Anderson Silva is a genius, the best fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. It’s tempting to compare him to more familiar athletes in more familiar sports, if just to give some fixed point of reference, but that would diminish him. He’s strange and unique and deserves to be thought of that way.
Silva is also a straight-out troll. He has more ways to show he’s bored by or disdainful of an opponent than most of his rivals have techniques. His kickboxing, for instance, is so terrifying that you'll often see fighters flop to their backs, putting themselves in the worst possible position rather than have to trade with him. When this happens, he stands there smirking with his hands on his hips, or leans over and gently punches the soles of their feet, or lightly kicks their ankles like a kid prodding a dead cat, or offers a hand up. Sometimes, he applauds.
His best routine is the one where he stands with his hands at his waist or behind his back, bobbing and weaving, daring his opponent to hit him. He's done this to much bigger fighters, knockout artists, people with notoriously fast hands. He bobs around and feints and shrugs, and his opponents flinch, stutter, stammer, and give all sorts of tells from which he derives their timing. Then, depending on his inclination, he throws a jab, or just laughs.
Most fighters, even the better ones, work at right angles. Silva works at acute and obtuse ones, and has knocked out serious opponents with, among other things, a little jab flicked from the wrist while moving backward, a reverse elbow thrown from the hip, and a knee to the heart. He’s basically a counterpuncher; coming in on him just sets him up to do his best work, but playing a defensive game doesn't work either. In 17 UFC fights, no one's figured him out, and it’s hard to see how anyone will.
This is where you object that on Saturday night, earnest young middleweight Chris Weidman knocked out Silva to become the first man to legitimately beat him in nine years. It's true enough, and comically beside the point. Saturday saw a brilliant bit of fighting, but Weidman, even in looking better against Silva than almost anyone else ever has, didn't really have much to do with it. Only Anderson Silva could deliver his finest performance in a knockout loss.
Throughout his career, the line on Silva has been that the way to get him is to take him down and tie him up. This is ridiculous—Silva is a crafty defensive wrestler and has all sorts of ways to constrict an opponent's breathing and motion when they're on top of him, so that this is the functional equivalent of saying that the way to beat him standing is to hit him—but true enough in that this has always been the least unlikely way for someone to win.
Coming into the fight, Weidman was, whether going by the betting line or the murmuring among fighters, trainers, and fans who actually pay attention to the sport, less of an underdog than anyone had been against Silva in years, precisely because he is a former All-American wrestler with a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu game and size to go with it. In one of its typically goofy pre-fight hype shows, the UFC rolled out top fighters like Rashad Evans, Gray Maynard, and Daniel Cormier, all swearing up and down that this was the man to defeat the invincible champion. (None of them mentioned such complicating factors as his not having fought in a year and his never having taken on an elite opponent.)
In the event, it was pretty quickly clear on Saturday that Weidman is a terrific fighter who isn't really in Silva's class. From the bell, Silva was circling in all directions at once, feinting, setting up angles, and generally engaging in the kind of feeling out that opens up most of his fights, during which he gathers all the information he needs to make his strange calculations. Half a minute in, Weidman threw a deep double-leg takedown, which caught Silva in a sprawl, then torqued him over onto his back and went right into his guard. Silva did what he always does—wrap Weidman in a body triangle and collar his neck—but it wasn't all that effective, and if Weidman's shots weren't doing much damage, they were at least doing some. He advanced his position, the crowd chanted "U—S—A," he threw some shots, he worked a dodgy knee bar, and before long Silva had the fight standing.
Pulling the camera back here, you could note that Silva, at 38, was facing a larger, stronger 29-year-old, generally held to be the most credible threat he'd faced in many years, who had just flashed some seriously refined grappling and showed no sign whatever of being as shook as pretty much everyone else Silva has faced. His reaction, naturally enough, was to start doing a Charlie Chaplin routine.
He dropped his hands to his waist. He sauntered. He mugged. He wiped his nose and leaned over, arms dangling low, and dodged punches. He backed up against the cage, let Weidman try to clinch him, and calmly levered him away. He wandered off, then called Weidman back over to the same position and let him try again. He stood in front of Weidman with his hands on his hips and strutted backward toward the cage. He dodged and dipped as Weidman threw hands; he literally laughed at him and waved him off, and then encouraged him to give another shot. He landed hard jabs, dropped his hands, pointed to his chin as if to say, "That's where you’re supposed to hit," and then landed more. He applauded.
