Tim Sylvia held the UFC heavyweight title on two separate occasions - a brief tenure in 2003 and a longer one from 2006 to 2007. He also had two fights for interim heavyweight titles in the UFC and fought Frank Mir for the vacant title in 2004 but got a broken arm instead.
In 2008 he left the UFC and signed for the Affliction MMA promotion, which was mounting a challenge for the UFC’s top spot. Sylvia lost to Fedor Emelianenko in 36 seconds and exited the promotion as fast as he had entered it. There followed a disastrous quick loss to Ray Mercer before Sylvia went 6-1 in regional shows.
Now he is hoping that 6-1 run can get him back into the UFC, although he knows that the company top brass are still smarting from his jumping ship to the rival Affliction at a key moment. Sylvia says he just wants to finish his career in the sport’s premier league, and that titles and money are far from his mind.
Our man John Joe O’Regan gave him a call this week to find out more.
FO: So you recently started a campaign to try and get back into the UFC. What’s your motivation there, is it a case of looking for the biggest paydays, or wanting the title, or is there just a desire to be back in there full stop?
I am just getting older and I want to finish up my career in the UFC. There’s a lot of great match-ups for me and I feel like that is where I belong. I don’t care about going in there and trying to fight for the title - I’ve done more in the UFC than any other heavyweight except Randy Couture so titles don’t mean anything to me at this stage.
I just want to fight, I love to fight and I think there are some really great matches there for me right now.
FO: Who would some of those great matches be?
I would love to fight Cheick Kongo, Stefan Struve, Dave Herman, Matt Mitrione, Christian Morecraft… the list goes on and on.
FO: Your tone suggests you don’t rate any of those names especially highly?
No not at all, that’s why I want to fight them. Everyone thinks they are so good right now because they are in the UFC and I want to prove that they are not. I’m not in the UFC right now but I want to be back in there and show these guys that they don’t belong.
FO: Looking back to when you left the UFC, what was the reasoning there? Was it about money, fame or legacy?
It was more of a legacy thing, Fedor wasn’t going to be able to fight me in the UFC and I had an opportunity to fight him. It was great money, really good money, and I wanted to capitalise on it and make something out of it. As it happened I didn’t perform that night and he did but I still believe if I had been on top of my game that night I would have knocked him out.
FO: Do you think maybe Fedor’s aura and mystique that he carried at the time may have you off?
No not at all, that didn’t bother me at all. I really truly believed I was going to go in there, put on a great fight and win. I didn’t perform, he did and good luck to him. He’s a great guy, great athlete, great fighter, it was his night.
FO: And in your follow-on fight, a super-quick loss to the ex-boxer Ray Mercer, would it be incorrect to say that you didn’t really take it seriously?
Not at all, my fault. Stupid, stupid. It was supposed to be a knock over match really, I thought I would just go out there and take him down… that didn’t happen.
FO: Lorenzo Fertitta recently said on Twitter that the UFC wouldn’t be looking to take you back. That is despite what seems to be a considerable groundswell of public support for you. Why do you think he would be against it?
I think the UFC is just still maybe bitter about the way I left the UFC and went to Affliction, they didn’t want Affliction to succeed and they showed that by buying them out.
I guess it was kind of shady - I listened to certain people, asked the UFC to get out of my contract and then as soon as I was out of my contract I signed with Affliction right away. It was probably a shady thing to do but I was just thinking about my family at the time and about the dollar amount.
We thought Affliction … they gave me a three-fight contract, the money was something that no one had seen before. They gave me a huge contract but then it never happened, it all just fell through… but no regrets, not at all. Everything happens for a reason.
FO: Traditionally you have been someone who has had an acrimonious relationship with a lot of the fans. Yet these days it seems more and more of them are coming over to your side and showing support. Why do you think that is?
