‘The Next Anderson Silva’

This weekend, the world will witness something it has only seen once before. Two Anderson Silvas, fighting each other. More precisely, the world is…

By: Connor Ruebusch | 3 years ago
‘The Next Anderson Silva’
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

This weekend, the world will witness something it has only seen once before. Two Anderson Silvas, fighting each other.

More precisely, the world is about to witness Anderson Silva 1.0 (the actual Anderson Silva) versus Anderson Silva 4.0, otherwise known as Uriah Hall. Of course, Hall is no longer the preeminent “Next Anderson Silva,” having given up that honor to Anderson Silva 5.0, Israel Adesanya, who now rules the division both of them share with the original; nor was he the first, coming to the UFC well after Jon Jones, also known as Anderson Silva 3.0.

You may have picked up on a certain trend here, as well as one or two characteristics common among these men that have nothing to do with fighting style. But skin color and length of limb aren’t the only factors capable of triggering the part of Dana White’s brain which plays the UFC’s arena video package on a neverending loop and lights up red when he smells money. To wit, the first Next Anderson Silva of note was Phillipe Nover, who was neither tall and dark-skinned, nor near good enough to deserve the stylistic comparison, as his 1-6 UFC record will attest. The glut of Next Anderson Silvas throughout UFC history is as much a testament to the promotion’s penchant for overeager hyperbole as it is their, shall we say, narrow conception of how to market black athletes.

And then there’s the influence of the man himself. There wouldn’t be near so many Next Anderson Silvas if the shadow of the original weren’t quite so long.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When Silva made his UFC debut in 2006, effortlessly crushing fan favorite Chris Leben in less than a minute, he instantaneously marked himself out as someone truly special. In a sport ruled by meathead jocks, the Spider’s brand of violence was distinctly smooth and subtle. This was not yet the man who would artfully evade entire combinations of punches without moving his feet, but he was undeniably a breath of fresh air in a world reeking of Axe body spray.

For the middleweights of the time, that breath felt more like a gale. Silva’s debut was impressive enough to earn him an immediate crack at the champion, Rich Franklin, who endured MMA’s most iconic exhibition of the Muay Thai clinch for all of three minutes before imploding. When the two rematched a year later, Franklin would bump that record up to about six minutes, though if first rounds were only five seconds longer, he would not have made it even that long.

Silva’s reign lasted eight years. In that time, he defended the middleweight belt 10 times, fought one non-title bout in the same division, and periodically knocked out light heavyweights just for fun — three of them, in fact. Over the course of his UFC career, Silva failed to finish only two of the 15 men he fought (with two of those being knocked out twice apiece). By now, the Spider’s two decisions, much maligned by the ever fair and reasonable Dana White at the time, have all but faded into the fabric of an almost decade-long blur of near perfect dominance. And one of those fights — the decision win over Thales Leites — is something of an under-appreciated masterclass, a flawless exhibition of just what made Anderson Silva the kind of fighter who could disappoint merely by allowing his opponent to survive, the mold of a new archetype which fans and promoters alike would try endlessly to recast.

As Silva redefined the middleweight division, it redefined him. Silva had occasion to beat plenty of all-timers, like Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort, and the aforementioned Franklin; but middleweight, a stratified and idiosyncratic division even today, was never as strong as St-Pierre’s welterweight division, or Aldo’s featherweight. Level of competition likely has something to do with the fact that Silva’s reign of 2,457 days is still the longest in UFC history. While Aldo was fighting tooth and nail with Chad Mendes and Urijah Faber, Silva was snacking comfortably on the likes of Patrick Cote and Yushin Okami. Demetrious Johnson, ruling a division more comparable in strength to Silva’s, broke the Spider’s record for consecutive title defenses in 2017, with eleven.

The middleweight division Uriah Hall entered in 2013 was a very different environment. That same year marked the end of Silva’s reign and the beginning of his current streak, which amounts to five losses, one legacy-altering no contest, and a single, dubious win. This was now a middleweight division ruled by a man who had already defeated Hall once before on the regionals. If Hall was supposed to inherit Silva’s earth, he was not starting with the same fertile ground.

Then again, Hall’s problems have always been bigger than mere timing. John Howard made his MMA debut all the way back in 2004, and that didn’t stop Hall high-fiving his way to an uninspired decision loss against the man.

Unlike Jon Jones and Israel Adesanya, Hall has never really figured out how to channel his insecurities into a functional process. All fighters — all people, really — are driven by certain fears of inadequacy and irrelevance, among myriad other niggling doubts. Prizefighting, being one of the most fiercely individualistic sports ever devised, fixates particularly on these worries, its very structure challenging athletes to go out there and prove them all wrong. Jones and Adesanya do just that, fight after fight, always with a chip glued to their shoulders. In comparison, Hall often looks about as comfortable as a man carrying a log on his neck.

Hall, like more than a few notable fighters, was bullied relentlessly as a kid. As a 13-year-old Jamaican immigrant in Queens, New York, the differences between Hall and his peers were too stark to hide, and Hall was not the type to confront them outright. Through ghostwriter Jamie O’Grady, Hall recounts: “I started cutting class, and lying to my mom about where I had been . . . Avoiding the bullying was the only thing I cared about. There were days where I literally could not get out of bed in the morning because of the fear inside me. Eventually, as things got worse, I began to have violent thoughts. I considered hurting other people, which, despite my current profession, is not something that is in my nature. Finally, I considered suicide.”