As they went back to their stools at the end of the first, Silva still vigorously applauding Weidman, it was hard not to start ranking the most emasculating things I'd ever seen, and figuring where this would place. Weidman's corner man, Ray Longo, probably had similar thoughts. Looking at his man, he pointed at him sternly.
"I want you to punch a hole in his fuckin' chest," he bellowed in an improbable brogue.
As they went out for the second, Weidman had the glazed look of a man whose internal engine was beginning to sputter. Silva was utterly calm. He clapped and raised his hands to the crowd. He pleaded for Weidman to fight.
After some light back and forth, Weidman caught him with a left. Silva feigned something or other—getting shot? having a heart attack? finding himself caught in an earthquake?—and kicked the lead leg. This was greatly amusing. He mimed riding a horse and threw a completely indefensible side kick to the body. When the great wrestler came in for another takedown attempt, Silva tossed him off and told him to try again. They followed on with some jabs and feints and tentative circling, and nothing much happened.
Now we come to the point of contention. At one point, about a minute into the round, Weidman threw another in a long line of perfunctory hooks that came nowhere near doing anything. Silva bent deep at the knees, his arms dangling limply at his side, and lolled his head around, miming death. This was greatly amusing. Weidman threw a jab, and Silva countered with one of his own and dodged an overhand right, leaning backward in open mockery, and then Weidman started flailing his arms around, and as Silva dipped around and all but clutched his chest like Fred Sanford, he didn't bother to move his head, so that when Weidman caught him with a shitty, lunging hook it knocked him completely out, and he fell down like a newly collapsed building.
Silva had finally trolled too hard.
After the fight, Weidman stalked around with a furrowed brow, and then inexplicably wrapped himself up in a huge American flag, as if by serving as a prop in a silent comedy he had valiantly overcome the terroristic and/or collectivist threat posed by Brazil. From one angle it looked as if he muttered "that disrespectful piece of shit" before bumping someone’s fist at one point, and if he didn't, he should have, because fighters like Weidman should say things like that while wearing flags as capes.
For his part, once he'd recovered his senses, Silva talked about how his long reign as the middleweight champion had allowed him to change his family's lives, and how Weidman was the champion and the best, and so on. UFC figurehead Dana White moaned about how the loss had ruined his plans for a proposed fight between Silva and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and another between Silva and welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Idiots online analyzed pixels to advance theories that the outcome had been prearranged, and that Silva's vaudeville show had been an elaborate cover for a dive.
Of course the truth is that Silva had treated Weidman like a ridiculous joke, a fighter not even worthy of his derision; that he paid for it, as was eventually going to happen if he kept doing this, and that if White wants to make fights between Silva and anyone, as many people are going to pay as much to see them now as they would have if he'd won. Nothing that happened in the fight suggested anything other than that if Silva had considered knocking out Weidman to be more worth his time than utterly humiliating him, he would have done so. The champion is the champion, and deserves his shiny belt. The great man, though, remains great.
This performance was elevated to the level of art by a last bit of context. The UFC, as any number of people who work for it and cover it closely will tell you, is not a sport in any normal sense. Fighters are judged not by what they do but by how they do it, because the point is to make money, and the public, it is believed, doesn't care about wins or losses as much as it cares about style. Winning a dull fight convincingly is worse than losing a good one closely, and you don't even have to be all that good to get the marquee fights if you can make people believe that what you do matters. One fighter on Saturday's card, Frankie Edgar, was coming off a stretch of five straight title bouts in which he won once. It's common, these days, for fighters to get a title shot coming off a decisive loss.
What could be more right and fitting than for the greatest of all time in such a sport to actually transcend the idea that he should even try to win? Having comprehensively unmanned his supposed greatest challenger, all that was left for Silva was the troll apotheosis. The sight of the best ever getting knocked out clean is the final and perfect embodiment of what greatness is in a sport where winning literally doesn't matter. It is unimprovable. I hope he never fights again.
Photo via Getty.