I think the fans are finally seeing me as a humble person whereas back in the day I was this 285lbs big angry guy. I never really put myself out there whereas recently I’ve put some videos out and stuff, just kind of letting them know, wearing my heart on my sleeve.
FO: Would it be fair to say that you alienated some fans back then with the adoption of a persona that wasn’t necessarily true to yourself?
I think so yeah, I think you have hit the nail right on the button.
FO: And do you think that has cost you?
I think during that time it did cost me. I had a guy come to an autograph signing and he was like, “The whole crowd was cheering against you so I jumped on board, because we had a few beers and it was fun.” So I think maybe there was some of that - ‘Lets hate Tim Sylvia!’ ‘Yeah lets do it, it will be fun.’
And I had that attitude of, if you don’t like me, I don’t like me.
FO: Its funny because when I first met you at Art of War in Beijing, China some years ago, I was amazed. I have never met anyone who has changed my opinion of them so much just like that, you were so different in person to what I expected you to be.
I think that’s what it is - I had this persona where I am an asshole, but if you actually meet me or get to know me I am not!
FO: You recently became a father for the first time. How is fatherhood treating you?
Yeah I have a 13-month baby boy. He’s … (looks over) oh he’s asleep right now. But if you look on my Facebook or Twitter account there are some pictures there. Actually we just got his hair cut for the first time ever today!
It puts everything in perspective. Its not all me, me, me now - I need to worry about him and what his future holds, how to take care of him and make sure that he has a good life ahead of him.
FO: You didn’t have the best of childhoods. What do you want for your son compared to yours?
I just want him to do what he wants to do. And I will be very supportive of him when it comes to sports and stuff because I didn’t get that. My parents weren’t supportive, my father was always working and my mother… we lived like 25 minutes drive from the high school so they wouldn’t drive me there, back and forth.
So when I got my license… I stayed on the wresting team for four years but never got that good at it because I had to work several times a week. Two or three nights a week I would have to work to get money for gas to get to school and to get to practice. So I used to miss practice a lot because of that.
I want to make sure that whatever my son wants to do, he is supported, his mother agrees with me on that. We definitely want to see him in a football uniform at one time - let him try it once, if he doesn’t like it he doesn’t like it. I would also like to see him in a wrestling singlet. Living out here in Iowa there is a huge, huge wrestling base and I think it would be cute as hell seeing him in a wrestling uniform at four years old. And we all know that’s the best base for MMA anyway.
But whatever - baseball, basketball, soccer. Let him try whatever he wants. I just want him to be happy.
FO: Are you a strict father or a big softy?
I would like to think I am strict definitely but its hard, but its hard. As soon as he cries I’m like ‘oh!’ (makes big softy noise)
Its great when people meet him and they find him adorable, he’s got a great personality already. Everyone says he has got a great nature and he is just so much fun, especially now he is walking and talking and stuff.
FO: Do you help out with all the baby care, feeding and changing nappies and so on?
I do. We have a great setup though really. We go to bed about 11, we will feed him and then my girlfriend would get up like four hours later and feed him again, then he would wake up again three or four hours later and that would be my turn, I would change him and feed him.
But that was perfect for me because I would be getting up to go to the gym anyway and then he wouldn’t get up again until three or four hours later, like mid-morning, and she would take care of him. So he has been on that schedule and its just been great.
FO: OK before I turn this into a column for Mothercare lets get back to the UFC. Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem are due to fight for the heavyweight title soon. What do you think of those two?
I think they are both studs. If it came down to which one I want to fight more it would be Alistair Overeem just because styles make fights and I think we would have a great fight together. But I think the top five in the UFC right now are all studs - Dos Santos, Alistair, Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir as much as I hate to say it and Shane Carwin, he is still up there in the rankings even though he hasn’t fought in a while.
FO: You were basically absent from the UFC for the entirety of Brock Lesnar’s career there right?
