By Thomas Gerbasi
When you’re 6 foot 8 and 265 pounds, ‘graceful’ is not usually a word that follows soon after. But in spurts during his UFC 77 victory over Brandon Vera last October, Tim Sylvia put together quick combinations that fighters half his size would have marveled at. Sure, he wasn’t Anderson Silva, but for a real heavyweight, this was impressive stuff, and it proved why ‘The Maine-iac’ was considered to be one of the best big men in the game.
“It just shows everybody what I can do and I did what I told everybody I was gonna do,” said Sylvia, who improved to 26-3 with the win. “I told them it was gonna be a man fighting a boy, and that’s what it was. I just went in there and big-manned him and said ‘hey, I’m the big dog on the block’ and you’ve still got some growing to do. People thought that he was younger and faster than me and was gonna go out there and knock me out, but I did exactly what I told everybody I was gonna do.”
The real difference though, was that Sylvia wasn’t the same fighter he was seven months earlier, when he dropped his UFC heavyweight title to Randy Couture. He was a new man after undergoing surgery for three bulging discs in his back, an injury that plagued him for a long time and reduced him to a lumbering figure in the Octagon who only got by on his power and savvy when the bell rang. Most of the time, that was enough. Against Couture, it wasn’t, and finally Sylvia had to go under the knife if he wanted to rise to the top once again.
So he did, and the difference was felt immediately.
“The main thing that felt the best was training camp,” said Sylvia. “I didn’t have a 12 week camp that I was in agony in. And being in a fight and being agile and being quick, I was faster than Brandon and he’s 50 pounds lighter than me and five or six years younger than me. That was nice to see when I watched the film afterwards and saw the 17 punch combination I put together with him just throwing one or two punches and trying to catch me.”
The win over Vera, one of the UFC’s rising stars, stunned a lot of people, not just because he won, but in the way he did it, pressing the action throughout the three rounder.
“I think I’m constantly surprising people,” he said. “I’m constantly working on my game. I’m not one of those guys that goes out there, has a training camp, gets in shape, and fights a fight. I try to improve every time I fight, and I try to improve after I fight – I work my weaknesses and I try to bring something new to the Octagon every time I fight.”
And what that victory did for Sylvia was put him right back in the mix at the top of the division, and on Saturday, he will get a chance to make history if he can beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to win the interim UFC Heavyweight title and join Couture as the only men in UFC history to win the crown three times. But the 31 year old Maine native isn’t thinking about history – well, not yet.
“I’m just excited to be back in the Octagon, honestly, and I’m excited to fight Nogueira because I’ve been watching him for a long time and I think he’s somebody that’s a true test for me,” he said. “He’s never been knocked out before and he’s only been beaten by the best, so I definitely want to be the next guy to beat him. I think right now is a great time to fight Nogueira; he didn’t have a good showing in his last fight, and I’m expecting the best out of him, but I think his best against my best – I win every time.”
On paper, you have to give the edge to Sylvia (26-3), a fighter who holds the height, reach, and standup power advantages over Nogueira. Add in his solid takedown defense, and it may be a long night for Brazil’s ‘Minotauro’, especially if you go by his less than stellar performance in beating Heath Herring last July. But Nogueira, a future Hall of Famer, has always excelled against the odds, and if you question that statement, look at his wins over Bob Sapp (over 100 pound weight advantage), Mirko Cro Cop (dominated the first round before getting submitted in the second), and Semmy Schilt (6-11 to Nogueira’s 6-3). So Sylvia’s definitely not overlooking the man who will be standing across the Octagon from him on Saturday night.
“I’m looking at the best Nogueira,” said Sylvia. “I can’t look at that Nogueira and say that’s the same guy that’s gonna show up because I don’t think it’s gonna be. I just think he had some ring rust (against Herring). He hadn’t fought in a while and
whatever it may be, I know he’s better than that.”
That’s not to say Sylvia hasn’t taken a little peek past Saturday night and into his future if he wins the interim title. In fact, the names come to his mouth quickly when asked what the rest of 2008 would look like if he’s champion a third time.
“I want to fight Cheick Kongo,” said Sylvia. “He thinks he’s a bad ass, so I definitely want to fight him, and I want to fight Randy Couture again. I’ve still got 4-5 years left in this sport and there are still guys out there that I want to fight. I want to be the household name in the heavyweight division. When they think of UFC, I want them to think of Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz and myself. I want to be recognized as one of the UFC’s faces. I know I’m close, I’m knocking on that door, and I want that for the rest of my life.”
He also wants a fight against the man who broke his arm in 2004, Frank Mir, someone who has a pretty big fight on his hands as well on Saturday against former pro wrestling star Brock Lesnar.
“I think everybody knows that, even Frank knows that,” laughs Sylvia. “I’m rooting for Frank Mir (on Saturday). I want Frank to go out there and submit him (Lesnar) real quick. Brock Lesnar hasn’t done anything in this sport to even stand next to me, let alone having UFC All-Access, let alone being on the fight poster. He’s a great athlete, don’t get me wrong, and I was a fan of his when he was in WWE, and I trained with him, but he’s just getting a little too big for his britches when he starts talking about me, talking about the heavyweight division. He hasn’t even fought in the UFC yet; where does he get off talking like that?”
From anyone else, you could dismiss such talk as sour grapes. From Tim Sylvia though, a man who earned his keep among the elite in the heavyweight division, you take it seriously. And he promises his third reign will be his greatest.
“If I win on February 2nd, I’m the heavyweight champ again and I want to keep the belt,” he said. “Keep building guys and keep sending them my way, and I’ll just keep knocking them down.”
Then you can’t ignore him anymore.