Anderson Silva made a mistake on Saturday night.
Yeah, I know he turned in a performance in the main event of UFC 153 that was as close to perfection as superhumanly possible, toying with Stephan Bonnar for nothing more than the amusement of his Rio de Janeiro acolytes before putting him away with a single breathtaking knee to the belly. He does that kind of stuff all the time against fellow middleweights, but this was an awe-inspiring reminder that the 185-pound champion also can produce a masterwork against guys who fight in a division 20 pounds heavier.
Ah, there's the mistake. Silva's transcendent performance opened a door he has said he intends to keep locked shut. You see, the champion of Bonnar's weight class is Jon Jones, also known as most people's No. 2 in the pound-for-pound hierarchy, behind only top dog Silva. With the two finest fighters in the land competing in neighboring divisions, there's naturally been a groundswell of interest in a summit meeting. But Jones has done nothing but dance around Silva just as "The Spider" has two-stepped around him. They say they don't want to fight each other. It has to do with friendship. It has to do with legacy. It has to do with sponsorship money. Or something.
When the clamor for this superfight first gained traction, the joint refusal of Silva and Jones actually was understandable. At the time, Anderson was entrenched in a deeply and bitterly contentious fight buildup with Chael Sonnen. Friendship and civility were so foreign to the fight game at the time that when these two guys said they liked and respected each other too much to square off, it seemed reasonable for us to just let it go.
But now that Silva has properly disposed of Sonnen in the trash-talking bin, we're reminded that competing against another athlete out of respect -- not refusing to do so -- is what mixed martial arts is all about. What Sonnen dragged Silva into wasn't reality; it was merely a reality TV show version, in which being real isn't dramatic enough to extend the 15 minutes of media fame you crave, so you contort competition into feigned animosity. Sonnen is a master at that. He suckered Silva into his game, and now he's working on Jones.
However, Silva and Jones are destined for a higher purpose: stepping into the octagon together for a fight that would be the biggest in the sport's history.
By smashing Bonnar with such ease, Silva erased any doubt about whether this superfight should be made. True, Stephan was basically in retirement when he got the call to fight Silva, and even when he was in his prime, he was far from being king of the hill. But is there a top-tier guy in the light heavyweight division, other than Jones, who could toy with Bonnar the way "The Spider" did? Silva's previous two dips into the 205-pound talent pool told us something about him, but he was a mere child of 33 when he knocked out journeyman James Irvin and was 34 when he KO'd former champion Forrest Griffin. On Saturday night, it was an eye-opening, head-shaking 4 minutes and 40 seconds as we watched him have his way with Bonnar. At 37 years old.
Silva wants to make sure you take note of that age. "I'm already an oldie, you know?" he said at the post-fight press conference when his future in the sport was brought up.
Playing the old man card is the oldest trick in the book. We've seen it in all sports and we've even seen it in the other realm where MMA lives: entertainment. Years ago, during a visit to New Orleans, I was hanging out at the Rock 'N' Bowl, a bowling alley-turned-music venue in Mid-City. The evening's entertainment was one of the periodic King of Zydeco showdowns, with young stud Beau Jocque swapping sets with an old master named Boozoo Chavis. At the end of the night, the crowd would be asked to determine which man should be crowned as the rightful successor to Clifton Chenier, the late kingpin of the genre.
Well, by closing time, as the schtick went, both musicians had won over the crowd, so neither could claim victory. What to do? Well, we were in a bowling alley, so each man was allowed to roll one ball, with the guy dropping more pins being the winner. After big man Beau's ball practically reached the pins on the fly, felling all but one, Boozoo ambled over to the ball rack with an old man's hitch in his giddy-up. "Whaddaya do wit dis thing?" he stage-murmured, eying the big black ball's three holes. Someone showed him where to insert his fingers. And the sly old guy walked up to the line, sagging a bit under the weight of the 12-pound orb, and with much effort and a grunt, he let fly. Do I even have to tell you how many pins fell? The astonished crowd reaction told the story, as did the discreet little wink Boozo Chavis shot to one of his band members.
This is basically what Anderson Silva appears to be doing. At the post-fight press conference on Saturday night, when UFC president Dana White started talking about the possibility of a superfight, Silva shrunk in his seat at the mere mention of Jon Jones. He comically covered his face, shook his head, waved his hands. No, no, no, his histrionics suggested. Please no.
So dramatic was Silva that you might even call his little act Shakespearian. Quoting Hamlet: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." That is to say, "The Spider" is so demonstrative in his refusal to even discuss fighting Jones that it's easy to jump to the conclusion that he actually craves the challenge but simply wants to be talked into it after building it up into something larger than life. That's an interpretation shared by White, who'll be instrumental in whether this superfight is to be or not to be.
"He's playing games with me, that's what he's doing," the UFC poobah told reporters after Saturday night's fight. "I know how he works and I know how he thinks. He always has this thing of being humble, where it's not like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna fight Jon Jones and I'll beat him.' He never does that. But I know how he is. He wants to show everybody by the time he leaves, who the man is."
And if it takes White playing along for that to happen, Dana is game. "I know my man says no, no, no," he said during the post-fight press conference, "but the amount of money that would be offered for that fight, I guarantee you I will make Anderson Silva say yes, yes, yes."
Now, let's not get cocky, Dana. Sure, it might well be that dumping a truckload of greenbacks in the front yards of Silva and Jones will make the fight happen. But maybe we have to take Silva at his word, in which case the only big-money superfight in his future would be against welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. "I think it would be a great challenge for me," Anderson said Saturday night. "I prefer him over Jon Jones. He's smaller. It'll be a little bit easier. I'll be hit less."
Or it might well be that Silva wants to cash in twice: a matchup with GSP first, then Jones. If that's the scenario he envisions, he had better allow it to unfold in a hurry. Silva is a 37-year-old with the reflexes and athleticism of a 27-year-old, but athletes can age overnight. You don't want to be a 40-year-old with the reflexes and athleticism of a 40-year-old when you're staring across the octagon at an in-his-prime Jon Jones.
Nobody knows how this superfight thing will play out, and that includes Anderson Silva. He's a man who seems to live moment to moment, led by his heart and his wild mind. A telling scene played out in his dressing room mere minutes before he was to enter the octagon for the main event: He was sobbing uncontrollably. Not out of fear or anxiety but out of joy. He and the rest of Team Nogueira had been huddled around a TV watching the co-main event, and when Silva's friend and teammate, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, submitted Dave Herman, the room exploded in cheers. Emotions were running raw in part because Big Nog was returning from a broken arm and in part because Herman had been talking all week about how jiu-jitsu doesn't work on him. So when Nogueira secured an armbar and Herman tapped, every man in the dressing room spilled out every last ounce of emotion in his being. Including Silva, who was to step into that same octagon in mere minutes.
Had I been watching that scene unfold live, I would have had serious doubts whether Silva was going to have the energy and focus to fight that night. Watching after the fact, I'm even more amazed by what he pulled off against Bonnar. And I'm left wondering what makes Anderson Silva tick.
Dana White insists that he knows. "I feel like I'm dealing with an artist," he said Saturday night. "You know, artists are a little quirky."
Yes, and the great ones are worth every effort you put forth to be there when they paint another masterpiece.