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On Beauty, Grace and a Foot to the Brain: The Rise and Rise and Rise of Anderson Silva

For me, UFC 126 ended as I imagine some drug habits begin.

The final card featured two Brazilian fighters in their thirties. Both had black belts in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu. Both lined up in the southpaw stance, with their right feet and fists forward. Both had wives and kids. Both loved Jesus.

In the octagon, they moved like yin and yang. The challenger, an olive-skinned former heavyweight with a tree trunk for an abdomen, wore white compression shorts and taped feet. Despite a past checkered by steroid controversy, his explosive attack style still commanded respect in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Opposite him, the tall, bald, tattooless champion wore his trademark bumblebee black and yellow shorts and the shadow of a goatee. As the ref called for the fight to start, the two mixed martial artists shook out their muscles, paced inward and for over a minute just circled the Bud Light logo at the center of the cage.

Only after Belfort tested the water with a low left kick did the champion respond with a more purposeful one of his own, as a mountain man would kick a coyote away from the fire. Anteed up, the champ broke from his southpaw stance to shift his hips from side to side, first like he was dancing, then like he was preparing to jog clockwise around Belfort. He pumped his hands forward like a hip-hop artist. Belfort’s next low kick went unreturned. The champ charged at him but backed off before striking. His handwork got trickier.

All the while, Belfort stayed in his southpaw stance. Only after two minutes did he finally emerge with a right and left hook, glancing off the champion’s cheek. Then they returned to circling each other like lions, until finally the champion broke the stalemate with a high kick. Belfort ducked under it and took him down to the mat. The champ squirmed back to his feet and put a knee into Belfort’s face. Again they were lions. A high kick from Belfort, a low one from the champ. Punches traded, the champ’s entire torso springing back and forth in evasion.

Ten seconds before the fight ended, they were back to circling like lions. But the champion wasn’t dancing anymore. He wasn’t looking at Belfort’s eyes or hands either. He was dropping his chin. His eyes were zeroing in on those taped up feet. He was bringing his own left foot straight up. Belfort’s head was whipping backwards.

A CPR instructor once told me that a person passing out doesn’t keel backward like a board so much as crumple downward. Belfort neither crumpled nor keeled. The swing of his head back to center led the downward trajectory of his body into the mat. He collapsed into a four-point crouch, his body suspended for a nanosecond by the residual firing of synapses in his brain, before flopping onto his back. The champion followed him down, delivering two more blows to Belfort’s head before the ref declared the knock out.

Every sport has moments that can supercharge even the most jaded fan. Years of support for the underperforming teams of our nation’s capital have numbed me to many pro sports. Twice, however, I’ve been sublimated by the feats of athletes for whom I’d never normally care. Walking into my college friend’s dorm in 2004, I caught a scuffle between the Pacers and Pistons escalate into the largest brawl in NBA history. By the time the fans got involved, I was enjoying the hell out of it.

The other time, I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in China. While backpacking over the winter holiday of 2011, I ended up in a hostel whose Canadian manager had downloaded UFC 126 to show on the big screen in their bar. There, I saw Anderson Silva become the first fighter in the world’s premiere fighting organization to drop his opponent with a front kick, a move so simple it could appear on a karate video for kids, yet so devastating as to send a brick of a man like Vitor Belfort spasming to the ground. Ever since, I’ve contributed to conversations on UFC simply and assuredly: “Spider Silva? Dude’s fucking nuts.”

Except that Silva the so-called Arachnid is not noticeably nuts, at least not in the way you would expect of a man who on a moment’s notice could kill you with a limb of his choosing. He may be eccentric, but at 38, Silva shows none of the psychosis I’d expect of a man with such organically derived power. Instead, the pound-for-pound most dangerous man in the world has crafted more identities for himself than a set of Russian dolls. Most notably, there is Silva the ongoing legend of the octagon. That man stormed up the UFC ladder eight years ago and has held the middleweight belt ever since. He has come closer to being Hercules than any other existing member of our species–with Burger King and Nike sponsorships to boot.

