The Long Winding Web of Anderson “The Spider” Silva

UFC 126 Anderson Silva UFC 234 Israel Adesanya UFC 237
Credit: Dave Mandel/

Ahead of his final fight, we look back on the UFC career of one of the greatest fighters of all-time in Anderson “The Spider” Silva.

Where does one begin when discussing arguably the greatest of all time?  How about at the beginning.

Anderson “The Spider” Silva became a professional in 1997 in his native Brazil.  A big fan of soccer growing up, Silva lived an ordinary life that involved working at McDonald’s and being a fan of Spider-Man and Muhammad Ali.  Though his early career saw a pair of stumbles, his potential was clear as he also claimed the Shooto championship in 2001.

Silva was a part of PRIDE in the early 2000’s, though he was not one of the superstars of the company compared to several of his countrymen, like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira in the heyday of Japan’s legendary MMA promotion.  The early years of that era would see Silva spend the majority of time in Japan and England, with accolades like the Cage Rage middleweight championship being added to his resume.  This era would also see two of the most confounding losses of his career, with a heel-hook at the hands of Ryo Chonan and a disqualification loss to Yushin Okami on the original Fight Island: Rumble on the Rock.  Silva would end his pre-UFC career with a 17-4 record and one of his many iconic knockouts with an upwards elbow finish over Tony Fryklund.

In 2006, Silva’s debut in the UFC would change the course of MMA history as we knew it.  On June 28, Silva had a debut about as fitting for a future legend as one could have scripted.  Taking on the durable and heavy-hitting Ultimate Fighter veteran Chris Leben, Silva landed 100% of his shots to dispatch “The Crippler” in just 50 seconds.  At a time when the welterweight and light heavyweight divisions were the premiere weight classes in mixed martial arts, a star was born that would bring attention never before seen to the 185 pound weight class.

Following fan support behind his debut, Silva would go on to challenge MMA pioneer and star Rich Franklin.  The former math teacher had been instrumental in growing MMA and changing the perception of who the type of people mixed martial artists were as the sport struggled to find acceptance.  At the time, Franklin had only one loss on his record and was expected to rule the division for a long time when he met the lesser known Brazilian.  Instead, Silva came out and stopped Franklin in brutal fashion to claim the UFC championship and begin a reign that set the benchmark for all future champions.

At a time when the sport was transitioning from the eras of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, and Matt Hughes, Silva’s reign at 185 pounds ushered mixed martial arts into the future.  “The Spider” would catch opponents like Travis Lutter, Nate Marquardt, and Rich Franklin (again) in his web as he established himself as one of the best talents in all of MMA.  Bigger fights would soon follow, with a unification bout against PRIDE champion Dan Henderson coming in 2008 and more pay-per-view headliners against the likes of Patrick Cote.

With each passing performance, his brilliance as a striker became more and more apparent. Seemingly a step ahead of every man to step into the cage with him, Silva’s ability to maintain the distance and dispatch opponents without taking any damage had many describing him as being “in the Matrix.”  As would become his signature, Silva would often go as far as leaving his hands down completely as he confounded opponents with his movements, often landing the fight ending sequence shortly afterward.  Against grapplers such as Henderson and Lutter, he would display a competent submission game as well as he stopped opponents off of his back if they managed to take him off his feet.

The three years from 2009 to 2012 would be remembered as the most iconic part of his career.  He had dabbled at light heavyweight once before, but he took a huge jump in competition when he faced former champion Forrest Griffin in 2009.  Silva put on arguably the most dominant performance of his career, completely dismantling Griffin and having many calling for him to claim a second world title at a time before being a double-champ was all the rage.

Grudge matches with arch-rivals would follow.  In the UFC’s first trip to Abu Dhabi, Silva would have a perplexing fight against Demian Maia whom he defeated in a disappointing unanimous decision that saw him avoid confrontation.  It gave ammunition to his iconic arch-nemesis Chael Sonnen who put on a viral campaign (at a time when such things were new) to promote his fight with Silva in 2010.  Sonnen insulted Silva, his countrymen, and all of Brazil leading up to their bout and the fight was among the most anticipated that year.  What played out is still one of the greatest turn of events in UFC history to this day.  The previously untouchable Silva was dismantled by the wrestling attack of Sonnen who set records for shots landed in the five round bout.  For over 20 minutes, Sonnen dominated the bout and his coronation was quickly approaching as he continued to rain shots down in the final frame.

