Sunday February 28th, 2016

Anderson Silva was perched on top of the octagon, arms outstretched triumphantly, as the London crowd roared. He had just climbed up there with spryness that it’s not fair for a 40-year-old to still possess. Moments before, the man who might well be the greatest fighter ever in mixed martial arts was kneeling alone at the center of the cage in serene celebration—of perseverance, of redemption, of enchantment, of victory.

No more than a few feet away in the swirl of madness, Michael Bisping was down was on all fours, staring at the canvas but not really seeing it. The Brit was wobbly even without trying to get up. There was good reason for that. He’d just taken a flying knee to the chin, and it had sent his head snapping sharply upward toward the O2 Arena rafters. It was the kind of blow that finishes someone’s night. 

Except on this night, it had not. 

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That’s what Herb Dean was trying to convey to Silva and Bisping, to each fighter’s cornermen, and to officials streaming into the cage. “The fight’s not over,” the referee was saying in a tone that sounded like imploring. “The fight’s not over. The fight’s not over. The fight’s not over.” This was Dean’s mantra for anyone who would listen. No one would listen.

What happened from that communal mystification onward is a matter of interpretation, although there’s no denying that this was the pivotal moment of the night. Silva had been passive in clearly dropping the first two rounds on the judges’ scorecards, and was on his way to losing the third as well. But he came alive in the final seconds of the session. As the fighters stood within range and took swings at each other, Silva connected with a slapping left that knocked Bisping’s mouthguard to the canvas. The Brit, in a puzzling lapse of focus, momentarily dropped his left hand to point out the mouthpiece to Dean, leaving himself open to being cracked with a right, then a left. Bisping retreated, Silva in pursuit, but as the clocked ticked down inside 10 seconds, it appeared that “The Count” was going to survive the onslaught. However, Bisping again turned to the ref, whereupon Silva came with the knee that collapsed him just before the horn sounded.

So was the fight just beginning, with Silva now having wounded prey within reach of his talons? Or was the fight, in a way, really over? That’s what Silva was thinking in that moment atop the cage, and in the time it took for word that the ref had not called a stoppage to sink in, the Brazilian seemed to unwind mentally. He turned off the engine that drives the fighter within, and apparently he threw away the key. 

However one construed the rest of the UFC Fight Night main event—as Bisping heroically surviving to the five-rounder’s final horn, or as Silva enigmatically taking his foot off the gas—the evening ended with the 36-year-old expatriate Brit having his arm raised, not the Brazilian legend on a starry comeback.

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All three judges scored the bout 48–47 for Bisping (28–7), as did That “The Count” took Rounds 1 and 2 was a given, considering that he stalked and outworked Silva (33–7, 1 NC) and even dropped him in each of those sessions. That Bisping could win the fourth round, however, says everything that needs to be said about both him and Silva.

There are one-minute breaks between rounds in MMA. Or at least there are supposed to be. At the moment when 60 seconds had passed since the horn ended Round 3, however, Bisping was just settling onto his stool in his corner. He’d spent the first 20 seconds of the break on the canvas, then was attended to while seated on a stool near the center of the octagon. Meanwhile, Silva was on top of the cage, rejoicing, until 50 seconds of the pause in action had elapsed. By the time he was enticed off the fence—he let out an expletive when the message finally got through to him—it was too late for Silva to take a seat. He reached over the cage to grab a bottle of water from a cornerman.

Bisping did make it to his stool, however, and remained there for a good 30 extra seconds, stars whirling around above his head. It was a generous rest, a necessary reclamation of faculties. But amid the disorder in the cage, the facial cuts that Silva’s late flurry had inflicted on him, reddening his deadened mug, went largely unaddressed. Bisping was a mess, a trampled and vulnerable mess. 

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Round 4 began, as one might expect, with one man moving forward, the other circling the cage, maintaining safe distance. The one making advances, though, was Bisping, who if he were a hotel would have had a neon sign signaling “Vacancy” hanging from his forehead. He was operating on nothing but survival instinct. 

What was driving Silva, though? Was it Father Time, whispering that he needed to act his age and slow down, even now, when urgency was what was needed? It was understandable that “The Spider”—who once had reigned in the UFC middleweight division for six years plus, through 10 successful title defenses, 17 straight victories overall—would have looked listless in the first two rounds. He had not fought in nearly 13 months, after serving a suspension for testing positive for two anabolic steroids following a fight with Nick Diaz, originally a unanimous-decision win but changed to a no decision. Before that, there had been another 13-month idleness, as Silva recovered from the broken leg sustained in the second of his losses to the man who in the summer of 2013 had dethroned him, Chris Weidman.

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But now that Silva had Bisping on the edge of the cliff, he needed to push forward. Instead, he moved side to side, saving himself for … what? The best shot he delivered, about a minute in, was really the worst he could have done. When his left kick connected with Bisping’s groin, Dean paused the action to allow the Brit to recover. The break also cleared any remaining cobwebs, and when the fight resumed, Bisping was even more the aggressor.

Though Silva dodged much of what Bisping threw his way, and nothing that did connect put him in any danger, the fight resumed the rhythm it had prior to the flying knee. Bisping mostly attacked. Silva mostly defended. And while the Brazilian’s elusive tactics are still a sight to behold, there were times when he looked like Baryshnikov did dancing in his 50s. Silva was still more graceful than a man his age has any right to be, but sometimes the poetry seemed out of meter.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

What was most crucially missing for Silva was his ability to play with his food, then gobble it up. He’s always been enigmatic with his effort and strategy, but has always been able to overcome that. This time, he could not. While he was by far the better marksman, landing 55% of his strikes to Bisping’s 34%, Silva was simply not busy enough. In that fourth round, when a little bit of aggression might have gone a long way, the Brazilian threw fewer strikes (27) than Bisping landed (28). Overall, Silva was far outdone by Bisping. 

In the end, after the final horn had sounded and after the judges’ scores had been tabulated, the fighters and the ref stood at center cage in front of the boisterous crowd of 16,734. Silva had a little puffiness on his face. Bisping was a bloody mess, looking like someone who’d just been beaten up or maybe run over by a lorry. Then he was announced as the winner—and before he had a chance to tearfully tell the fans that “all I know is that I’ve wanted this fight my entire life”—it was time for Michael Bisping to take his position atop the cage, triumphant, with no one imploring him to get down from there and fight.

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