Much of the mystique of UFC Middleweight Champion and pound-for-pound best fighter in the world “The Spider” Anderson Silva (27-4) comes from the fact that many fighters have tried to figure him out but few have been able to survive long enough to do so. Tonight at UFC 126, “The Phenom” Vitor Belfort (19-8) hopes to finish what Chael Sonnen (24-11-1) started at UFC 117 by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the champion and making him pay for his egotistical toying with his opponents. Vitor has been billed as the man with the striking to match Anderson Silva and with the humbling beatdown Silva took from Sonnen still fresh on the minds of many fans, it is certainly easy to believe that Belfort could be the man to beat the champ at his own game. The real questions, however, regard Silva and Belfort’s respective mental states coming into this middleweight championship bout. How did Sonnen affect Silva’s colossal ego? Has his God complex grown even more with the last-second submission win, or has the champ returned to reality? What about Vitor? Will he crack under the pressure of the title fight like he did so many times before? Will he arrive focused and ready to fight or will he show up looking as if he wishes he were somewhere else? As the main event to cap off a spectacular evening of fights, this will be one of the more intriguing battles taking place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center tomorrow night.
In the critically acclaimed 2008 film The Dark Knight, the character Harvey Dent said: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Dent said this in foreshadowing to later having his life destroyed and becoming the murderer “Two-Face”. This particular segment of the film’s dialogue coincidentally draws a strong comparison to the public image of Anderson Silva. “The Spider” has been champion long enough to see himself become the villain. While there are still many fans that stick by him, there are probably just as many who are sick of seeing him hold the belt and worse, sick of seeing him effortlessly destroy everyone in his division.
The problem comes down to the match-ups. Chael Sonnen aside, no one that Silva has faced in his over four years as the UFC’s middleweight champ has been even near his elite level. The Team Black House fighter has faced opponents who in some cases didn’t even have arguments to be fighting Anderson Silva in the first place, let alone fighting him for the belt. In fact, many of Silva’s challengers faced him simply because there were no legitimate candidates left in the 185lbs. division who hadn’t recently suffered some kind of setback. This is evidenced by his bouts against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu second degree black belt Demian Maia (13-2) and former top contender Thales Leites (16-4). Leites came into the bout following a five fight win streak that featured only one credible opponent, “The Great” Nate Marquardt (30-10-2). The jump in talent from his previous opponents to Silva was evident immediately when Silva thrashed him so soundly that Thales spent the rest of the fight attempting to pull guard in vain while Silva physically and verbally mocked him. Then, Maia simply found himself in the right place at the right time. Marquardt and Sonnen were set to fight a title elimination bout, “Hendo” Dan Henderson (26-8) had just left the UFC over contract issues, and number one contender Vitor Belfort sustained an injury during training, so Maia came into the title picture despite a recent loss to Marquardt. Silva was very vocal about Maia not being a worthy opponent and proved it by slapping Maia and mockingly fleeing from him for the majority of their fight after beating the challenger to a pulp in the first two rounds. This flagrant disrespect for two consecutive middleweight challengers was the beginning of the end for Silva as a fan favorite.
In defense of Silva it should be noted that before he jumped up to light heavyweight to face “The Sandman” James Irvin (15-8) in July 2008, the middleweight division was very different and had a much deeper talent pool. His last three opponents preceding Irvin were Dan Henderson, “Ace” Rich Franklin (27-5) when he was still in his prime, and Nate Marquardt. Imagine the feeling of the champ who leaves the division to go up a weight class for one fight – which he completely dominated and pulled off a nearly effortless first round knockout – and comes back to face the likes of Thales Leites, “The Predator” Patrick Cote (13-7), and Demian Maia (this being after Marquardt knocked Maia out in just 21 seconds)? That was a huge step down in competition for Anderson Silva, who felt insulted by the quality of fighter that UFC President Dana White had challenging for his title.
“The Spider” Anderson Silva has TKO’d or KO’d every pure striker that the UFC has matched him up with: “The Crippler” Chris Leben (21-8), Rich Franklin, James Irvin, and most recently Forrest Griffin (17-6) – another match Silva fought at light heavyweight, where much like his bout against “The Sandman”, Griffin was knocked out in the first round. Vitor Belfort is being touted as having fast hands and in his last fight looked confident enough with his hands to easily discard Rich Franklin, but it would play to all of Silva’s strengths if Belfort tried to make this fight a stand-up battle. It doesn’t bode well that Belfort’s last fight was in 2009 against a sub-par Franklin. Having over a year off with no suitable step up in competition is not in Belfort’s best interest either. If Belfort decides he has a better shot on the mat and attempts to take down “The Spider”, the healthy champion will more than likely resort to his stout takedown defense and mount a counter attack of his own that will leave Belfort rocked if not completely unconscious. This type of match-up is what Anderson Silva needs: someone that will challenge him and has the skills to make him fight. Chael Sonnen did it, exposing the weaknesses of the champ, Forrest Griffin did it, at the expense of his chin (some say even his dignity), and Vitor Belfort should have the skills to make Anderson Silva fight as well. So the good news is that, unlike Silva’s fights against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites, this should turn out to be a match-up that won’t disappoint the fans. The bad news is that the villain will probably win, because making Silva fight has never gone well for any of his opponents.