Approximately 15,000 people were in attendance at the Barclays Center when Anderson Silva picked up his first win in over four years at UFC 208. Millions more watched around the globe in what should have been nothing more than a feel-good moment for one of mixed martial arts’ greatest fighters ever.
It wasn’t, but that’s already been discussed. That’s not the focus of this column. Instead, we gaze our eyes onto the “why” of this conversation. More specifically, why Silva’s victory was meant to be a feel-good moment.
Silva, like many of those who’ve come before him, has continued his storied career into the oft-concerning twilight portion. He’s no longer a fighter capable of accomplishing the mesmerizing success he did less than a decade ago. In 2017, he’s a 41-year-old fighter with nothing left to prove; an aged mixed martial artist with the drive of a man much younger, but the ability of a person who’s spent nearly 20 years of his life inside a cage.
As alluded to, Silva had lost for of his last five prior to defeating Derek Brunson at UFC 208. A far cry from the record 16 straight UFC victories he authored to catapult himself to the forefront of the “greatest of all time” conversations that often included Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Fedor Emelianenko (more on him in a bit).
After watching him not only lose but struggle as much as he did from summer 2013 to summer 2016, supporters and critics alike were collectively hoping “The Spider” could finally turn things around. Not so that he could kick off one last run for the title, but so that he could walk away from the cage with his hands raised after consistently failing to do so over the years.
Such is the life, unfortunately, for most active legends of mixed martial arts. Success doesn’t come as often as it used to. Disappointment does.
B.J. Penn was the most recent example to come before Silva, as the lightweight legend dropped a devastating second-round TKO to Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 103. Returning to the cage for the first time in over two years (and just the second time in over four), Penn had nothing to offer a young, talented fighter.
Emelianenko will be the next case, as “The Last Emperor” makes his Bellator debut to face Matt Mitrione just one week removed from Silva’s controversial win.
Unlike Silva or Penn, Emelianenko will not be entering the cage with a losing streak of any kind. The Russian heavyweight has won five straight, a run that previously included three straight first-round stoppage victories.
It’s the substance of those victories that concerns us, though.
Emelianenko ended the first chapter of his career on a three-fight winning streak before retiring. Those victories came against a 41-year-old Jeff Monson, an overmatched Satoshi Ishii and a way-past-his-prime Pedro Rizzo. It’s worth noting that run followed the first three-fight losing streak of Emelianenko’s career — consecutive stoppage losses to quality fighters in Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson.
Then came the revitalization. Emelianenko, 2.5 years retired from the sport in December 2015, made his return to the cage (it was actually a ring but, you know… MMA). This run, his return to the sport, was perhaps cause for more concern. His first win over Jaideep Singh — a 2-0 fighter who had zero business inside a ring with the greatest heavyweight of all time — was expected. His second win over Fabio Maldonado was also expected, until it wasn’t.
Emelianenko was on his last legs in the opening round of his fight against a man who was let go from the UFC after going 5-6 inside the Octagon. He was nearly knocked out by a man who previously competed as a light heavyweight. The fight, one that saw Emelianenko bounce back in the final two rounds, should have been scored a draw. But as is unfortunately often the case when a Russian legend fights on home soil, he was awarded the majority decision.
Five straight victories or not, we have enough evidence to believe a fight against Mitrione won’t be the cakewalk it would have been half a decade ago. “Meathead” is not an elite heavyweight, but the tides have turned enough so that it doesn’t matter. One does not need to be elite to defeat Emelianenko in 2017.
That’s typically how life goes when a fighter reaches legendary status in mixed martial arts. They fight long enough to become a legend, but don’t take the time to realize that their success-filled journey is but a thing of the past.
The majority of their success is behind them. What awaits is the clutch of Father Time, and the disappointment of not being able to do what they once could. Fighting to become a legend is one thing, fighting as a legend is certainly another.