Is it too early to talk about Anderson Silva's legacy in the UFC?

Anderson Silva celebrates after once again successfully defending his UFC middleweight title -- this time against Yushin Okami in August 2011.
Buda Mendes/Latin Content/Getty Images

The greatest mixed martial artist of all time is set to put his UFC middleweight championship belt on the line Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, PPV), so naturally the talk out in Las Vegas has centered on ... boxing.

Roy Jones Jr. Mike Tyson. Buster Douglas. Floyd Mayweather Jr. Canelo Alvarez. All practitioners of the sweet science. All brought up in the fight-week buildup to Anderson Silva's title defense against Chris Weidman at UFC 162.

OK, to be fair, the narrative hasn't all been about boxing. Also creeping into the conversation has been the sport of pro basketball and one of its most legendary performers, Michael Jordan.

This is what happens when an all-time great prepares to step onto the spotlit stage with the clock ticking. Silva (33-4) is 38 years old, and we might not have him around for our entertainment for a whole lot longer. So forgive us if we pause to put his still unfolding legacy into its place amid the larger context of the sports world. And even if we engage in some getting-ahead-of-ourselves speculation about what's next. Beyond Weidman.

Dana White would like to promote a superfight between "The Spider" and either light heavyweight champion Jon Jones or welterweight belt holder Georges St-Pierre. But the UFC president believes -- or says he believes, at least, perhaps in an effort to light a fire under St-Pierre -- that GSP doesn't want Silva. "There's no doubt about it. That's a fact," he told reporters on Thursday, speaking of what he perceives as reluctance on the part of his 170-pound champ, who has picked Weidman to win this weekend. "If [St-Pierre wanted to fight Silva], he'd say, '[Expletive] Weidman. I'll take that fight. I really think Weidman's going to beat him, but I don't want Weidman to beat him. I want to be the guy to beat him.'"

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And the other proposed superfight? Well, Silva is interested in squaring off with Jones -- but a different one than the 205-pound MMA champ nicknamed "Bones." For years, "The Spider" has spoken of a dream matchup with Roy Jones Jr. in a boxing ring. The problem is, even when he first was talking about Jones, Roy already was a shadow of the virtuoso he once had been. It was way back in 1993, the year the UFC was born, when Jones beat Bernard Hopkins at middleweight for his first world title. The following year he beat James Toney -- you know, the future UFC fighter -- to become super middleweight champ. Jones later would add light heavyweight and heavyweight belts, and was 49-1 (the loss being a disqualification, a la Jon Jones, for an illegal blow to an outclassed opponent) when the wheels finally came off. That was a decade ago.

This is not to say an Anderson Silva vs. Roy Jones Jr. boxing match would be without its appeal. If anything, advancing age might even level the playing field, since Silva at 38 is still a special fighter while Jones, at 44, is not. But what would a shining performance against the Jones of today prove? Let's face it: A boxing match between these two with each man in or near his prime would have been a joke. Top-level MMA fighters can do it all, but boxers box like no one else can. Ashton Eaton is the reigning Olympic champion in decathlon, the world record-holder in that sport as well as heptathlon, but his decathlon-record time in the 100-meter dash is 10.21 seconds, more than six-tenths of a second -- that is, an eternity -- off Usain Bolt's world record. Now, it's true Roy Jones is no longer worthy of a Bolt comparison, but elite sprinters have been breaking 10 seconds since the 1960s. The point: Specialists, whether in running or boxing, are going to make even the most extraordinary generalist (mixed martial artist, decathlete) look ordinary.

The term "ordinary" often finds its way into the same sentence as "Anderson Silva" in an MMA context, too. But in those cases, it's Silva's opponents who end up being characterized as run-of-the-mill. Again and again, Silva has tamed even the most skilled and dangerous foes. This would seem to pose a problem for the UFC's promotional engine, in terms of drumming up fan interest in watching -- paying to watch, actually -- Silva fly-swat another in a long line of overmatched opponents. But Dana White would have it no other way. "As a businessman, as a fight fan, it's awesome to have a guy who's as dominant as Anderson Silva -- like the Mike Tyson of our sport," White said this week. "You heard a lot of fighters say stuff [about Weidman winning], but a lot of the media are like, 'Anderson Silva wins this fight easy.' It reminds me of the Tyson era."

With that, White breaks out his "on any given night" mantra, drawing his dharma talk from the storied night when Tyson faced a 42-1 underdog. "I'll never forget as long as I live, the night he was fighting Buster Douglas," he said. "I had so many buddies who were fringe boxing fans when big fights were on. And everybody was going out that night. I'm like, 'I'm watching the Buster Douglas fight.' They're like, 'Yeah, that fight's going to be six minutes, so meet us after it's over.' And I sat home and watched in horror as the thing unfolded. I think that's how it is with Anderson Silva now."

Chris Weidman (9-0) is nowhere near the journeyman long shot Buster Douglas was, though. And unlike the then-24-year-old Tyson, Anderson Silva actually is battling a second opponent as well: the aging process. Dana White understands this, and addresses it with another boxing analogy. "He's 38 years old. Thirty-eight! And he's still doing things that other people cannot do," said White. "The question becomes -- even with the Floyd Mayweather-Canelo [Alvarez] fight: At what point does a guy show up who looks 38, or in Floyd's case looks 35 or 36, however old Floyd is? That's the big question, especially when they're fighting these young guys, Canelo and Weidman."

That is indeed the question, one that many around the sport have been asking for years every time Anderson Silva steps into the octagon. It's a question White wishes he could continue to ask forever. But he understands that that's not realistic. All things must pass. So he's relishing the present day -- Saturday night's championship fight and all the lead-up to it -- because he knows that someday the UFC will no longer have Anderson Silva. And to express what that means to him and his company, Dana draws upon another sport entirely. "The day that comes when that man says, 'I'm going to retire,' it's going to suck," said White. "It's literally like when Jordan went away from basketball. How many games do they have a year in basketball? Eighty-something games, whatever the number is. And you took it for granted every night that Jordan played, right up until he left, you know what I mean? I think that's going to be the case with Anderson Silva, too."

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