Dave Kalstein’s profile of Wanderlei Silva originally appeared in the Jan. 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Silva will fight Michael Bisping at UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia.
You met him ten seconds ago, just shook his hand for the first time, but somehow you know it in your gut. If ever things go terribly wrong, if today turns out to be a disaster; a Def Con 4 crisis, a complete and total bitch — one of those days — Wanderlei Silva would go to war for you.
Granted, this is a bold assumption for a stranger to make. It has no basis in reason, logic, or experience. Men do not risk themselves by standing up for other men they’ve just met. The very idea seems quaint and outdated, a romantic notion of honor that makes no sense in this cynical day and age. But nonetheless, it’s true. And grasping this riddle is the key to understanding the mixed martial artist known as “The Axe Murderer.”
At an unmarked white warehouse just off the Strip in Las Vegas, there is a black Aston Martin parked outside with vanity plates that read “WAND.” A gym is being built inside the warehouse, a space measuring approximately 10,000 square feet that will eventually be fi lled with mats, mirrors, and heavy bags to go with the regulation-size Octagon that already sits there. Outside the cage, Thai pads and free weights dot the fl oor. A pair of running shoes sits in the corner. A construction crew does work on the walls. It’s going to be called Wandy Fight Club.
This is what it looks like when Wanderlei (pronounced vahn-der-LAY) Silva makes himself at home. This is how Silva brings order to the chaos that came with leaving his home in Brazil for America, uprooting his family in the process and saying goodbye to lifelong friends and trainers from the famed Chute Boxe gym back in Curitiba. He gets emotional when recalling the day he left the place he called home: He packed up all of his fighting and training gear into two duffel bags and invited all of his friends over to take whatever they wanted from his wardrobe. All the nice, expensive clothes he had accumulated over the years since he had become a wealthy man—the designer jeans and the fancy silk shirts—went to his buddies from Chute Boxe. For Silva, this is how a fi ghter of his caliber sets up shop in a foreign land when he wants to recreate himself and blaze a new path: an Aston Martin; a cage; Thai pads; and his fi veyear- old son Thor running around, playing with a tape measure. Until the gym opens to the public, in a few months, it will serve as his personal training center.
His reputation looms large across the landscape of MMA. One of the biggest stars in Japan’s PRIDE organization (before it was acquired by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he is currently under contract), Silva holds a record of 32 wins and 8 losses, with 22 of those victories via knockout. He’s a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it is his explosive, take-no-prisoners brand of Muay Thai striking—a whirlwind of jaw-shattering punches mixed in with a dynamic arsenal of kicks and flurries of knees from the clinch— that has earned him legions of fans around the world.
There are few prizefighters anywhere in combat sports that evince a more raw physicality. Silva possesses the perfect gladiator’s chiseled physique and shaved head, but it is the pure, animalistic intensity in his eyes as he stares down his opponent from his corner before the bell rings—while he’s interlocking his fingers before his face, rolling his wrists back and forth, and warming up his tendons and joints for the carnage they are about to unleash—that sticks in your memory. For someone who has never seen a mixed martial artist before, Wanderlei Silva would be an ideal prototype to display. For someone who has never seen a mixed martial arts fi ght before, Silva’s bouts would be the perfect introductory course: Win or lose, the pace is furious, and there is no doubt he has left it all in the ring or cage, perhaps too much for any rational human being with an interest in self-preservation.
“I’m fine when the fight hits the ground,” says Silva in his heavily accented English. “But I like standing so much better. When I stand up, my opponent is intimidated and I can feel it. It’s more emotional.” “More emotional for the crowd, you mean?” someone asks, trying to clarify. Then that pre-fight intensity begins filling Silva’s eyes, his head starts lightly nodding, bobbing, as if the starting bell’s about to ring. He shifts his gaze, he’s looking right at you; he’s grinning. “It’s more emotional for all of us.”