Sort of. We tried to get that fight, he came in and fought Frank Mir the night that I fought Nogueira for the interim title. We both lost and so my team tried to pitch me and him fighting each other, or going on The Ultimate Fighter together, but the UFC didn’t want that to happen because they were trying to, I don’t know, protect him or whatever.
Then he fights Heath Herring and gets a title shot which is… well, it is what it is. I don’t know how he got a title shot with a win over Heath and a loss to Mir. Brock Lesnar was made a champion, I definitely think he was a paper champion and no doubt about it.
But it did great things for the UFC, he really helped it explode in popularity because he took that whole crowd of WWE fans and brought them over to the UFC. That’s millions of people; he had some loyal fans and he brought them over. It was a great marketing job by the UFC.
FO: What do you think of Lesnar transitioning into being a mixed martial artist at such a late stage?
He is not a mixed martial artist. No I don’t think he is at all! He is a big strong wrestler who doesn’t like to get hit. He hates to get hit.
FO: It certainly seemed that way by the time he retired. But I do think he could have developed into something really special if he had retained Greg Nelson as a coach instead of parting ways. I think that was a mistake on his part.
That was one downfall. The other was that they would bring guys in for training partners, they would pay them, and then the training partners were told that they cannot go and hit him hard.
FO: Everyone says this about him but is it definitely true?
Yes its very true, I have two different friends - close friends - who were brought in to train with him and that is what they were told. To be a successful striker or stand-up guy you have to get used to getting hit. How do you get used to getting hit? You get hit over and over again in sparring practice.
Its going to suck the first few months but eventually you are gonna get away from that. If he had kept doing that I think he would have gotten to the point where he got comfortable with it.
FO: What is the point of bringing in training partners that aren’t allowed to do what they are supposed to do?
So you can beat up on them, make yourself feel good.
FO: You think Lesnar is a bully?
I know he is a bully. I know he is… But you know, in his defence he came to Militech and trained for two weeks and him and I became very close in that time. We went and shot bows together, we are both huge hunters.
Great guy when the camera is not in his face, kind of like Tito Ortiz. Great guy, down to earth. Outdoorsman. Tito is the same, a great guy but then you put a camera in his face and things change.
FO: Speaking of bullies, did you and Matt Hughes ever sort your issues out?
Oh yeah, a long time ago. He was a dumbass when he wrote that book, I have no idea why he wrote that. He was actually my room mate, he had a big fight with his own room mate and had no place to live and he asked if he could come stay with me, I said absolutely and he lived with me for two years after that.
He helped me move from my original house where he lived with me to my new house that I had bought and we became the best of friends. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking when he wrote that book.
FO: When will you be writing a book of your own?
I think the best time to write a book is when you are completely done with the sport and then there are no chapters to add or anything. When I am done I am going to write a book but I want to get it done the right way, I want it to be a book like Forrest Griffin’s. I want it to be on the New York Times best-seller list. I want to get somebody good behind it, I don’t want just your average person behind it.
FO: You are 36 years old now, when do you think you will retire?
I would like to be done at age 40, I really don’t want to be fighting past 40, I think that’s a good age.
FO: The UFC fans haven’t seen you in nearly four years. If you come back to the organisation, what would be different about you?
Well I don’t think anything we saw last time was all that bad. You know when it comes to my fighting experience, when I was in the UFC I was fighting regularly and so my weight was always down and I was fit. But when I go to not fighting regularly my weight starts getting up there and it gets harder to cut, I am coming in at super-heavy and stuff, I just don’t like that.
I want to be heavyweight, not super-heavyweight, and in the UFC I have to be heavyweight so I always stay in shape. And when I am in shape I don’t think there are too many guys out there that can beat me. And you know this isn’t basketball, where you have some bad games but overall that doesn’t matter as long as the season goes good. We fight three times a year and on that night we have to be perfect.
But that doesn’t happen - you have injuries or you are sick, or you just don’t feel yourself or don’t perform well. You don’t get a second chance.