The tale of martial arts giving purpose and direction to a lost youth will be perfectly familiar to fans of the UFC, who have seen it rehashed in varying terms in so many pre-fight hype reels. But for Hall, the struggle of his childhood is one that must be rehashed every time he sets foot in the cage. Each fight is a therapy session, and some are more productive than others.

Uriah Hall, still fighting bullies.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Hall is a nice guy. A little weird, yes, but that would describe every person who considers sanctioned violence as a profession, and very few of those people are as earnest and kindhearted as Hall. After the knockout that made Hall a sensation, a devastating wheel kick that sent fellow Ultimate Fighter competitor Adam Cella into frightening, unconscious hyperventilations, Hall stood over his inert body with pain written on his face and said three words no other incarnation of Anderson Silva would ever utter: “I’m sorry, Adam.”

Hall doesn’t have the bearing of a man who could beat Silva (though he very well may, if only by accident). He comes across more like a kid who grew up watching Silva on TV, which he probably did. Indeed, when you watch Hall unleash his full array of strikes, you can see what got everyone to try prematurely handing him the Spider’s crown. But Hall is a nice guy, and he needs to be pushed to reach that point—sometimes, pushed to the very point of breaking.

What does all of this mean for their upcoming contest? It’s hard to say. Anderson Silva isn’t really Anderson Silva anymore. The speed, the reflexes, and the uncrackable chin that defined the Spider throughout his protracted prime are all long gone, leaving only the mystique behind. But that mystique remains a powerful thing, and the one aspect of Silva’s legend no successor will ever be able to replicate.

Of all the Next Anderson Silvas, Israel Adesanya most fits the comparison. His style has all the smoothness and swagger of the Spider in his heyday, a subtle, defensive boxing game sitting atop two quick and devastatingly accurate legs. Clever footwork and a murderous instinct for chasing finishes. Adesanya is Silva but more so: more technical, more flexible, and certainly much better at stuffing takedowns. He is to the supercharged middleweight division of today what Silva himself was to the middleweight division of 2006. In a word: several steps ahead of the pack.

But even Adesanya, the latest Next Anderson Silva, another immigrant who grew up idolizing the legendary fighter, felt the power of that mystique when faced with the man himself. He bit repeatedly on the Spider’s feints, shying away from strikes that really weren’t quite as fast as he seemed to expect. At one point, Silva backed himself into the fence and beckoned Adesanya on — a trademark maneuver, and one that Silva really shouldn’t have expected to work after Michael Bisping made it clear just how far his defensive acumen had slipped back in 2016. And yet, three years after that, Adesanya watched Silva corner himself, and froze.

Whereas most fighters wear their hearts on their sleeves, Anderson Silva was always a mercurial figure. During his reign, he spoke so infrequently that you couldn’t help but be a little surprised every time you heard his soft, high voice. We can glimpse some of the defining moments of Silva’s past—like the time Silva brought a gun to the gym after a heated argument with Chute Boxe head coach Rafael Cordeiro—but, even after all these years, the true face of the man behind the mask remains something of a mystery. To this day, no one knows whether Silva trained with Steven Seagal as a joke, or… what. And that’s the way he likes it. Maybe it’s the secret to his success.

Well past his best, Silva still got his licks in.
Jasmin Frank-USA TODAY Sports

When Adesanya saw Silva backing himself into the corner, he probably could have stepped forward and rendered the old man unconscious at will. Hell, Jared Cannonier did exactly that in Silva’s very next fight. Yet Adesanya hesitated, unable to circumvent the feeling that Silva must have been planning something, because that’s what Silva does. No matter how degraded the body, squaring off against Silva’s mind is still a terrifying prospect for many. If you’re a thinking fighter — which Jared Cannonier isn’t but Uriah Hall is — Silva can still turn you into an overthinking fighter without moving a muscle.

For Hall, the challenge is an interesting one. On the one hand, he seems like exactly the sort of guy to fall prey to the kind of mental traps that stymied Adesanya. And, lacking the malicious swagger that defines Adesanya along with two of the other three Anderson Silvas, he may not be as successful as Adesanya was at overcoming them. But Hall will have five rounds to work out his issues, against an aging veteran who can’t possibly maintain any kind of pace if he expects to last that long.

The truth is that there never will be another Anderson Silva, because the first one is still so difficult to define. A quiet man with an open mind, Silva’s fighting style was a hall of mirrors, layer upon layer of deception. Flashy defense and bizarre gesticulations all served to hide the fact that the man behind it all really was human; he really could be hit, and knocked out.

When fighters did muster up the courage to step forward and throw something, they succeeded a lot more often than Anderson’s reputation would lead you to expect. Chael Sonnen dropped Silva twice in their first fight. Chael Sonnen. When Silva finally did lose his title, the knockout blow came in the midst of a dazzling series of unorthodox defensive moves, with Silva leaning this way and that, letting his chin dangle in the breeze because he knew — didn’t everybody know? — that Anderson Silva could not be knocked out. Chris Weidman, nobody’s idea of a thinking fighter, decided he might as well step in and test that theory.

Hall is a thinking fighter. He is, by all accounts, a very thoughtful person in general. What will he do when confronted with the facade that is Anderson Silva? Will he realize that, while just as beautifully decorated as ever, that facade is now growing perilously thin? Or will he gaze once into the hall of mirrors, and get lost in his own reflection?

Maybe there never really was an Anderson Silva. Good luck convincing yourself of that when he’s standing right in front of you, daring you to find out for sure.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For a more technical analysis of Hall vs Silva and an in-depth breakdown of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s final triumph, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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