The Magician's Last, Greatest Trick

By Ben Duffy Feb 9, 2019

So… did anything interesting happen at the UFC 234 weigh-ins yesterday?

Mixed martial arts fans, on the whole, have an interest bordering on obsession with what’s going on in fighters’ heads, and how that inner world might affect their real-world performances. It’s built into the language we use in talking about fighters and their interactions. We note when someone “looked shook at the press conference,” we argue over whether Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov seemed more “gotten to” and we look backwards in time to the moment that one fighter “broke” another or, rather more poetically, “took his soul.”

We take this to an extreme not seen in many other sports. While the Ultimate Fighting Championship lacks the official, organized injury reporting of a stick-and-ball sports league, we have a social media space and online forum culture that helpfully lets us know when a fighter broke up with her boyfriend during camp, or is worried about his sick dog, to name just two actual examples from recent memory. I’d argue that we speculate and talk about fighters’ mental and emotional health as often and as deeply as the physical; “Fighter X is out for six to eight weeks due to wrist surgery” simply doesn’t leave much to discuss.

So what do we make of Anderson Silva weeping at the weigh-ins? Was it a genuine display of emotion from an all-time great facing the end of the road, or was it one more psychological ploy, another performance piece from MMA’s greatest trickster? Was it a combination of the two, or something else entirely? Silva has always been a master of redirection and illusion outside of the cage as well as in, managing to come across as simultaneously emotional and guarded. He may dance like Michael Jackson, but his public persona moves more like Prince: willing to show the public joy, love, anger and pain, but always a carefully curated version, shared only on his terms.

I’d argue that it is that enigmatic, guarded nature that makes Silva fascinating to his fans and detractors alike, and has fueled his low-key psy-ops over the years. Remember the time he wore a Jabberwockeez mask to face off with Vitor Belfort at the UFC 126 weigh-ins? Is he afraid? some wondered. Is he saying he thinks Vitor is fake and wears a mask? others speculated. He would claim later that it was none of the above and that one of his kids had simply given him the mask and asked him to wear it. That may or may not be true, but it doesn’t change the shockwaves that 30-second gesture sent through the MMA community -- let alone through his opponent, one of the sport’s most notorious head cases.

I don’t know whether Silva’s line of verbal attack on Demian Maia in the lead-up to UFC 112 was the main reason, or even a contributing reason, for the outcome of their fight. I do know that Silva yelling “Where’s your jiu-jitsu now, playboy?” at Maia, in Portuguese, seemed out of character for him and made no sense to the vast majority of people watching and listening. I also know that Silva, whose only real career losses at the time were a pair of submissions, spent 25 minutes in the cage with the best grappler in MMA history and completely neutered him in one of the most humiliating five-round title fights ever. Had he crafted the perfect psychic weapon to give him an edge in a dangerous matchup, or would he have destroyed Maia anyway, and was simply choosing to unburden himself of personal animus for the rich kid, fueled by the Brazilian class system?

Silva has a long and well-established history of crafting and managing his moments, with an eye on risk and reward as keen, in its own way, as that of his contemporary and fellow “GOAT" candidate, the famously buttoned-down Georges St. Pierre. During Silva’s middleweight title reign, he stepped up and fought at light heavyweight three times: against James Irvin, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. In each case, Silva was perceived to be doing the UFC a favor, and in each case he dismantled his larger opponent effortlessly. One suspects that Silva knew the extent of his advantage over those three, and happily reaped the benefits.

Similar things can be said for his short-notice bout against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200. There, Silva managed to engineer a no-lose scenario: He took a fight against a younger, larger opponent, on short notice, who would likely fight conservatively so as not to lose in some kind of freakish upset. In so doing, Silva not only collected a tidy paycheck while on vacation in Vegas, he took next to no damage, actually managed to draw cheers for stalling endlessly from lockdown position, and came off as the good guy in a fight against one of the sport’s goodest guys. Who does that?

In the lead-up to their first fight in August of 2010, Chael Sonnen said a lot of things about Silva. A whole lot. You can probably rattle off a half-dozen of his best one-liners from that summer right now, as it was the moment that elevated them both to superstars. One thing Sonnen said that has stuck with me was that Silva spoke very good English, but pretended it was worse than it really was because he didn’t want to do his share of the heavy lifting in promoting his fights. It stuck with me not because it was especially funny but because it rang true and seemed to legitimately needle Silva.

Well, I’d say it rings half-true, actually. It’s not much of a secret that Silva is sandbagging his English skills a bit, but I don’t know that it’s because he doesn’t want to promote his fights. I’m reminded of the Emperor Peter IV of Russia, of whom a court visitor said that, even though he spoke pretty good English, German and French, he always used a translator, “for greatness’ sake.” Perhaps, like Peter the Great, Anderson Silva isn’t interested in showing you the things he’s only pretty good at.

All of this is simply to say that I don’t know for certain whether Silva’s tears at the UFC 234 weigh-in were a display of true, unbridled emotion or just a tactic to keep Israel Adesanya off balance. Adesanya, for his part, seemed genuinely moved. Certainly, Silva has no fear; anyone who suffers the kind of injury Silva did at UFC 168 and keeps on taking fights against the toughest guys his promotion will give him is not scared of getting hurt, and tonight's fight is definitely low-risk, high-reward for his legacy.

I believe it was real, a rare unguarded moment from MMA’s most guarded superstar, but that may just be because I’m a sucker and an easy mark. Either way, it gave us something else to think and talk about today, a different way to frame this fight than as simply the latest example of this sport feeding its old lions to its young lions. Even leaving aside the miserable farce of Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz 3, from Fedor Emelianenko to B.J. Penn to Silva, MMA's grim reaper has been on a bit of a legends tour in recent months, humbling some all-time greats who are on the wrong side of 40 in ways that are as depressing as they were foreseeable.

I expect “The Spider” will be the next stop on that tour. He is a heavy underdog for good reason, and as I watch this evening’s now-main event, my only solace is that unlike Liddell and Emelianenko, Silva does not have an alarming history of knockout losses. If this does turn out to be Silva's last fight, may he acquit himself well, and how fitting that the enigma, the showman, the magician, the jester, saved one last trick for the eve of his final show: a few tears, perhaps in acknowledgement that it's been a hell of a ride from his side of the curtain as well.


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