But also Silva the entertainer, who idolizes Peter Parker and Michael Jackson. That Silva posed in Rolling Stone wearing the King of Pop’s most iconic outfits and had a yellow Camaro made to look like Bumblebee from Transformers. He shines his pearly whites for the paparazzi and hugs fans. He gives interviews about his Brazilian wax regimen. That Silva has more recently taken to wearing thick, black-framed glasses and cardigan sweaters. Chatting away in high, twangy Brazilian-Portuguese and broken-English, he suggests the off-duty superhero he might be.

Silva the pious family man who threw a black-tie gala for his daughter’s 17th birthday. Most important of all, Silva the workhorse, who can be seen in videos grimacing, sweating, suffering as he spars in boxing pads and Brazilian jiu jitsu robes. His fights brought him fame, but a life of tortuous training got him those fights in the first place.

Still, Anderson Silva looms largest in the octagon. His naturally wiry frame hasn’t stopped him from beating any of the world-class fighters who came for his title. Now 16-0 in the UFC, he has held the belt longer than any other fighter.

The UFC has dropped hints that it will promote a superfight between Silva and either Jon “Bones” Jones or George St. Pierre, respective champions of the weight classes above and below Silva’s, and both legends in their own right. But in July, Silva will first have to defend his title against Chris Weidman, a nose-to-the-grindstone former wrestler from Long Island.

After speaking to Weidman twice (and getting his autograph once), I sincerely want the guy to succeed. When injury frustrated his Olympic dream, he turned to mixed martial arts for the money to move out of his parents’ basement and raise a family in his own home. Neither a shoulder injury last summer nor a first floor destroyed by Hurricane Sandy have gotten between him and his chance to fight Silva this summer.

But having watched Silva v. Belfort almost 50 times now, I’m not sure I want Weidman—or St. Pierre, or Bones Jones–to break the streak. I’m hooked.

Billy Elliot, the fictional son of a coal miner, ditched boxing at an early age to follow his true calling of ballet. Anderson Silva took the opposite course. He wanted to be a dancer before a fighter and a footballer before a dancer. But in a country that knows MMA much more simply as “Vale Tudo”–“Anything Goes”–he ended up a fighter.

The 20th century saw Brazil import and invent a rich array of martial arts. When Muay Thai, taekwondo and karate arrived, they would have found overlap with the homegrown capoeira, a flashy combination of dancing, spinning and striking. But Brazilian jiu jitsu has achieved far more brand recognition, thanks in large part to the entrepreneurial genius of the Gracie family. After watching a judo demonstration in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, Carlos Gracie mastered the Japanese style and with his brother Helio designed a Brazilian version. By the 1960s, people were practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu in Vale Tudo arenas across the country.

But a young Silva couldn’t afford BJJ. Born April 14, 1975, to a poor Sao Paulo couple, Silva moved to the southern city of Curitiba to grow up with his uncle, a police officer. The uncle couldn’t pay for BJJ classes, so the athletic Silva instead picked it up from neighborhood friends. He did manage to take classes in taekwondo, capoeira and Muay Thai, though, and by 1997 won two welterweight fights at the Brazilian Freestyle Circuit. Later he would earn a spot at Curitiba’s premiere kickboxing academy, Chute Boxe.

Pictures and videos from that time show a lanky man with a low, aggressive capoeira stance. Bouncing around like an orangutan, he would spring up to release a barrage of punches before returning to ground. In 2001, he ended the 18-fight winning streak of Hayato Sakurai, who some considered the best fighter of that time. A year later, Silva began winning fights in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships. Though the Canadian powerhouse Carlos Newton had come out strong against Silva in Pride 25, repeatedly taking him down to mat, the Brazilian soon ended Newton with a flying knee to his head.

