To the surprise of no-one, Nick Diaz vs Anderson Silva was a very odd fight. It wasn’t quite the barn-burner that a few had hoped for, but then again, neither was it the snuff movie that some had feared. We didn’t have to watch an aging middleweight legend get pushed up against the fence and eat endless multi-punch combinations, nor did we have to uncomfortably sit through Nick Diaz getting flatlined by the bigger, stronger, faster fighter while the world brayed with laughter.
The first story of the bout quickly became Diaz. He’s been the underdog before, but never in quite this way. He’d been the bad guy, too: sent to put a fading Frank Shamrock out to pasture, and slotted in as GSP’s foil, but this was different.
Apart from, and perhaps beyond, his ability to fight, Diaz is known for his profound social anxiety. Watch the opening credits of the 183 broadcast, where the main card fighters normally get the buying public amped by announcing how they’re all going to knock their opponent out. Diaz, framed in black and white, stared at the ground while the choral hype-music rumbled around him:
“I feel good to be back. Ready to fight… uh, you know… *deep sigh* you’re going to see… a fight, that’s what you get. You get to see a fight. When… you get two people in the octagon, they say go… you get a fight, so that’s what we’re going to get. We’re going to see some fighting.”
For an anxious man, a fight with Anderson Silva is different from a Shamrock, a GSP or a BJ Penn. The others might beat you, they might control and even knock you out, but if Anderson does anything specifically to his opponents, it is to make them look very, very dumb. Nick is as mentally strong and physically tough in the cage as he is awkward in front of the cameras, but Silva has made a career out of taking fighters who are proud of their ability to take what their opponents can dish out and turning them flailing and desperate before knocking them out. Anderson doesn’t beat people, he posterizes them, and even for Diaz, perhaps especially for him, that has to be scary.
So at the start of the first Nick went straight into overdrive. Some people said that his antics were an attempt to draw Anderson out and that he was trying to get the counter fighter to lead, but I’m not so sure. Anderson uses this tactic, sure: he mocks people to entice them into the role that he wants them to play and to manipulate them into becoming the raw material for his art, but he’s never been one to be drawn himself, and I never get the impression that Diaz’s antics are externally directed in the same way. The gesticulations and the middle fingers are Nick psyching himself up, getting himself into a constant state of forward motion. “This guy ain’t shit, nothing to be scared of, I’ll call him a bitch and slap him, he ain’t shit.”
Against the biggest and baddest he’d ever gone up against, it passed beyond bravado into straight vaudeville. Nick swore. He beckoned. He lay down in an absurd “come-hither” pose. He even twerked.
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While MMA’s most desperately insular fighter was cavorting in front of him, its foremost entertainer was pretty quiet. Never a man to cut or bruise, he hasn’t externally aged much either, and he looked much as he used to in the old yellow and black shorts, the right hand up front and the left chambered by his chest, standing heavy on the front foot. When Diaz came forward and landed a few leg kicks, Silva mostly let him. He seemed far away.
Anderson was one of the greatest MMA champions in history, and he lost his belt when he got knocked out by Chris Weidman after clowning around and mocking the American. This was humiliating. Then he lost in the rematch when he snapped his tibia on a leg kick, leaving him screaming on the mat like a stricken animal. This was degrading.
Humiliating. Degrading. Harsh words to write or say, but much worse to live through. Worse, they took away the the ring and the cage, the places that he made his own. Many people have spoken of what it’s like to be rejected by their art. There are musicians and artists who broke their fingers and lost limbs, the singers whose voices faded and cracked. For MMA’s great artist, his rejections were public and inexpressibly vicious and sudden, as though combat itself had suddenly screamed in his face that it was not for him. Not now, not ever again.
So Silva did what a lot of artists have done. He went back to the beginning. Inside the octagon, against Diaz, we saw him slowly constructing an image of Anderson who wasn’t the parody or the unbeatable champ or the broken shell, but one who was just a fighter.
He started off tentatively. He did very little for the early minutes, but as the rounds drifted by, you could see the slow steady exploration of what he’d been. Here he unearthed the front kick that knocked out Vitor. Still present was the jab that knocked out Forrest, and the flying knee that broke Maia’s face. Back further. Buried deep down, here was the Ong-Bak elbow that knocked out Tony Fryklund, and down towards the bottom were shades of the marching punch-kick combinations, unused for years and years, that he’d learned from Rafael Cordeiro.
To his opponent’s credit, very little of these landed clean on the supposedly slow, hittable and unadaptive Nick Diaz. The smaller fighter’s clowning faded away a little as he became immersed in the fight and his fear faded, and Diaz kept moving forwards, kept landing leg kicks and sporadic combination punches.
If Nick thought he won when it ended, it’s not true but it’s not as crazy as some have made it out to be. Stats are already being passed around about how Anderson landed more, and with more power. Mathematics, right? It ignores that Diaz partially blocked the vast majority of Silva’s strikes, and landed his own punches and kicks far more cleanly. Just another strange aspect of a strange contest. If you’d told me a few years ago that these two would get in the cage, and that Diaz would be the one diffusing the other man’s punches, and that Anderson would be the one getting tagged clean, I would have laughed.
At the end, it hadn’t been a great fight by the standards of great fights. If you watched and you wondered why Silva didn’t step on the gas and steamroll the smaller, slower fighter; if you wondered why Diaz didn’t seem to realize that Silva’s clinch game has evaporated like ice in the morning sun, then there isn’t much to say apart from that fear is an awful thing, and that it’s very hard to overcome. That sometimes we ask these people who have given and shown us so much to be something much more than human, and that it’s not fair.
So the fight didn’t have any of the gutpunch moments you might expect, until Anderson Silva heard the decision. He fell on his back in sheer relief and the tears streamed down his face. It was exactly the way that he had reacted when he won the most important match of his career at UFC 64, and everyone watching suddenly and unexpectedly had some kind of inkling of how momentous this was to him, that this wasn’t just a fun throwaway bout against an overmatched opponent.
We were watching his realization that fighting hadn’t rejected him. It’s Anderson Silva, so of course it was a strange reconciliation. Like a rekindling of an old love, there was a discovery and acceptance that if all the things that were once good don’t have the blood-spark passion that they did when you were younger; if everything is a bit slower and quieter, then those things are still good. To be good -not the best, not any more, but just good- can be a powerful relief when faced with the alternative.
All romances end, though. Combat in particular does not tend to give its lovers a kind send-off, and this was as gentle and reassuring as its farewells get. However, if Silva chooses to have more bouts and takes contests against Michael Bisping or Rampage Jackson, I don’t think he’ll ever have the same worry that we saw leave him at the end of 183. He knows who he is, what he is. He’s still a fighter.
Afterwards, Diaz came over to the man who he’d been taunting and swearing at minutes earlier, probably the biggest and scariest he’d ever fought. Diaz had acted up and his antics will probably be remembered more than anything else, but he had fought on his own terms.
Nick hugged his opponent while the bigger man wept.
“Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” he said.
“You’re the man.”
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