Before his open weight elimination bout with Mirko Crocop, Wanderlei Silva ruled the 205-pound division of The Pride Fighting Championship like no other. Victories on his resume included Arona, Fujita (open weight), Eugene Jackson, Nakamura, Minowa, Guy Metger, Dan Henderson, and Quinton (Rampage) Jackson. Wanderlei knocked out Rampage twice in the first and second round when Rampage was in his prime. Both bouts were brutal. Even when Rampage was thirty-four years old and fading, Jon Jones had to settle for a fourth round submission to stop Rampage. Jon’s spinning elbows, punches, and front kicks couldn’t do to Rampage what Wanderlei could do with fists and knees in less time.
Wanderlei dominated the stand-up and ground game in his bout with a Dan Henderson in his prime. A huge right-hand from Henderson in the second round merely drew a blink from the hard-charging Axe Murderer, despite the haymaker leaving a hematoma above his right eye the size of a gourd. He seemed unstoppable. The “Axe Murderer” set Pride records for the most wins, knockouts, and title defenses.
Then came the open weight elimination bout with Crocop in 2006. Although the fight was competitive, at midway through the second round, with one eye closed, Wanderlei was knocked out by a signature Crocop head kick on his blind side. He had absorbed the most brutal beating I’ve ever witnessed in one-on-one combat sports. Worse than what the losers or victors absorbed in the Robinson-LaMotta, Basilio-DeMarco, Griffith-Paret wars in boxing, or the Couture-Rizzo, Fedor-Crocop, Henderson-Hua wars in MMA. As a result, Wanderlei never seemed to be the same again.
His next bout was in defense of his middleweight (205-pound limit) belt, a rematch against Dan Henderson. Ten seconds into the bout, I realized I was watching a slower, less aggressive, tentative Wanderlei, a Wanderlei I had never seen before. The confident grin, so debilitating to previous opponents, was merely a surface reflex. The fire, the edge, the indomitable spirit that made him so intimidating was gone. Dan knocked him out in the third round.
Fans who have only watched UFC bouts will never know how great Wanderlei Silva was. For that matter, Crocop was never the same after his debilitating bout with Fedor. One fight can do that. One taxing fight, and the accumulation of hits and slams prior to that bout, can suddenly take its toll and permanently slow a fighter down for the rest of his career. Then an up-and-comer looks invincible when he beats a big name whose best days were already behind him. Not everyone can make comebacks from age 35 to 45 like Randy Couture. Warren Spawn, Early Wynn, and Satchel Paige hurled Hall Of Fame baseball well into their 40s. Archie Moore, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jersey Joe Wolcott boxed better in their late 30s than they did in their 20s. Randy, like them, was an anomaly. And we’ll never know how great Randy would have been in his 20s when, unfortunately, the mixed martial art sport didn’t exist.
Wanderlei has had his moments of glory and defeat in the UFC. We saw glimpses of his former self in his victories over Brian Stann, Cung Le, Keith Jardine, and Brian Bisping, and painful reminders of the post-Crocop Wanderlei in his losses to Rampage and Chuck Liddell. Hopefully we’ll see flashes of brilliance — the Matador and the Bull — of the old Pride Wanderlei in the near future. Maybe he’ll divine and tap into the same mystical well that aged athletes like Randy Couture and Mark Coleman found, and another Silva, the Anderson variety, keeps finding. I hope so, but if not, it’s okay. It’s fine. Maybe us beer-swizzling, tattooed onlookers are too greedy, searching for our next pound of flesh. We hate to think of our MMA heroes as being human, as mere mortals who age, but they do, and we dedicated fans age with them in sympathy with their pain and greatness.