As if on cue, Demian Maia, a rising UFC middleweight star, steps into the cage with a trainer and starts working the Thai pads. Maia, a native Brazilian like Silva but more fluent in English, has become a close friend. Then an SUV pulls up, unloading half a dozen guys who, perhaps subconsciously, have followed Silva’s lead as the mixed martial artist prototype: muscular, tattooed, with shaved heads, wearing flip-flops and fight shorts. They’re all speaking rapid-fire Portuguese. When Silva spots them, he smiles and starts giving out hugs. Now it starts to make sense: It’s more emotional for all of us. He’s been in America for almost a year now. He’s gotten his bearings, and now he’s doing the next logical thing: He’s crewing up.
In all professional sports, there is the show that fans see on the playing field and then there’s the show-within-the-show that happens between the competitors backstage, off-camera. MMA is no different. And though Silva’s fights in the ring and cage speak volumes about him as a warrior, the battles that have gone down behind the scenes speak volumes about him as a man. The two most famous instances (mainly because they have been widely circulated on YouTube) occurred in the aftermath of bouts involving Silva’s friends during PRIDE’s heyday in Japan.
In 2005, Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett was fresh off a victory over Ken Kaneka and talking trash to Kaneka’s (and Silva’s) coach from Chute Boxe, Cristiano Marcello. Although Bennett was outnumbered by Brazilians, when he tackled Marcello and started throwing punches, the Chute Boxe crew allowed the beef to get settled one-on-one. Bennett fell into Marcello’s guard. In the heat of the brawl, Silva, in street clothes, casually walked over to Marcello and started giving him instructions in Portuguese, effectively cornering his friend in a street fight. Thanks to Silva’s help, Marcello slapped on a triangle choke and put Bennett to sleep.
In 2006, Mark Coleman fought Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, one of Silva’s closest friends, in PRIDE 31. The fight was stopped prematurely when Coleman slammed Rua to the mat and Rua dislocated his elbow in a freak injury. Caught up in the heat of battle, Coleman continued raining down punches on Rua and even tried pushing the referee away after the fight had been called to an end. Silva leapt into the ring and attacked Coleman. Bodies fell to the floor. Someone kicked Silva in the face. It took several PRIDE officials to hold him back while Coleman stood on the ropes, showboating and flexing his muscles for the crowd. Backstage, a repentant Coleman came around looking to apologize. Silva saw him and needed to be restrained. He called out Coleman, along with Coleman’s friends standing behind him (including pro fighters Phil “The New York Badass” Baroni and Quentin “Rampage” Jackson) on the spot before his Chute Boxe allies could drag him away.
Today, when pressed to explain what motivated him to get involved in these fights that were not his own, Silva doesn’t recognize it as noteworthy bravery or loyalty; he doesn’t provide any telling anecdote from his youth to explain himself. “Hey, a guy wanted to beat up my friend and I’m going to protect my friend,” he says. “If there’s a problem like that, I’m going to go in because I’m emotional and when I’m emotional I want to fight. Strangers become my friends and my friends become like my brothers. I can’t just stand aside. This instinct is natural. When I get close to a fight, I can feel my body start to shake.” He grins. “I go crazy.”
What he refers to as his “instinct” kicked in during his first amateur fight, a Muay Thai bout, when Wanderlei Cesar da Silva was a 13-year-old boy growing up in the fertile crescent of vale tudo in Brazil, the town called Curitiba. Silva was the heavy underdog for the 200 spectators who showed up. His father was off at work, driving a bus in the city, and his mother labored in a local food market. Young Wanderlei was considered only an average student at his local gym, and when he saw his opponent enter the ring wearing fancy tailored fight shorts and a Mongkol (the ceremonial head band worn by traditional Thai boxers), he was petrified and it showed. Then the opening bell rang. “I closed my eyes and started swinging as hard as I could,” Silva remembers. “Ten seconds later, I knocked him out. I don’t know if I would call it a ‘killer instinct.’ I just know you either have it or you don’t.”