But unlike in the ring, Silva’s standing in Chute Boxe was drifting south. In a biography released last year, Silva confessed to talking with two friends about shooting his trainer after taking a slap in the face during practice. Although his friends talked him down and even now Silva trains with Rafael Cordeiro, two other beefs from that time still linger. Silva’s then-manager, Rudimar Fedrigo, has sued Silva for accusing him of not paying fighters fairly. Just this spring, Silva and Cuban-Brazilian fighter José “Pelé” Landi-Jons scuffled on the streets of Curitiba over the book’s allegation that Landi-Jons once sprayed water over Silva and his daughter while driving past them in the rain. Once Chute Boxe’s top middleweight contender, Landi-Jons has also taken to YouTube to launch a public relations crusade against Silva, claiming he beat Silva twice and challenging the present champion to a rematch.

The personal turmoil didn’t end with Chute. Struggling to feed a wife and kids, Silva also moonlighted behind the counter at McDonalds. Soon, his performance inside the octagon followed suit. Though the Newton fight had pushed Silva’s winning streak to nine, he wouldn’t make it to 10. At Pride 26 in 2003, Daiju Takase, a decided underdog with a 4-7 record, forced Silva to tap out with a triangle choke in the final round. “Anderson, you performed like shit,” one trainer said in Portuguese as they walked backstage.

“I trained a hundred ways how to get out of the triangle, and I didn’t get out of that shit,” Silva yelled, furious. “Shit. Son of a bitch.”

In the fallout of the Takase loss, Silva left Chute and considered quitting fighting entirely. The way the media describes what happened next, Silva was making plans to teach MMA in the U.S. when Brazilian heavyweight “Minotauro” Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira invited him to improve his BJJ at Brazilian Top Team in Rio de Janeiro. Something clicked, but not before his disastrous last shot in Pride.

On New Years Eve of 2004, Silva met Ryo “The Piranha” Chonan, a short man with lazy eyes and a bleached blond buzz cut. By the final round, Chonan had run up the score; Silva was shuffling backward, in need of a hail mary. But Chonan wouldn’t have it. Out of nowhere, he executed what would pass for break dancing on the street. He rotated his body 45 degrees before falling on his back, supporting himself on one arm as he scissored his legs around Silva’s waist and wrenched him to the ground. With Silva on his back, Chonan yanked his ankle outward. With that, the Brazilian tapped out. The gravity-defying sequence took less than a second.

Back in the locker room, the Japanese man iced a face that would soon balloon. “That was amazing!” he said. “That’s the first time I ever fought a guy like that. His right hook is amazing. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. When he starts his punch, because of his long reach I couldn’t see it and then his punch would suddenly appear and bang!”

Meanwhile, his opponent was crying–not bawling, but occasional high-pitch sobs. As the camera followed him out of the arena, he complained about his leg. His trainers were convincing him everything would be okay, and they were right. Silva would rise from the scorched earth of those two Pride defeats. He has lost only one fight since that New Years Eve, when the ref disqualified his 2006 knockout of Yushin Okami. If anything, that loss deserves a place in the Silva pantheon of perfect knockouts for the simple fact that he pulled it off from the flat of his back. Later that year, he’d sign his first contract with the UFC.

After speculation that Pride Fighting Championship’s parent company was serving as a Yakuza front, the organization would lose its television contract and in 2007 sell out to the owners of UFC. Fighting for the new American owners, Ryo Chonan would go only 1-3 before returning to Japan. A reporter recently asked him who could beat Anderson Silva.

“Well, I beat him,” Chonan replied. “Other than that, maybe Jesus.”

From its inception, the UFC has struggled to overcome an ethos of brutality. In the late 1990s, John McCain labeled the UFC “human cockfighting” in his campaign for its ban. To woo back the 36 states that enacted laws against no-holds-barred fighting, the company began rebranding itself as something like a legitimate league. It worked with state athletic commissions, required gloves and banned techniques like fish-hooking (reaching into a person’s mouth) and headbutting.

