Wanderlei Silva’s face is easily identifiable as that of a fighter. It works as a name tag, a CV and a window to his soul. Like rings on a tree trunk, ‘The Axe Murderer’s scar tissue, some of which remains despite various operations to remove it, serves to tell a thousand tales of a thousand battles.
Wanderlei Silva’s face has, like his body, gone through many changes over the years. It has been busted up and cut open. It has been covered in blood. It has even changed shape on account of surgical procedures. It isn’t like a pair of soccer boots or a tennis racket or a golf club. It can’t be discarded for a new one when it’s battered and worn out and liable to fall apart. Silva, instead, has to make do with what he’s got and soldier on. He will have to wear his battle mask until the very end.
This Saturday (June 24) at Madison Square Garden, New York, Silva will again offer up his face as a target and look to punch the target of Chael Sonnen first. He will step into a cage for the first time since March 2013 and discover, in the heat of battle, if he has got anything left. In the process, he will, as is his custom, take punches to the face, shake them off and continue to walk forward to land some of his own.
A man of simple, violent pleasures, there is perhaps no fighter as pure as Wanderlei Silva. He does away with the pretence and gets right down to the nub of the situation: my fists, your face. It has been this way since he was making noise in Vale Tudo fights back in his native Brazil and it’s an approach that has seen him become an iconic figure in the world of MMA.
Now, Silva, twenty-one years after making his pro MMA debut, connects the fingers on both hands, rolls his knuckles and looks to simultaneously roll back the years. The game has moved on, they tell him; it’s 2017. But then Wanderlei looks across the Bellator cage at Chael Sonnen and sees not a young wrestler about to enthusiastically dump him on his backside but another 40-year-old, a product of a bygone era. It’s then he smiles and remembers all he has achieved – all the victims he has put to the sword, nay, axe – and his shoulders start to loosen up and his fists, we assume, will start to fly.
‘Sandstorm’ and staredowns, here are seven of Wanderlei Silva’s greatest MMA moments…
Kazushi Sakuraba II
Pride 17 (November 2001)
The first time they met, some eight months earlier, Silva busted Sakuraba’s nose and crushed his resolve with knees while he was grounded and curled up. It was a wrap after just 98 seconds. The next time they met, however, it went longer, lasting an entire 10-minute round. But that only meant one thing, of course. It meant Sakuraba’s pain was prolonged. Less bloody, less marked up around the face, he nonetheless had to contend with Silva in every area of the ring, soaking up punches, knees and kicks, and ended the fight having injured his shoulder. Fought at a fast pace, it was a thorough beat-down and, though Sakuraba complained of an injury, Silva’s victory was clear and dominant. In securing it, he became PRIDE middleweight champion.
Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson I
Pride Final Conflict (November 2003)
Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson had the right idea. From the off, he surprised Silva by darting across the ring and attempting to hoist him off his feet and slam him on his back. Only the move failed. What happened instead was Silva locked his legs around Rampage’s midsection and then threatened a guillotine choke. This led to a stalemate during which Japanese officials scurried around ringside and raised their hands, just in case Wanderlei, positioned up high, tumbled over the top rope. Silva, though, simply smiled through it all. He was happy up there, for he knew they would soon be back on their feet throwing punches, knees and kicks.
Not so fast. First, Silva had to contend with being bundled to the floor by Rampage and then had to endure a series of hammer-fists as he looked to contain the American in his guard. But it didn’t last long. Eventually stood up by the referee, much to Jackson’s chagrin, Silva soon went about landing punches and kicks and initiating a plum Thai clinch to rattle through a series of devastating left and right knees. Rampage, sensing his resistance was waning, seemed desperate for another takedown, yet Wanderlei was having none of it. He continued his assault, throwing a helping of soccer kicks into the equation, and ended up finishing Rampage with knees in the clinch. Softened up, Rampage collapsed to the canvas at exactly the moment the referee raced in to save him. Silva, in winning the fight, lifted the Pride middleweight grand prix trophy.
Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson II
Pride 28 (October 2004)
If the first win over Rampage was considered the more important of the two – for it landed Silva the Pride middleweight grand prix title – it’s worth pointing out, in the interests of fairness, that his second win, notched at Pride 28, resulted in a finish even more vicious and terrifying than the first.
The fight itself, at least for a while, went the same way as the pair’s earlier meeting. Silva got the better of things on the feet and Rampage, when able to secure takedowns, did some good work on the deck; from half guard he pounded on Silva to close out round one. But none of this counted for much in round two, as a left head kick rocked the American and a series of knees in the clinch discombobulated him to such an extent that when Silva led him towards the ropes and then spun away, Rampage stayed put, his head hanging over the second rope, his body limp. The fight was over. Savage Silva vaulted a ring post and let out an almighty roar, having triumphed in a battle that was later voted ‘Fight of the Year’ for 2004.
Pride Critical Countdown (July 2006)
When Fedor Emelianenko dropped out of the 2006 openweight grand prix, there was never any doubt in Wanderlei Silva’s mind that he was the person to fill the void, despite the fact he was a natural middleweight and, in signing up for the tournament, would be fighting larger men accustomed to mixing it with heavyweights. Bring it on, Silva said. So they did, starting with 250-pound Fujita, a man who claimed he’d use his “thick skull” to break the smaller Brazilian, a man who spent a large portion of his fight against Silva on top, at least positionally, and seemed intent on making his weight advantage count.
Not that Silva cared. He simply locked down Fujita in his guard, limiting his ability to do any work from top position, and then got the fight stood up. From there, it was all Silva. He dropped Fujita with a right hand and later had the Japanese tough guy cowering following a fusillade of strikes, most eye-catching of which were some wind-up punches, wound up to almost comical degree, and some lethal soccer kicks. Combined, these ended the fight at the 9:21 mark in round one.
UFC 79 (December 2007)
Silva may have ended up losing this particular fight, but that small detail shouldn’t cloud the importance of it, nor undermine the part the Brazilian played in what ended up being a three-round war and ‘Fight of the Year’ winner. It was years in the making, of course, the paths of Silva and Liddell having crisscrossed at numerous points and was also a fight fuelled by the feverish anticipation of hardcore MMA fans. That it still lived up to these expectations, perhaps even surpassed them, says it all. It speaks to the performances and also the frantic and dramatic nature of the action. Momentum swings aplenty, the two took turns – punches, being hurt – and were still swinging as the final bell tolled and the fifteen minutes were up. Silva lost the fight according to three judges, but nobody who watched it unfold would ever deem him a loser. In truth, nobody lost that night; Liddell, Silva, the fans; we all won.
UFC 84 (May 2008)
Silva needed a standout win, for old times’ sake, following a points loss to Chuck Liddell in his UFC debut, and he duly got one thanks to ‘The Dean of Mean’ Keith Jardine. Ready-made in every conceivable way, Silva stalked his taller opponent from the off, landed a series of glancing blows, got the American unsteady on his feet, and then dropped him. After that, the violence was cranked up to eleven, as Silva mounted Jardine and proceeded to pound him into unconsciousness, leaving Jardine prone on the floor, stiff as a board, the fight done and dusted within 36 seconds. It was, for Silva, a throwback finish, one that harkened back to his reign of terror in Pride, one welcomed and celebrated that night by pretty much everyone not called Keith Jardine.
UFC on Fuel TV 8 (March 2013)
Talk about leaving them wanting more. This was the last time any of us saw Wanderlei Silva fight competitively and it was, in a funny sort of way, a victory lap for a career well-fought. He and Stann left it all out there. They traded punches and knockdowns. They slipped on the canvas like they were on ice skates. They both appeared on the verge of being stopped. But, in the end, it was Silva who, despite being noticeably more cautious than usual in the early going, prevailed in the kind of fight he relishes. Bloodied and breathing hard, he threw a right cross and left hook combination in round two that dropped Stann in the centre of the Octagon and then followed up with two wild right hands to leave ‘The All-American’ out cold. Fight over, smiling Silva climbed the cage and saluted his legion of Japanese fans, just like the old days.