More amateur fights followed, with similar results. “I would still swing as hard as I could,” he explains, “but now I kept my eyes open.” Silva made his pro Muay Thai debut when he was 15. Within three years, he was a champion. He won the title after knocking out three opponents in one night, all in the first round, earning a grand total of $300. As the years went on, Silva’s technique evolved and his training improved, but the fundamental element—the instinct that brings him towards the center of the fight, his or anyone else’s, for that matter—is what defines him as a world class martial artist.
Silva isn’t one to allow the big business of mixed martial arts to interfere with his friendships. During his marathon tenure as PRIDE’s middleweight (205-pound) champion, his friend and training partner “Shogun” Rua was widely regarded as the number one contender, but Silva and Rua consistently stated they would never fight each other. “Shogun always said he would wait to fight someone else,” says Silva. “Always. And after he comes back to fight [Shogun is bouncing back from knee surgery to have a re-match with his old nemesis, Mark Coleman, at UFC 93 in January 2009] and becomes the UFC champion, I will wait for him.”
Which is not to say that Silva is easy on his friends. A couple of years ago, when Shogun’s prized pit bull gave birth to a litter of puppies, Silva asked for one to have as a pet and Shogun obliged. Money was never discussed. A few weeks later, Shogun asked him for a couple hundred dollars as payment and Silva said he thought the puppy was a gift. After negotiations stalled, the two decided to settle the dispute in the ring at Chute Boxe: They would lace up 16-ounce boxing gloves and fight for as many rounds as it took before one of them was knocked out. If Silva lost, he’d shell out the cash and if Shogun lost, the puppy was free. All of their coaches and training partners gathered around to watch the dream bout that hardcore MMA fans would never have the chance to see on television. “All I will say is that we went at it very hard and the fight ended in the first round,” recalls Silva, grinning from ear to ear. “And I did not pay for that puppy.”
His gameness shows even when he loses. And it’s fair to wonder what Silva’s style—his natural inclination towards reckless abandon, rather than the controlled pacing of tacticians in his weight class like Lyoto Machida—will cost him physically. It’s a hell of a thing to meet this man, to see the deep lines of scars on his face, above his eyelids and on his cheekbones, and know that you saw him receive them on television. It’s a mystique that fi ghters will always have over movie stars, this visceral realness. One of the scars above his eye came at the hands of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix in 2006. The two stars had fought to a draw four years prior, but on that night, Cro Cop outweighed him by a good 20 pounds and bullied the smaller Silva around the ring. He closed Silva’s right eye completely with punches at one point, but Silva kept moving forward, swinging for a knockout, just as he did when he was 13, until the doctor paused the fight to make sure he could continue fighting through the damage.
“The doctor held up his finger and asked me to follow it with my eyes,” he recalls. “I couldn’t do it at first because my eyes were moving everywhere, like I was drunk, I knew I couldn’t continue. But I had to. He had gotten me pretty badly, and I had to get him back. I knew I probably should’ve stopped, but I had to go back and fight. It was just something I had to do.” And, to the delight of his fans around the world, he somehow managed to focus on the doctor’s finger long enough to pass the test. But before the first round could end, Cro Cop put his badly bruised and bloodied opponent to sleep with a kick to the head.
Silva is one of those rare fighters whose legend seems to grow as much from his losses as from his victories. His next opponent was Dan Henderson, in a super-fight between PRIDE’s welterweight and middleweight champions. After three rounds of all-out war, Henderson knocked Silva out, taking his belt from him. Soon after that, PRIDE folded and was acquired by the UFC, setting up Silva’s return to the Octagon and a dream match-up with his American counterpart, Chuck Liddell.
