Silva went toe to toe with a very willing dance partner, Brian Stann, and in a fight that saw each man stagger and knock down the other. Wanderlei ended up being the last man standing after flooring the American with a right-left combination and swarming him with punches on the mat until referee Marc Goddard jumped in at 4:08 of the second round.
With that, Silva (35-12-1, one no contest) leaped to the top of the cage, arms extended, a smile consuming his face, and soaked in the adulation of the crowd. The home crowd, you might say.
Silva had fought at Saitama Super Arena 13 times before, all while with the Pride Fighting Championship. Back in 2002, he made his first defense of the pride 205-pound title in this building, and two and a half years later he put up the belt against Quinton Jackson. He won both fights by knockout. In fact, seven of his 10 victories at Saitama have come via KO.
"I'm so proud," a smiling Silva said afterward in the cage. "Thanks, Dana White, thanks, UFC, for giving me this wonderful opportunity for fight here. For my brothers here in Japan, thank you, guys."
Saturday night's lights-out performance was not as consequential as those the Japanese fans had seen in Silva's glory days -- no title belt, or even a position at the forefront of the title picture, on the line this time -- but that only made it more exhilarating. Silva had lost seven of his previous 10 fights and was looking like a shot fighter. He appeared ripe for the pickings of Stann, whose game has evolved from its brawler days in the WEC. The US Marines veteran seemed to have the technical skill to nullify Wanderlei's game.
But Stann (12-6) came to fight, not to nullify. He could have concocted a safer, more winning strategy, to be sure. But it was as though he felt he would be disrespecting a man whom he'd acknowledged to be an inspiration for his MMA career if he did anything other than go toe to toe.
So toe to toe they went, right from the start. And before the first round was halfway over Silva was talking deep breaths and Stann was getting the better of their exchanges. Not by a lot, but more often than not, he was getting in the last shot in many a flurry. Then again, Silva was having his moments, too, particularly when he bloodied Brian's face.
The second round was slightly more cautious, but they still were banging. Stann was adding leg kicks to his arsenal, and Silva landed a head kick. Then, with just under a minute to go, Wanderlei straightened out a right hand and connected to the face, and Stann was buckling even before a hook sent him crashing to the canvas.
"I knew what I had at risk when I signed on the dotted line next to that man, fighting here in Japan," said Stann, his voice quivering a bit. "Wanderlei has always been one of my favorite fighters ever. He's one of the fighters that inspired me to start this sport, and I'm very proud to have been a part of his career, as much as this hurts right now. My heart's broken. I'm still proud to have put my name on the line and to have fought him."
You might say this fight was a battle of wills: two heavyweights' willful decisions to allow the fight to play out where they had no business doing so. Early on, the weaker strategy was Hunt's. The onetime K-1 kickboxing champion with a rudimentary ground game made no effort -- or at least not enough effort -- to climb back to his feet when Struve, who has 16 submissions among his 25 wins, had the fight in his wheelhouse in both the first and second rounds.
After Hunt survived that, it was Struve's turn to defy common sense. Sure, Stefan has a good striking game to go with his mat prowess, but every moment that he kept the fight standing was a moment in which he was playing with fire. It might not have been so treacherous if Struve were capable of using his length to keep opponents at bay, but the big Dutchman has shown time and again that he doesn't take full advantage of his reach. And sure enough, Hunt reached out and touched him, wobbling him early in the third round and continuing his attack, even as Struve inexplicably stuck his chin out to signal his willingness to engage.
Finally, a big left hand chopped down the big guy -- timber! -- and Hunt just walked away. Struve wasn't out, but he made no effort to get back up. As Herb Dean was waving off the fight at 1:44 of the round, Struve indicated to the ref that the punch had broken his jaw.
The victory made Hunt a breakthrough in another way as well. The 38-year-old New Zealand native, who came to the UFC having lost five in a row and then dropped his octagon debut, now has won four straight, three by KO. He might not be at the top of the heavyweight food chain, but those heavy hands make him an appealing matchup for whatever Top 10 guy will dare step in with him.