Anderson Silva, more than any other fighter ever, had—or has, who knows—a gift for timing, so that his career played out as a sequence of essentially perfect moments. The best may have been a Chaplinesque performance in a loss this summer that was so unimprovable that he should have said he was done right there, but there were probably a dozen nearly as good.
A lot of fighters could have won a title by catching a clinch and drilling the champion with knees to the face; only Silva would have won the rematch by using the exact same technique in the exact same position on an opponent clearly intent on avoiding it at any cost. Dodging Forrest Griffin's punches by leaning back at a 45-degree angle and then dropping him with a playful little flick of the wrist, or lacing Vitor Belfort with a straight and effortless front kick, or trapping Chael Sonnen in a triangle as he was riding out the last two minutes of a certain victory, Silva seemed less interested in winning than the possibility of doing so memorably.
It's fitting, then, that what may well have been the final moment of his career was the most memorable of all. In the second round of the most anticipated title fight of the year, against Chris Weidman, Silva threw a perfectly ordinary left kick, the kind he's thrown thousands of times before. Then he collapsed to the ground, screaming and using his hands as a brace against his leg; he'd snapped it clean in half, not too far up from the ankle.
The break—it's floating around online, if you have to see it—had nothing on the truly low moments in the history of sports broadcasting, like fatal motorsport wrecks and boxers all but dying in the ring, but as more or less normal injuries go, it was almost uniquely awful. This was partly due to the moment's visual intimacy—Silva wasn't a distant figure at the bottom of a pile-up or on a far edge of a court like Joe Theismann or Kevin Ware, but fully in the center of the frame as his leg was shown fracturing from various angles—and partly because the image was so dissonant.
Silva, more than anything else, is known for his control: his precise Muay Thai, his ability to dictate pace and rhythm, and his gamesmanship. There aren't many ways to look less in control of a situation than to lay on the ground screaming and holding your leg together while your opponent struts and vaunts.
Up to the point where it ended, this was a great bout, a faster and more sophisticated version of one Silva has been having for years. Weidman clearly won the first round, running a clean takedown and seamlessly moving between submission attempts and brutal shots from top control. Surviving an early barrage and then taking control after his opponent has worn himself down trying to finish is pretty much what Silva does against wrestlers, though, and nothing suggested that Weidman had a uniquely impenetrable stand-up defense. When Silva collapsed, it was anyone's fight.
These two have now gone at it twice, resulting in the only two knockouts of Silva's career, and yet you couldn't say anything decisive happened. It's a perverse outcome, given that the entire sport is structured to avoid any kind of ambiguity. Under the rules, fighters are rewarded for, among other things, effective aggressiveness and threatening submission attempts; less formally, finishing your opponents is by far the surest way to make good money and get good fights, and promoters will go out of their way to rematch, and sometimes rematch again, important bouts that end with any kind of uncertainty. (The promotional tagline for this one was "Leave No Doubt.")
The key to Silva's claim to being the best ever is basically the way he responded to this structure. It isn't just that he won, or did so beautifully, but that he did so convincingly, setting records for the most knockouts and the most total finishes, which essentially made him the athlete the sport was designed to produce. For such a figure to go out on such an inconclusive note is an affront to the whole system, a bit like seeing a Super Bowl end in a tie.
It was a strange, sad scene with which to end a strange, sad year in fighting. At its best, the sport offered more than it ever had before: Jon Jones's title defense against Alexander Gustafsson, Demetrious Johnson's three title defenses, Johny Hendricks's fights with Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre, and Gilbert Melendez's fights with Benson Henderson and Diego Sanchez were astonishing displays of refined technique and sheer balls, and even if no one offered her much of a challenge, Ronda Rousey emerged as one of the most compelling personalities in sports.
Rousey possibly excepted, though, none of this seemed to impress the public all that much, and the two fighters who did so reliably—Silva and St-Pierre—are now gone, at least for a while. They left without clear successors, in ways that were much less than they deserved and which pointed up all the things you have to not think about if you want to enjoy a contact sport.
Those things are always right there, though. One of the fighters on the Silva vs. Weidman undercard was a shot middleweight named Chris Leben, who was a star once, and Anderson Silva's first opponent in the UFC. Against Uriah Hall, like him a product of a reality show, he took a terrible beating in the first round, bad enough that the referee could, and perhaps should, have stopped it. Showing an uncharacteristic instinct for self-preservation in what was almost certainly the last fight of a long career, Leben took himself out of it between rounds. It was surprisingly simple. All he had to do was say he was done.
Photo via Associated Press