One downside of prizefighting is that there aren’t a lot of happy endings. If age doesn’t begin to shut the reflexes down then brain trauma -- or serious injury, or fight game pressures, or mental exhaustion, or some callous coalition of all the above -- probably will. Should a fighter’s pride try and defy these things, it happens in front of a cringing public who play over the "return to glory" motif like a loud, collective conscience.
The fight game has always seemed more brutal when guys hang around too long. For some of us, it’s the only time the fight game seems brutal at all.
And it’s especially true of the greats. Mark Kram once wrote about a talk he had with Muhammad Ali long after a career of cruel encounters, that when looking into his eyes it was just "the dancehall at daybreak."
Where once there was a party that felt like it would go on forever, there is now the sober morning light and a ringing in the ears. Fighters aren’t meant for fairy tale endings. Most end badly. They just march off the plank.
It was tough to see Anderson Silva go out like that at UFC 168. Tough because at 38 this was the fork in the road fight that would either send him towards the twilight, or back to where many hoped he belonged, which was on top. In his case, age seemed more like a mirage than a factor, and his reflexes, if they had slowed at all, were still faster than the mortal man’s. It didn’t feel like he was sticking around too long. It felt more like cherishing -- more like "soak him in now, because who knows how long he'd afford us the privilege."
Nobody was lamenting Silva, who’d minimized his damage over the years; there was just hopeful intrigue as to how many more helpings of greatness were left, and whether or not we'd fully appreciate him when it was all said and done.
But when Silva snapped his shin in two trying to kick Weidman’s legs out from under him, it came to a different kind of end. It was a gruesome, abrupt and very real-turning end -- the most sudden end to a career (in all likelihood) that was built on other-realm artistry like the UFC had never known. Silva clutching his broken leg as the mystique gathered over him and fled the room. How cold it happens.
And yet it was real. As real as it gets. It was a reminder of just how literal the thing really is. For all of fighting’s pageantry, you forget sometimes that human beings break. Or that the idea, at root, is for one human to break the other, which makes it the ultimate form of competition (and entertainment). Watch it long enough, and you can fall into a false state of security -- or worse, you can become a romantic. Watching Silva break, to see the other eight fights on his contract voided on the spot in the cruelest, most unsmiling way is actually, in its own way, the very beauty of the fight game.
The thing is, there are no tomorrows.
There are literal exchanges that either end in glory or in ambulances, and sometimes both. Silva, who through 16 fights in the UFC and 10 title defenses functioned as the Fight Game Sublime, was never anything other than vulnerable himself. In fact, while he was on his winning streak and batting back each challenger, he became an outsized event in the law of averages. He was an event in the way that a hot blackjack player forms a crowd by doubling down after each win, staking tall leaning towers of chips that most of us would never have the nerve (or want) to gamble. His greatness was a vicarious experience that was easy to sort of "live and die" with, because you knew at some point it would end, that one day he would lose, even if the most delusional side of you wanted it to go on forever.
Vicarious enough that when he did lose in July, the first word was "fluke." He clowned around and got caught. Simple as that. He’d be back because that’s what he does.
But he broke his leg in the second encounter, against Weidman's hydrant-solid knee, and it’s a very good possibility that that is the end of Anderson Silva’s remarkable career. It’s not the end anybody wanted, but it’s an end that speaks to the cold arbitrary reality of mixed martial arts, which is all about the ultimate extremes and unpredictability. Fighters train for six to eight weeks to test themselves against chaos, of which they have only partial control (no matter what they think).
A month ago Georges St-Pierre succumbed to the mental pressure of fighting. He walked away and ceded the welterweight belt he once begged on his knees for the chance at getting. Chris Leben, who built a reputation for his iron chin for the last decade, quit on his stool between rounds against Uriah Hall. "I’m done, man," he said. He was Silva’s first victim in 2006. That acceptance was its own poetry.
There aren’t a lot of happy endings in fighting. There are mostly just endings, some of them tragic. For as great as Anderson Silva has been, and for as masterful as he’s been in defying the walls closing in around him for as long as he did, the fight game makes no exceptions.
In fact, those stakes, with the assurance of where they lead, become its beauty.