Like Tyson, Silva may have lost the edge of paralyzing intimidation
"It reminds me of the Tyson era."
That was Dana White speaking during the week building up to UFC 162, referring to the man who would be headlining his big Las Vegas fight card, middleweight champion Anderson Silva. The promotion president wasn't talking about Silva, exactly, more about the aura that surrounded him. The word Dana used was "dominant," but in relating Silva to Mike Tyson in particular, I suspect he really was talking about something else, something that lays the foundation for a certain type of dominance. I suspect he really was talking about paralyzing intimidation.
A lot of successful figures in combat sports have been dominant. Wladimir Klitschko hasn't lost a fight in nine years. Georges St-Pierre hasn't tasted bitter defeat in six. But no one cowers in either man's presence. Welterweight challengers lose to the relentlessly athletic GSP because, much as they try, they fail to stop him from taking them to the canvas and beating them up. Heavyweight challengers lose to the towering Klitschko because they can't figure out how to penetrate his jab and lay a glove on him.
In Tyson's day, however, heavy-hearted heavyweights were beaten men even as they made the long, lonely walk to the ring. That's probably what White was thinking of when he made the comparison between "The Spider" and "Iron Mike": the wilting spell those men cast over those who go before them.
Has all that now dissipated for Anderson Silva? Did last Saturday night's knockout loss to Chris Weidman change the game forever?
To try to understand where Silva goes from here, let's consider the evolution of Tyson's career. The height of it had to be his fight with Michael Spinks, the former light heavyweight champion who'd stepped up to heavyweight and beaten Larry Holmes for the big-boy belt, then beaten Holmes again. He was 31-0 when he stepped in the ring to fight Tyson in the summer of 1988. In my recollection, Spinks was seen as a serious challenge. But Tyson had an easier time that night than the guy who had to push Spinks out of his locker room and toward the ring. I've never seen a prizefighter so scared. The assassin's eyes of "Iron Mike" could do that to you.
A year and a half later, Buster Douglas's unthinkable knockout of Tyson altered everything. Mike went on to win quite a few fights after that, but he never again could melt ice with his stare. Someone had stood up to the bully. Just as Cassius Clay had done to surly Sonny Liston. Just as Muhammad Ali had done to brooding George Foreman.
Now, Silva's intimidation is different from Tyson's or Liston's or Foreman's. Stylistically, the mixed martial artist with most in common with those boxers might be Ronda Rousey -- that is, if you can correlate uppercuts with armbars. "Rowdy Ronda" has an aggressive, relentless and destructive way of fighting that puts opponents ill at ease even before stepping in with her.
Silva is more like Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez. That's not some rising UFC featherweight. That was the legendary Spanish matador of the middle of the last century, a revered figure better known as "Manolete." He was known to plant his feet in the center of the ring and, rather than move out of the bull's path, maneuver the angry animal out of harm's way. Anderson similarly teases his opponents as if with a swaying red cape, lingering tantalizingly in their face, daring them to snort frustration and make a charge, then gracefully steering clear of the horns. I mean, punches. Olé!
Until last weekend, when his championship fight with the bullish Weidman ended with "Oh no!"
So now what is left of Silva's act? Even at age 38, he still appears to have the lightning reflexes to drive a slaughtering sword of counterpunches into an opponent. True, Weidman did catch him like no one previously had, but it was a surprising backfist -- a right hand following another right hand -- that set the finish in motion. Even though the awkward strike struck nothing but air, it got Anderson's Alvin Ailey movement out of step and left him susceptible to the challenger's game-changing left fist. Next time -- if indeed there is a next time, which I strongly believe there will be despite the vanquished champ's fight-night ambivalence -- Silva will prepare himself for that.
He'd better. Because now that the world has seen what can happen if you commit yourself to attacking the frustrating frolics of Anderson Silva, no one will ever again be intimidated. This could play right into the hands of the Brazilian counterpuncher, presenting him with a wide open canvas on which to create his artwork. Or it could test him in ways past opponents have not been emboldened to attempt.
Silva has lost his most confounding weapon, the one that made many who watch MMA so conflicted about him. It's always been a wonder to watch the artist at work, his body language screaming self-assurance as he casually contorted to slip punches as if they were being thrown in slow motion by children. Yet the clowning, even though I knew it was part of a repertoire intended to discombobulate opponents and thus a valid foray into mental warfare, has always put me off. Just as it took much time during my youth for me to come around to Ali -- I embraced his politics and his righteousness long before I appreciated his goading style in the ring -- I've always watched Silva with a feint hope that someone would clip him. I know I'm not alone. I've talked this over with plenty of folks, and we agree that it's not that we were rooting against Anderson. We just wanted to see someone wipe that smirk off his face and make him fight.
Now he will fight. That's a good thing. We've seen what Anderson Silva can do when he fights. But we've seen it all too sparingly. Whether he was looking to ramp up the challenge or simply was bored, Silva has resorted to antics in place of attack. Now that the clown in him has been knocked silly, though, Silva has nothing left to be but a fighter.