In 2001, the Fertitta brothers of Las Vegas bought the UFC for $2 million and with showman partner Dana White continued the rebranding, striking gold in 2005 when the reality television show The Ultimate Fighter first aired on Spike. Once relegated to the Pay-Per-View ghetto, the UFC brand now streamed into homes for consumption by the jackpot 18-35 year-old male audience. Since then, it has subsumed the MMA market. Following the Fertittas’ 2007 buyout of Pride Fighting Championship, World Extreme Cagefighting merged with UFC in 2010. A year later the Fertittas bought out their largest competitor, Strikeforce.

Along the way, they’ve done wonderful work of scrubbing the sport of its violent image. Now fighters are tested for performance enhancing drugs and–since blood always ends up in the cage–STDs. MMA remains banned in only two states, though not for lack of effort by the UFC, which has spent $1.5 million lobbying New York state lawmakers to lift the ban since 2007. While it’s questionable that any fighter in the UFC can yet be considered a true household name, few have mirrored the organization’s rise like Anderson Silva, who left Pride before the buyout and burst into UFC with a 49-second knockout of Chris Leben, a fighter who had himself worked his way up the organization’s fledgling reality show.

MMA, the sport on which the UFC brand rests, breaks down into two categories: standing and ground. Silva has always excelled at the standing game–all the striking that derives from Muay Thai, karate and other kick-punch-knee-elbow schemes of fighting. The easy explanation for his success in the UFC is that he finally buckled down and improved his ground game too, training with the Nogueiras to get the black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu that eluded him as a kid. The answer checks out, too. He has tapped out three opponents and never repeated the fatal mistakes he made against Takase and Chonan.

But it’s in the hyper-violent side of the sport where Silva excels. By twisting someone’s arm and getting them to tap out, the damage often ends then and there. But Silva is a clean, wiz-bang-pow striker. Whenever possible, he clocks out the toughest men on earth. Wearing fingerless, inch-thick gloves, he punches, kicks, knees or elbows their heads hard and often enough as to momentarily purée the contents. The Belfort fight was just Exhibit A, if a particularly noteworthy one for the unorthodox use of a move he claims to have learned from Steven Seagal.

If limbs are Silva’s hard power, then after the Belfort fight we also saw Silva the soft power diplomat. As trainers and doctors swarmed over a Belfort who had just taken Silva’s foot in his jaw, Silva hopped onto the cage, straddled it like a bull and pumped his fist into the air. The celebration over, he hugged Belfort, helped him to his feet and finally bowed to the man whose brain he had just scrambled. It was a class act of the strangest order.

For Silva, the picture-perfect Belfort finish could not have come at a better time. He had nearly lost his last fight to Chael Sonnen, a trash-slinging former wrestler who kept Silva pinned underneath him long enough to land 289 strikes, surpassing in one fight the 208 Silva had already received in his UFC career. It almost didn’t matter that Silva later revealed he entered the fight with broken ribs, or that Sonnen later tested positive for steroids, or that Silva squeaked out the win by throwing a last ditch triangle arm bar to force Sonnen into submission.

The Silva cynics have latched onto the Sonnen fight whenever they suggest that Silva can’t keep up the streak, that he’s a dancer afraid to go to ground. The point is salient–since Chris Weidman comes from the same NCAA wrestling pedigree as Sonnen and will be looking for an arm bar or choke to once and for all end the Spider’s tyranny.

By front kicking Belfort, Silva was telling the UFC that he was still their man, that he could still unleash the fury they had spent two decades camouflaging as healthy, sportsmanlike competition. By then going over and kowtowing to Belfort, Silva immediately pulled the blinds back down on that truth. For as long as the UFC has Anderson Silva, it needs not escape its original sin. For as long as the UFC has Anderson Silva, pacifists like me will always realize a deep, dark appetite for violence.