Wanderlei Silva - The Return of The Axe Murderer - Part I
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When the word “legendary”
precedes your name, it can sometimes be a license to forget where you came from, to avoid the people who supported you through the lean times, and to look down from your ivory tower as a different person than the one you started out as.
But spend a little time with former PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva, a true legend in the sport of mixed martial arts if there ever was one, and you will find someone who hasn’t changed a bit over his 11 years in the fight game. If anything, he has grown more attached to his fanbase and to his role as an ambassador for the sport as he has gotten older.
This was never more evident than in the days leading up to UFC 76 in Anaheim on September 22nd. Recently re-signed to the UFC after a seven year stint in PRIDE that saw him establish himself as one of MMA’s greats, Silva was greeted by scores of fans at every turn, whether at the event weigh-in, the arena, or at the host hotel. There were no bodyguards around Silva, no buffers to keep the people away, and he greeted every fan with the same enthusiasm and gratitude. Even those disappointed when a Friday autograph session had to end had their day brightened when Silva made an effort to shake hands with everyone who didn’t get an opportunity to get their items signed.
For someone so intimidating when the bell rings, it was the starkest of contrasts.
“I come from a very simple family,” Silva explained to UFC.com. “My father had a very, very small bar, and I worked there for ten years. I fought in Japan and still worked in the bar. I had maybe four, five fights, I wasn’t famous, and had money, but just a little bit. I would work, stop and go running, come back, work some more, and you learn that everyone is the same. The fans are great because they want to talk, and they pay your money. They buy the pay-per-view, they buy your brand, and you need to respect them if you want them to respect you. It’s a big lesson my father gave to me.”
Watching Silva interact with the fans gives you a thorough lesson in class, but what is even more amazing is that the famed “Axe Murderer” has only competed twice in the United States, yet is revered here like any of the UFC’s current superstars. This popularity even surprised Silva.
“A little bit,” he said. “I know I have many fans here, but in Japan the fans are quiet and don’t talk much. Here, everyone wants to talk to me, shake my hand, and take my picture. I love it. I love the energy the fans give to me and it’s a great motivation for me for my next fight.”
What that next fight will be is open to plenty of conjecture at this point, though it is expected to take place in December. Of course, on the afternoon of September 22nd, Silva’s first UFC fight since 2000 was pretty much a done deal – if former UFC light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell got by Keith Jardine later that night, the fight fans had been anticipating for years would become a reality. Silva didn’t hesitate when asked if he was nervous about the result of Liddell-Jardine, though he injected a dose of humor into his response.
“Nervous?” asked Silva. “Of course. I want to fight him (Liddell). I’ve waited so long for this fight and everyone wants to see it. But a fight is a fight and this guy (Jardine) is a strong guy. But they have a movie out now, I see it many times on the TV, it says ‘Good Luck Chuck.’ (Laughs) That’s the message I give for him – good luck Chuck.”
Silva’s well wishes weren’t enough for ‘The Iceman’ though, as Liddell dropped a three round split decision to Jardine, putting the dream matchup on hold once again. Yet despite Liddell’s two fight losing streak (which is matched by Silva’s back-to-back losses to Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson), what fight fan out there wouldn’t want to see these two future Hall of Famers duke it out, regardless of whether they lost two or two hundred fights in a row?
Exactly. Everyone still wants to see Silva vs Liddell, especially ‘The Axe Murderer’, who has had his eye on fighting the Californian ever since they fought on the same IVC show in Brazil (Silva against Mike Van Arsdale, Liddell against Pele Land-Jons) in 1998.
“He’s a great fighter,” said Silva of Liddell. “There are many good fighters, but for my first fight, I want to go with the best man. Even though he’s not champion anymore, he’s still the best man. There’s only one ending to this fight and it won’t go to a decision. One guy will go down – me or him. I don’t want judges.”
When Silva talks about fighting – especially about fighting the likes of Liddell or his old nemesis in PRIDE, current UFC light heavyweight boss Quinton Jackson – his eyes narrow and you can almost feel the room getting smaller. He will tap your arm for emphasis, and the intensity that has fueled him throughout his career is evident. No question about it, Silva is the scariest nice guy you will ever meet.
“Many people say that I’m two different people,” he laughs, before explaining the transformation from gentleman to terror once the bell rings. “I trained hard for three or four months for this moment. I want to give my best, I want to win, I want to give a show for my fans, and in my mind, I don’t know, but I change. I want to kill the guy. At times, I fight with my heart a lot and not with my head. Now I have more experience in these situations, but it’s still my style.”
It’s a style that has endeared him to fight fans worldwide, who vigorously defend their hero at every turn simply for the fact that win or lose, he’s coming to fight and that he will keep swinging until someone isn’t standing anymore. Wanderlei Silva is not a points fighter.
“Lose or win, I love it,” said Silva. “Of course I love to win and it’s why I train, but I also love the show. I love to give emotion, and in my mind I’m thinking if I win but there is no emotion, I would prefer to lose a great match where I’m down, the other guy is down, and the crowd goes (makes cheering sound). The guy who is serious and who fights with his heart is a warrior. There are guys who fight only for the money or for the win or to take pictures, and I’m not like that. I like to fight, it’s my job, and I fight with my heart every time.”
Strangely enough though, if you look back at his early career, Silva’s eventual ascension wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. A Muay Thai ace who tore through the Vale Tudo circuit back home in Brazil after making his pro debut in 1996, with his only loss coming due to a cut, Silva was brought to the UFC in 1998 to battle ‘The Phenom’, countryman Vitor Belfort.
The still-explosive Belfort stopped Silva in just 44 seconds, and though he would rebound with a UFC win over Tony Petarra and put together three wins in PRIDE, Silva rolled the dice by going back to the UFC and then lost via decision in a title bout against Tito Ortiz, putting the 11-3 fighter’s future in question.
“My last fight in UFC in Japan with Tito, it was a very small show,” remembered Silva. “And after the fight with him I didn’t have an event. I didn’t go back to PRIDE, I didn’t fight anymore in UFC, and in my mind, I thought, ‘I’m finished.’ I changed from PRIDE to UFC, but I lost.”