Only the ending of the fight could live up to the hype of the previous four rounds and it continues to live on as arguably the greatest comeback in UFC history. Against a dominant wrestler, less than a round away from the loss of his title against an opponent who had insulted him to epic proportions in the pre-fight buildup, Silva would throw up his hips to secure a fight ending triangle to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and hold on to the middleweight championship.

Though many expected a rematch with Sonnen to come immediately, a failed drug test for the challenger led to a suspension and Silva turning his attention to a new rival.  Former champion Vitor Belfort had returned to the UFC after UFC President Dana White had tossed his name out as a potential opponent for Silva while Belfort was still technically outside of the company.  The bout pitted two of the best knockout artists of the time against each other, but produced a fight that played out very cautiously.  The two spent minutes respecting the range and speed of the other with only one brief exchange highlighting the bout.  Once again, as he became known for, Silva dropped his hands and met Belfort in the middle of Octagon.  When Belfort did not come forward, Silva timed a perfect front kick down the middle that landed square on his chin and ended the fight.  After recording one of the greatest comebacks of all-time, Silva followed it up with one of the greatest knockouts and few could doubt that he was at the top of the MMA world.

Finally a bonafide superstar, Silva would enter the most anticipated bout of his career: the rematch with Sonnen.  The grudge match had all the ingredients with history and doubt.  Could Sonnen replicate his success after learning from the first bout?  Could Silva make the adjustments necessary to avoid the struggles of the first bout?  Add the mic work from Sonnen and you had a fight that broke pay-per-view records at the time.  While the first bout was remembered for the epic comeback, Silva left no doubt as he found openings early and stopped Sonnen in the second round.

At the height of his powers, few could have expected what came next.  Silva took another fight, on short notice no less, at light heavyweight against Stephan Bonnar later that year.  But it would be close to a year before he stepped into the cage again to defend his middleweight title.  In July of 2013, Silva would meet then undefeated prospect Chris Weidman.  It was a moment few could ever forget, after a competitive first round that favored Silva, “The Spider” lowered his hands as he had done several times before in an effort to confound his opponent. Weidman would have none of it, stepping forward and clipping Silva square on the chin to score an emphatic knockout and end the nearly ten year reign of the champion.

The rematch was one of the biggest in UFC history, bolstered by MMA superstar Ronda Rousey against Miesha Tate on the undercard.  Early in the fight, Silva would find himself struggling with Weidman.  Then the fateful turn of events occurred, Silva would throw a strong kick to the knee of Weidman, snapping his own shin and causing one of the most gruesome injuries in a high profile UFC bout ever seen.  The image of the once invincible Silva being carted out in agonizing pain went on to live indelibly as an era came to a complete stop.

It would be a year before Silva returned to action, against the popular Nick Diaz.  Silva bested him in a dominant five round contest, but the fight would be marred in controversy as the decision was overturned to a no-contest after Silva tested positive for banned substances and would not be seen for another year following a suspension.  The next several years saw Silva struggle to find his familiar form amidst the changing landscape of mixed martial arts.  Another failed USADA test, stemming from a tainted supplement, would also keep him from remaining active.

That said, Silva would still have a few flashes of his familiar brilliance.  His epic war with Michael Bisping in London remains one of the best rated events to be exclusive to UFC Fight Pass.  He then stepped in on 48 hours notice to fight then light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 200.  As recently as last year, Silva was also promoted to the main event of UFC 234 where he pushed future middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to a decision.

Going into Saturday’s bout with Hall, Silva is coming off more than a year long layoff stemming from an injury in a loss to Jared Cannonier last May.  He has left the door open ever so slightly to fight again should things go well, but most expect that his next date for the UFC will be his appearance to accept his place in the Hall-of-Fame.

How does one sum up arguably the greatest of all-time?  Is it the fact that by the numbers he is among the most dominant in history?  Is it the fact that he was involved in some of the highest grossing events of the time without engaging in trash talk?  Is it the fact that stars like Jon Jones and Israel Adesanya, both great and unique in their own right, were immediately compared to Silva before establishing themselves?

It is all those things and then some. Most likely it is what made him different from his contemporaries and cohorts in the conversation of the best ever.  He was a champion and dominant and brilliant in his own was as they all are.  But when it came to dispatching the competition, few could argue that anyone else ever did it with more style.