It wasn't long after Anderson Silva beat Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 before the inevitable chatter began anew. Would Silva move up to light heavyweight full-time? Would he perhaps vacate his middleweight belt? And would he ever agree to fight his close friend and training partner, 205-pound champion Lyoto Machida?
While Silva and his manager Ed Soares say that Silva "wants to be in the biggest fights" whether at 185 or 205, they also say that he would never take place in what could be the biggest: a champion vs. champion matchup against Machida.
The friend vs. friend debate is nothing new in MMA. After all, there are only so many top-notch camps producing world-class talent. But it is a topic that needs to be revisited.
Mixed martial arts has faced a long road to respectability in the mainstream, as it's taken time to educate fans and others that this is a real sport with real athletes. But now that we have that established, we can't be surprised when some of those new observers question why two friends refuse to face each other in a true sport.
Quick quiz: Name another sport in which friends refuse to compete against each other?
If you're having trouble, it's because that sport doesn't exist. Many will say that MMA is different, and that because of the violence involved, the athletes should be given a pass. This is simple doublespeak. We have spent the last several years defending MMA by pointing out that the sport is safer than boxing and just as safe as football, so given that, what's the problem?
Are Machida and Silva reluctant to do it for fear of hurting the other man in the cage? According to a three-year Johns Hopkins University study on MMA, the most common injury suffered in a fight is a facial laceration. The second most common injury is an injured hand. Almost 60 percent of fights ended with no injury to either fighter. Why then, won't they compete against one another?
"Lyoto is my friend and my brother. There is no way this fight will happen," Silva said after UFC 101. "Also, not only because he's a friend, but because he's a problem for me [in the cage]," he said with a wry smile.
Boxers fight their friends all the time. Mickey Ward and the late Arturo Gatti became friends after their first classic encounter and then proceeded to face off in two more wars. Chris Byrd and Jameel McCline were so close before their 2004 bout that they'd baby-sat each other's kids. Even Wladimir and Vitaly Klitschko – who are not only training partners but blood brothers – have considered squaring off against each other for heavyweight supremacy. And in football? Friends have no problem putting a bone-jarring hit on each other, then lending a hand to help each other up.
In MMA, however, there is an entirely different mentality. Three members of American Kickboxing Academy – Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch and Mike Swick – all happen to be top welterweights in the UFC, and all of them say they would never fight each other. What a terrible position it would put the UFC in, then, if Fitch won the title and Swick and Koscheck were the No. 1 and 2 contenders. The UFC would essentially be forced to leapfrog an undeserving contender above them, not to mention that Swick and Koscheck would risk the opportunity at the title -- something that might never come again.
I grant you that there is something unsettling about hitting a close friend in the face, but these men, after all, are in the business of fighting, and while training together, they beat up on each other for free. Stories abound of teammates knocking each other out in sparring sessions. Yet for some reason, they refuse to do it in front of a crowd.
Silva vs. Machida would be a fascinating matchup that many fans would love to see, featuring two fighters who are nearly impossible to hit and incredibly accurate in their striking.
UFC President Dana White says he'll find a way to make the fight if Silva runs through another 205-er or two and Machida is still the champion. That sounds like it would be 12-24 months into the future, so it's possible that one or both might lose between now and then, and White won't have to deal with this mess. But then again, Silva hasn't lost in over three years (11-fight win streak) and Machida's yet to taste defeat in 15 bouts, so what happens if fans start clamoring for this fight?
Somehow, Silva still sees his ultimate destiny coming against Roy Jones in a boxing match, but Jones is already 40 years old and way past his days as a pay-per-view draw. It seems obvious that a matchup with Machida under the UFC banner would much more of a test and much more of a financial windfall, but tragically, MMA fans may never be treated to such a classic.
If this is truly a sport and its practitioners are truly athletes who want to test themselves against the best, Silva, Machida and the rest should re-think their position on fighting friends. If this is truly a sport, these athletes should be professional enough to put their friendship aside for three (or five) rounds, knowing that their battle wounds will heal and their bond will be unbreakable after their shared experience.
Right now, Silva and Machida are two of the world's elite. But which man is better? Sadly, we might never know.