It was around this time that Silva started laying the groundwork for his move to the United States from Brazil. After years of training at the same camp in Curitiba, he felt it was time for a change. “I wanted to come to America and make the journey alone,” he says. “It was a hard situation for me because I didn’t have any trainers here. I didn’t have many friends here. It was hard. So hard.” He arrived in Las Vegas and visited Randy Couture’s gym, Xtreme Couture, where Randy himself invited Silva to train with his team. “I couldn’t believe it,” Silva recalls, seemingly stunned that his UFC colleagues would jump at the chance to train with someone of his stature. “Randy didn’t ask me for a lot of money to train at his gym; he was just a true gentleman and welcomed me. The fighters all accepted me as a friend and training partner.”
The Liddell fight was so heavily anticipated over the years that to see the two men actually square off against each other was somewhat surreal. It was a stand-up brawl that went back and forth for the full 15 minutes, the two superstars trading heavy shots until Liddell had his hand raised in a split decision victory. Silva was left with his third straight loss and wondering— along with the entire MMA world—where this put him in the grand scheme of things.
Few professional athletes see their careers go through the wild and sudden swings that are routine to prizefighters. In the cutthroat world of the UFC’s light heavyweight division, considered by most observers to be the promotion’s marquee weight class, one loss can remove a fighter from the title picture for the foreseeable future, and two straight losses can have him fearing for his job. But UFC president Dana White had made a significant investment in Silva (his base salary, before bonuses and outside endorsements, is rumored to be around $150,000), so he booked him for a tough bout against another company star that needed a win badly, Keith Jardine.
“The time before the Jardine fight was the hardest time of my life,” Silva remembers. “Everyone was questioning me. I didn’t know what I would do if I lost again. I was thinking, ‘Man, what’s my problem?’ People were saying that I was finished. And then I met Keith and he was a good guy. I was talking to him and the whole time thinking to myself ‘Oh, shit. This guy respects me. Why does he have to respect me?’ It’s a lot easier when they don’t, because then I want to kill them. I can’t help it, I’m Brazilian.” Despite this new challenge, when the two met in the Octagon at UFC 84, Silva ended it in 36 seconds with a TKO that was violent even by the standards of mixed martial arts, but consistent with the fighter he had always been.
“My fans always supported me, even when I was losing,” says Silva. “They are my best friends because they don’t want anything from me, like money, they just want me to do my best. It’s incredible.” This man who drives an Aston Martin and has fought on the world’s biggest stages still reads every single message that is sent to his Web site. He regularly lurks on the Sherdog message forums and keeps up with all the major MMA sites on a daily basis.
Silva is preparing for his next fight, which is in seven weeks from today, against his old enemy, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. They have fought twice before, with both confrontations ending in victory for Silva via KO thanks to flurries of blows—17 straight knees to the body and head at one point in their first fight—delivered from inside Silva’s Muay Thai clinch. Still, Silva is not taking their third encounter lightly. “Rampage is a very tough guy, a former UFC champion who beat Dan Henderson,” he says. “He’s a big name here, so I’m just happy to get the opportunity.” Silva’s momentarily lapsing into the stilted lines that all fi ghters deliver to the press before their next bout, but his passion can only be stifled for so long. Someone asks him about his strategy going into the fi ght. “I’m not training the Muay Thai clinch so much this time, but if he gives me his neck again,” Silva explains, a grin slowly creeping across his battle-scarred face, “maybe afterwards Rampage should come here and train with us.”
Now, here in his new gym off the Las Vegas Strip, Silva is wrapping his arm around new friends who, an hour ago, were total strangers, more rabid fan boys than anything else. He’s introducing them to his son and his wife and to Demian Maia, and laughing, inviting them to come watch him train here in this warehouse in the weeks leading up to the biggest fight of his career. He discloses, with no shame or any irony whatsoever, that tonight he can’t wait to go to a Madonna concert.
One could say there’s a bond between these men who have just met, but it would make no sense in this cynical day and age. It’s not rational. It’s not logical. Yet, it simply is, and the answer to the riddle of the Axe Murderer boils down to his own words: Strangers become friends and my friends become like my brothers.