Saturday night's UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro was billed as a homecoming party for mixed martial arts. It turned into something even bigger and more festive, something akin to an encore of the city's renowned Carnival celebration.
Silva put on a breathtakingly easy-going performance in the main event against an outclassed Yushin Okami, toying with him before drawing the curtain closed at 2:04 of the second round. With the graceful and seemingly effortless TKO, "the Spider" retained his UFC middleweight championship and put a bold exclamation point on an evening that also saw nine other Brazilians stir up the crowd with a succession of victories, most notably by two of the sport's legendary names.
A rejuvenated Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and an ageless Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira had set the bar high, winning their fights with spectacular knockouts. But the last dance was saved for Anderson Silva.
Dance is about all Silva (31-4) did in the first round, as he casually circled Okami (26-6), throwing only an occasional punch or kick, more to measure distance than inflict damage. At one point, the Japanese fighter put the champ against the cage and landed a few knees and short punches in the clinch. Silva was unfazed and seemed content to stay right there. He was taking his time in this rematch of a 2006 bout in which Okami was awarded a disqualification victory after Silva kicked him in the face while Yushin's knee was on the canvas. Anderson had won all 14 of his fights since then.
Silva picked up the pace early in the second, stalking Okami with a short flurry that had six times as many feints in it as kicks and punches. Then he downshifted again, dropped his arms to his sides and invited the challenger to come take the belt from him. Okami tried, but after Silva evaded two jabs with head movement alone, the champ threw a jab of his own and floored Yushin. As the crowd roared, Silva merely admired his work, hands on his hips, and stepped back, inviting Okami to rise to his feet. If he dared.
Silva then went to work. He set his gaze on the Japanese fighter's belly and landed a jab to the face. He dropped his hands again, avoided a jab with a slight move of his head and snapped Okami's head back with a piston jab. Silva was in rhythm. Okami was in trouble.
Going into this fight, the thinking was that Okami would follow the strategic blueprint of Chael Sonnen, his training partner, who last summer gave Silva his toughest fight by constantly coming forward with pressure, beating the champ to the punch and taking him down to control the fight. However, Okami did not -- or could not -- close the distance. He fought Silva's fight.
The end came shortly after Silva landed a short right just as Okami was throwing one of his own. The challenger collapsed to the mat, and this time Silva apparently decided that he was ready to move on to the evening's next party. He pounced on Okami and landed a succession of punches and knees to the body as Yushin covered his face and waited for referee Herb Dean to jump in and save him.
It was only then that Silva, for the first time all evening, put himself at risk. He sprinted over to the cage and, in a single bound, leaped to the top and sat there, spreading his arms wide to soak in the kind of adulation few other than Ronaldo, Pele and the Selecao have experienced in Brazil. Then he stood up atop the cage, a move that no doubt had UFC president Dana White holding his breath. When Silva finally leapt back down to the mat, he was greeted by matchmaker Joe Silva, who probably told Anderson to put a kibosh on the dangerous stuff so he can stick him back in the cage -- where he seldom finds danger -- on the UFC's November debut on Fox, as has been rumored.
"I train hard for the best guys in the world," Silva then said in an interview in the cage with fill-in TV analyst Kenny Florian. "Cigano punch my face all the time. I'm ready to fight." (Cigano, of course, is his heavy-handed training partner Junior dos Santos, who'll challenge Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight belt in November.)
Who'd Silva like to fight next? Flashing a smile as big as Magic Johnson, he said, "My clone."
UFC and Fox officials immediately started reading up on molecular biology.
Stanislav Nedkov, party pooper.
The evening had been an unending celebration for the Rio fans, who had cheered and danced and sung their way through victories by Brazilians in six straight undercard bouts. And Luis Cane was having his way with Nedkov, an undefeated Bulgarian fireplug making his UFC debut. But then Nedkov landed one of the looping rights he'd been throwing throughout the bout, followed with a left to the temple and then chased down a staggered Cane, dropped him and quieted the party atmosphere with a TKO at 4:20 of the first round.
But the party was back on soon enough, as Nogueira stepped into the cage for the first time in 18 months and electrified the building with a first-round knockout of Brendan Schaub. The 35-year-old Minotauro, whose home and training gym both are a few minutes' drive from HSBC Arena but who had never before fought in Brazil, looked stationary and vulnerable early on, but he stunned Schaub with a left-right combination, then finished the job with hard, accurate punches.
Then, after UFC debutante Edson Barboza remained unbeaten with a tight decision win over Ross Pearson, Rua stepped in for a rematch of his less auspicious UFC debut, a 2007 fight in which Forrest Griffin wore him down and choked him out. This time it was all Shogun. He repeatedly beat Griffin to the punch and caught him with a right as he was coming in. Immediately the fight turned into a Zen koan: If a Forrest falls and nobody can hear because the building has erupted in cheers, does the fight end? It sure did after Shogun added some hammer fists before being pulled off at 1:53 of the first round.
Shogun was all smiles as he was interviewed after the fight, as was Minotauro. With the crowd at a fever pitch, most of what the two fighters said was difficult to hear. They spoke in Portuguese, and some was translated, some not. The only part of either interview that I could make out is that both Rua and Nogueira addressed the fans and said "obrigado," which means "thank you."
On a fight night that turned into a carnival, the feeling was mutual.
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