Saturday’s bout did not answer all of the questions. Diaz (26-10, 1 NC), a natural welterweight, is not big enough to help us get a grip on whether Silva still can stand up to top middleweights, much less the champ in that division. But Nick being Nick, he made it a fascinating fight to watch, starting with his mind games in the first round. He’d been so respectful of Silva in the leadup to the fight that there was concern that he might not be his exasperating self. But he came right out and started taunting, at one point lying on the mat and inviting Anderson to grapple with him. After “The Spider” didn’t allow himself to get caught in that web, Diaz stood up and walked over to the cage, putting his back against it and waving Silva in, just as Anderson has himself done to fluster opponents. Silva seemed a bit confused by it all.

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Eventually, though, Silva figured out Diaz and picked his spots in busting him up and earning the clear decision. Nick was never in danger of being finished, though, and while he didn’t leave a mark on Anderson, he did land more than we’re used to seeing from a Silva opponent. Credit the volume-punching Diaz for that, in part, but we cannot discount that Silva is aging. This performance surely did not warrant UFC president Dana White following through with his promise to give Silva a title shot if he won. It’s OK to pull back on that, Dana. In fact, it would be wise to do so.

There are fights out there for Silva, if he chooses to fight again, but another dance with Chris Weidman would be too much, too soon. If the Brazilian has reignited championship aspirations, let there be a slow build, one not too dragged out for a man on the cusp of 40.

And yes, there is an “if” involved. There’s a possibility that we’ve seen the last of Anderson Silva.

After the decision was announced, after Silva had collapsed to the mat, bawling, and after Diaz had gone over and helped him up, saying, “No crying,” Silva was interviewed in the cage. He spoke like a man who could be back, or could be finished.

“I went through lot of suffering the past year, everything I went through,” he said in Portuguese through a translator. “In the beginning, I thought I might not be able to come back.” Asked about his future, Silva added in English, “I go back to my family, take my kids, and I don’t know. Maybe I back. I don’t know.”

Afterward, Silva went to his locker room and called his family. His son got on the phone and said, “Congratulations, Dad, but done. Back to home please.”

Silva recounted that conversation at the post-fight press conference. He’s spoken before about his family having urged him to hang it up. This time he sounds like he’s taking those please more seriously.

“I need to talk to my family,” he said. “I love my job. This is me. I love to fight. But I need to talk to my family, because this is more important in my life now.”

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