If you search for it, and if you're into this sort of thing, you can still find video evidence of the old Wanderlei Silva. I'm talking about pre-facelift Wanderlei, back before he was a fixture in Japan's Pride Fighting Championships, and long before the UFC gathered him up in its massive arms for fun, but mostly meaningless bouts like the one he'll engage in against Rich Franklin at UFC 147 this Saturday night.
This is before all that. This is vintage Wanderlei, and he's still out there in grainy YouTube clips -- pummeling some poor bastard in a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred fight somewhere in Brazil; soccer-kicking a downed opponent in the back of the head; mixing up his attack with elbows and headbutts, before once again flinging uncovered fists at other people's skulls. If you want to give an orthopedist a heart attack, go ahead and show him some of these clips.
We're lucky to have this documentation, as weird as that is to admit. Even if there's something a little bit gross about watching Silva brutalize early opponents with assaults that (if he tried them in the UFC,he'd not only get disqualified, but probably arrested), they're still a part of MMA history. It's like having footage of Jack Dempsey's early tavern brawls, back when he'd walk into some mining town watering hole and declare 'I can't sing and I can't dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.' If only Dempsey had come along 80 years later, we'd have these fights on YouTube. Silva's early bouts are no doubt just as savage, even if they only serve to remind us now of a fighter and an era that are both long gone.
If Saturday's catchweight affair has any point at all, maybe it's to determine just how different the modern Silva is from the primitive one. He had to change, of course. You can't go on treating every bout like you're fighting off a home-invasion robbery attempt. As his body aged and the opponents got better, Silva had no choice but to evolve a slightly more tactical style. He can still be baited out of it, as Quinton "Rampage" Jackson found, if only because he'd rather get knocked out than get booed for inactivity. But today's Silva can't just put his head down and throw. His chin isn't up to it anymore. He still has a brawler's heart, only now it's in an old man's body.
And please, let's not kid ourselves that Silva isn't old, at least in fighting years. He'll be 36 in July, and he's closing in on 16 years as a professional mixed martial artist. That he's still as good and as apparently healthy as he appears to be is almost a miracle. That the MMA world is wondering how much longer he'll insist on doing this is only natural.
When I put that very question to Silva recently, he gave the same answer he's been giving for years. According to him, "the performance is going to tell. That will show whether I can still fight or not."
He said the same thing before his last fight, with Cung Le, when he was coming off a particularly worrisome knockout loss to Chris Leben. UFC president Dana White had been implying that he might have to coax Silva into retirement if he kept taking beatings like that one. Then he rose from the grave yet again and knocked out Le in the second round. Silva was back, even if it was still unclear what there was for him to come back to.
A run at a UFC title? That's all but out of the question at this point. His name can still sell tickets, especially in Brazil, and his style still guarantees that something memorable will happen. Now Silva is fighting just to stick around, to prove that he doesn't need to be strapped down into a rocking chair and forced into retirement just yet. Is that reason enough to keep watching him? Is it a viable selling point for a catchweight rematch with Franklin -- a bout that has no obvious ramifications for any actual division in the UFC? Maybe. It's still human drama, after all, and that's what sports is all about.
I just wonder if, once we see what it looks like when the once vicious "Axe-Murderer" starts to seem like a victim of his own ragged aggression, we won't wish that we hadn't. He may be determined to roll until the wheels fall off, letting his performances tell him when he should quit. But when that happens, assuming it hasn't happened already, it won't be pleasant.