Anderson Silva – Perception vs Reality

Don’t be fooled—Anderson Silva is still the best fighter there ever was, and on December 28, he may remind us that he still is.

“It’s normal.”

Anderson Silva is the most extraordinary fighter in mixed martial arts history, yet in his second language of English, the recently fallen pound-for-pound king from Brazil’s favorite phrase is: “It’s normal.” Not two minutes go by without Silva pawing the phrase out like it’s a jab, keeping distance from the question at hand. That question, of course, is about watching Chris Weidman occupy the middleweight throne, celebrating the spoils of handing Silva his first loss in the Octagon since his arrival in June 2006. The question posed to the fallen champion is normal, and no one in modern UFC history is more qualified to touch on how to bend our perceptions and reality.

Silva has never been a physically imposing figure. That is, until he starts slinging his limbs at opponent’s jaws. It’s an epiphany to see him in his plaid shirt and glasses, away from the cage and out of his trademark black and gold fight shorts. He looks as unimposing as a 38-year-old man is expected to look. He looks…normal. This shouldn’t be an epiphany, but it is.

Silva has spent the last 16 years accomplishing improbable feats of athletic achievement. As his accomplishments started stacking up, so did his lore and how people perceived him. The fantastic started to feel ordinary.

At some point in Anderson Silva’s jaw-dropping 16-fight UFC win streak, we stopped viewing him as normal. Maybe it was his near flawless performance when he landed 17 of the 20 strikes he threw against Chris Leben in his UFC debut. Or maybe when he rearranged former UFC Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin’s face with knees, not once, but twice. Or submitted the legendary Dan Henderson. Or dominated three fighters 20-pounds north of his standard weight class. Or his fifth round heroics against his foe Chael Sonnen.

We stopped looking at the former UFC Middleweight Champion as Anderson Silva “The Man” and started looking at Anderson Silva “The Indestructible.” But our perceptions, unbeknownst to us, never altered reality. He’s still capable of losing, just like anyone who dodges four-ounce gloves for a living. “The Spider” knows this.

When Chris Weidman, an understated American with fewer total fights than Silva had consecutive title defenses, smashed his left fist into Silva’s jaw at UFC 162 in July, everything seemed to change. The middleweight strap wrapped around the waist of someone not named Anderson Silva for the first time in almost seven years. The UFC records for most consecutive wins (16) and title defenses (10) screeched to a halt. Silva stood as the great outlier in a sport where “anything can happen.” The Brazilian was the exception to the rule. It felt like he turned into a statistic.

“The fight is the fight,” says Silva matter-of-factly. “In the Octagon, you have big moments, fast moments, magic. Chris Weidman picked it up this time. It’s normal.”

Silva’s brain works like a NASA computer in the cage—gauging his opponent’s reactions, timing movements, and angles, and storing all that information so he can regurgitate what he learned via inflicting pain and punishment. But he describes the ever-changing, complex art of unarmed combat with its infinite variables in simple terms.

Fight fans view Silva exclusively through an incomplete prism. After staying out of the public spotlight for several months, this mythical figure rises from obscurity just long enough to answer a few questions, weigh in, beat the shit out of a high caliber UFC athlete, answer a couple more questions, then, just as silently as he entered, he disappears again, rarely heard from until he’s called upon to dispatch his next victim.

But Anderson Silva doesn’t disappear. He returns to his family, watches his five kids’ soccer games, catches colds, and even puts on his pants one leg at a time. Like a dolled-up centerfold, fans only see the finished product for a brief snapshot.

It’s no wonder Silva’s loss created such uproar. Fans saw the supermodel without the makeup. The perceived unstoppable force slammed into a brick wall.
Back in Anderson Silva’s shoes, his vision of himself and his role in the fight isn’t hindered by a filter. He’s no dummy. He’s knows he’s special. Two decades of blood, sweat, and tears spilt in the gym is a constant reminder of one’s mortality. He isn’t blinded by only seeing himself through the eyes of fans who’ve only seen him win.

“No, its normal,” Silva utters yet again when asked if losing releases the pressures that come with always winning. “Sometimes…this isn’t the first time I’ve lost a fight. This is normal for me. This is normal in this job.”
Silva understands losing can happen in MMA, even to him. Hell, he’d lost four times prior to that fateful night with Weidman, but it might as well have been a lifetime ago. His dominance has been so sound. In a way, ignorance to the realities of fighting is an excusable offense, at least when it comes to someone as dominant as Silva. When you break nearly every major record in the UFC, it feels like the normal rules don’t apply.

The rules do apply, and Silva is ready to keep playing by them. Inevitably, nearly every loss in the UFC is followed by the retirement question. Rarely does this logic fit, since a bad day at an office job usually isn’t met with a move to Florida and cashing in a 401k.

Retirement after losing is a question he’s been getting a lot. “This is normal,” he responds when asked about losing. “I signed new contract! I get 10 more fights, bro!” The “bro” at the end was an exclamation point. He blurts it out when he’s sick of a question.

He’s not gone. He’s not dead. But by the sound of it, he feels like he needs to constantly remind everyone around him. After Chris Weidman, the usual suspects are still on the table for him. He’s still pursuing super-fights with the champions in the weight classes he’s sandwiched between. UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre and Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones are the only other fighters achieving anything close to Silva’s past dominance. The much talked about and controversially interesting boxing match with Roy Jones Jr. is still on his radar as well. He models himself after other veteran fighters who withstood the test of time and fought well after the new-fighter smell wore off. Randy Couture fought until he was 47 years old. Dan Henderson is 43 and still booking fights in the Octagon. The last thing Silva seems to be thinking about is what’s going on his career tombstone.

While Silva isn’t planning the end of his career, he does think about his legacy. Specifically, he cherishes the influence he has over the kids in Brazil. He remembers children approaching him back in his home country shortly after his loss.

“Kids came crying, talking to me. I say to my fans in Brazil, to the kids, ‘I’m going back, but sometimes this is normal in your life. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t win. But it’s very important you focus. You lost your chance, but you pick up the next opportunity for your life.’”

Anderson Silva’s legacy as the best ever is already set in stone, but he’s still showing up to UFC 168 with a chisel and hammer. The final UFC of 2013 is poised to be the biggest. Aside from the year’s biggest rematch, another rematch fills the co-main event slot between UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey and the woman she defeated for the Strikeforce Championship, Miesha Tate. All eyes will be focused on Vegas on December 28.

The rematch sets the table for even greater heights, but where those heights will go is a perplexing question to answer. If Anderson Silva wins, the saga likely continues with a rubber match between the division’s two best fighters, and Silva’s legacy, along with Weidman’s, continues to evolve. If Weidman repeats his performance from the last time the two fought in the MGM Grand, Silva is left in a puzzling position. What does the UFC do with the best fighter the world has ever seen, but is carrying the baggage of a two-fight losing streak?

The world will soon discover how resilient the once untouchable Silva will be. He’s taking those steps, even now, months away from his life-altering fight, to ensure he rights his one UFC wrong.

“I don’t change too much,” Silva says. “I talk to my grandmaster in Thailand. I go there to train. A new Anderson is coming. That’s it.”

In reality, how much can a 38-year-old fighter change in six months? Old dogs. New tricks. Silva won’t be any taller, stronger, or significantly different technically. Not in six months. But he will be different to every ticket buyer in the arena and everyone around the world watching. Perception is reality, and no one watching will forget he once faltered.

That’s the double-edged sword of perception. It’s constantly evolving. As long as Silva keeps fighting, people’s view of him will alter. Every now and then, a dose of reality wakes us up and the unbeatable inevitably appear human. It’s normal.

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