Antonio Silva leaned against the cage, staring straight ahead, readying himself for a very difficult task: five more minutes with Fedor Emelianenko. He knew he had the gas in the tank to do it, but he also knew that it was the most dangerous point in the fight. He had stood toe-to-toe with Emelianenko in the first round and soundly dominated the second. But the great Fedor was now backed into the corner, and that meant he had to be extra vigilant of the armbars and overhand rights that had squashed so many who thought they were ahead until they very violently weren't.
Silva heard some yelling and craned to see what it was. A head popped under his arm: coach Andre Benkei, and he was screaming something. It sounded like, "You won." He turned around and his manager and friend Alex Davis was saying the same thing. Fedor couldn't continue. The fight was over.
Memories flooded in: going hungry in Brazil, going broke, all the time logged in the gym. It was very hard for Silva, a man nicknamed "Bigfoot" for his abnormally oversized features (and the condition known as acromegaly, or "gigantism"), to hold back a flood of emotions. He wrapped his arms around Davis and Benkei and locked his hands together in a hug so tight that the trainers briefly worried about suffocation.
Doctors cageside at Izod Center called off the second quarterfinal matchup of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix when Emelianenko's eye swelled shut from Silva's punches. Afterward, Emelianenko told the 11,287 fans in the East Rutherford, N.J., arena that it may be God's will he calls it quits.
Cameras caught everything, and yet days later, Silva (16-2) can remember few details about how he earned the biggest victory of his professional career. He remembers Emelianenko (31-3) hitting him in the first round and thinking, "Come on and get it." All other flashes from the fight -- a takedown in the second, dropping punches from the mount, a risky leglock attempt -- meld until the moment he got the good news. There was never a moment where he thought he had the Russian's number.
"I only realized when they told me I'd won," Silva told SI.com through Davis, who also acts as his translator. "Because I knew that Fedor could pull out last-minute stuff, and I knew if I had to fight him for another round, it would be a hard-fought round."
As officials swarmed around the cage and the crowd caught on to the bout's finality, Silva and Davis looked at each other. They had an expression for a moment like this after five years together in the business, a sardonic joke about the seemingly endless trials they had faced on the way to a big payoff in MMA: what a faraway beach.
"In Brazil, everything always ends with the beach," Davis said. "Every time we think about the beach here, we just find a sandbag."
They might as well have been in Impanema that night. Backstage, Silva called his family in his hometown of Campina Grande, Paraíba. His mom cried. His wife and children were relieved. His dad said, "I knew you could do it." He sang in the shower before the news conference.
There were a lot more people who wanted to interview Silva after the fight than before. He had been a huge underdog. The smart money said he was a lawn gnome for Emelianenko to knock down on the way to the tournament finals. Now, he was the second person to hand Emelianenko a legitimate defeat, and the first to permanently knock "The Last Emperor" from his pedestal.
The two met once more before the night was over. With dining options limited in East Rutherford, the hotel lobby had turned into the official after-party for Strikeforce. Fighters, trainers, agents and journalists gathered to buzz about the massive upset. Silva was enjoying himself when Emelianenko and his entourage passed. Silva pushed through the crowd to see his former foe. They embraced; Silva told Emelianenko not to retire, that the world still wanted to see him. The Russian smiled and kissed his forehead and made his way out of the fray.
"Fedor is one of the best guys out there," Silva said. "He's a great champ and very humble."
Those around Emelianenko have since been more anxious to hand Silva a sandbag. The former PRIDE champion's longtime coach, Vladimir Voronov, recently told a Russian news site that Silva used "forbidden psychological technology" to gain an advantage in the fight. The technology -- suggested to be hypnosis -- explains why Emelianenko was "just not like himself" during the fight and "did everything exactly the opposite" of what he did in training.
"We don't have the money for that technology," Davis deadpanned.
And even if Silva somehow managed to acquire the services of a hypnotist (or Voodoo practitioner, while he's at it), the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board probably would have found out beforehand. Davis said the commission required his fighter to undergo several additional medical tests out of concerns that his acromegaly could put him at risk inside the cage. (The NJSACB declined to comment to SI.com.)
All this won't take away from Silva's joy. He's ready for the next difficult task: taking the Heavyweight Grand Prix title.
"My next challenge is to train hard and work hard to stay among the best," Silva said.
Silva next meets the winner of an upcoming quarterfinal bout between Fabricio Werdum and reigning Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. He and Werdum are friends, but he said they've talked about the potential of fighting each other in the semifinals and have vowed to keep it professional.
"Bigfoot" already knows who he wants to fight in the finals, which is expected to take place late this year.
"If I could pick out of everybody, I'd like to face Josh Barnett," he said. "He rubbed me the wrong way. He doesn't talk to people. He's a little bit arrogant; he never says, 'Hi,' never shakes a hand. I think that even though we're fighters and fighting each other, we need to be friendly with each other. [Andrei] Arlovski's the same way, but he's already taken care of."