(Tim Sylvia knees Big Nog in better days.)
Regrets? When it comes to his fighting career, Tim Sylvia has had a few. In hindsight, he would have waited to recover from a back injury before fighting Randy Couture. And instead of standing with Ray Mercer, he would have immediately shot a double-leg, planted the former pro boxer on the mat, and started dropping elbows. But raising his middle fingers at the two hecklers jawing at him from behind his father after defending his heavyweight title at UFC 65? That doesn’t make the list.
“I’d do it all over again,” Sylvia says. “You disrespect me, and I’m gonna treat you the same way you treat me.”
And with that variation of the Golden Rule, Sylvia lays out his attitude toward the mixed martial arts fans that have vilified him. Sure, there have been always pockets of support for the former UFC heavyweight champion—Sylvia recalls cheers from the audience in bouts against Assuerio Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira—but he freely admits that the crowd is rarely on his side. When he faces Mariusz Pudzianowski in the main event of Moosin: God of Martial Arts on May 21, even with friends and family from his native Maine in the crowd, he fully expects to hear boos during his walk to the cage. And he’s made peace with that. “If [the fans] get on my side, that’s cool, I love it,” Sylvia says. “But am I gonna lose sleep at night if people are booing me? No, not at all.”
The two-time UFC champ says he has no idea when or why the fans turned against him—“You’d have to ask all the fans, do a poll to find out why they don’t like me,” he says. But by the second half of 2006, the knockout victories that launched him into the UFC’s upper echelon disappeared. Wins over Andrei Arlovski, Jeff Monson, and Brandon Vera showed a fighter content to use the reach afforded by his six-foot eight-inch frame to plod toward decisions instead of concussing his opponents. The string of drowsy victories did little to mitigate the reputation for arrogance Sylvia cultivated in the press.
That perception is incorrect, says Corey Fischer, the Moosin promoter who signed Sylvia to face Pudzianowski for the main event in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I think people just don’t understand him,” Fischer says of Sylvia. “He’s a loner. He’s not the type of guy that’s going to stand out there and sign autographs for an hour. He’s quiet—I’d almost say somewhat of an introvert…He’s not someone who wants or needs all of that attention.” When asked if his upbringing under an abusive mother, a fact Sylvia has been candid about through the years, might have influenced how he deals with the scorn of MMA fans, Sylvia says that it probably did. “Basically, if you hate me, I hate you. Fuck me? Fuck you, you know? That’s kind of the way I’ve been. That’s the way I grew up.”
The prestige of Sylvia’s five UFC heavyweight title victories—a figure that trails Couture alone—has faded after three consecutive losses. After losing to Nogueira, Sylvia left the UFC for Affliction where he suffered a 36-second loss to Fedor Emelianenko. Under the Adrenaline MMA banner last June, he lost to Mercer. Even with a September 2009 win over Jason Riley in the books, the sting of the nine-second knockout to Mercer lingers nearly a year later. “It still irritates me. I went out there and let pride take over and let his trash-talking bring me into his game,” Sylvia says. “…which is stupid. You don’t stand up with a pro boxer with four-ounce gloves. You just don’t do it. James Toney is getting ready to be in the UFC, and I’ll be surprised if there’s anybody out there that’s gonna stand toe-to-toe with him with those small gloves on.”
A fight against the 290-pound Pudzianowski—a five-time World’s Strongest Man, 14-year karate student, and 2-0 MMA tourist—is an even stranger turn for Sylvia. Fischer says, “The whole concept is two of the biggest guys on the planet fighting in the cage, both hungry for a win to prove themselves, and I really think it’s going to be a lot more exciting than what everybody’s expecting.” For his part, Sylvia says he took the fight because he wants to stay active. “I still want to fight for two, three, four more years. Whatever gets presented, I’m going to take,” he says. (Sylvia adds that, contrary to rumors, he declined a proposed match-up with Josh Barnett because he was only given two weeks notice before fight time. “He’s a top-10 guy, he’s a tough guy, and he’s somebody I’d need at least eight weeks to prepare for,” Sylvia says.)
Sylvia’s camp expects Pudzianowski to fight strong—clinch, try to muscle him around, look for a swift finish. But Sylvia says that once he puts his fists on the Polish fighter, he expects Pudzianowski to be in trouble. “I’m not trying to match strength with him at all. I think strength has got nothing to do with fighting at all. I mean, am I gonna try to enter a World’s Strongest Man competition? Hell no. Don’t plan on it, never will plan on it.”
Despite training for this fight with Josh Barnes, Sean McCorkle, and the other heavyweights at Team Wolf Pack in Muncie, Indiana, the Miletich Fighting Systems-bred Sylvia has no plans to leave his mentor in Iowa like many of his former teammates. “I bleed MFS,” Sylvia says. “I’m not like anybody else. I’m not gonna bail when times get tough, pack up and move away, thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence because it isn’t. Pat [Miletich] has had some tough times, and we all have. It’ll grow back up again, but just right now, I don’t have any high-quality heavyweights to work out with.”
In a post-Affliction fight world, Sylvia says he ultimately would like to head back to where he earned his acclaim. “It’s got me frothing at the mouth watching these guys fight in the UFC right now. Watching the heavyweight Ultimate Fighter show and stuff, it’s just like, man, ‘Put me in coach,’ you know? ‘Can I get a re-match with Nogueira and Frank Mir please? Can I fight some of these new up and comers?’” But he’s uncertain where he stands with the man who matters most. “I don’t know if Dana [White] likes me anymore or not,” he says. “I’ve never heard him say anything bad to my face, but people have told me that he’s said some bad things about me. But I have no idea,.”
To get a call from the UFC, Sylvia knows he first needs to string together a few more wins. It starts with fighting Pudzianowski in front of another hostile crowd. “You know, if people don’t like the way I perform, I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. At the end of the day, I’m going out to win a fight,” he says. It’s that attitude that has helped Sylvia garner a 25-6 record. And it’s that attitude that has kept the cheers quiet.