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'Like Water' Documentary a 3-D Look at Anderson Silva's Life in the Spotlight

"Like Water," the documentary film about UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, is like martial arts itself, a focus on journey as much as destination. The film follows Silva during arguably the most turbulent time of his fighting life, from just after his baffling performance against Demian Maia last April through his career-defining moment in a fifth-round comeback win against Chael Sonnen four months later.

The film, which just had its world premiere at the renowned Tribeca Film Festival, is a step forward not only for Silva, but for mixed martial arts, which too often depends on manufactured drama as a selling point for its main events. Director Pablo Croce strips away any pretense and gives a three-dimensional look at the human side of one of MMA's signature athletes. In a sport that is often depicted as cartoonish or dismissed as a B-level fad by surface-grazing mainstream media, it is one of the first layered, mature examinations of a top fighter and his world. For some, it might come as a revelation that fighters are real people with real lives.

Central to the drama is Silva as a family man. For the Sonnen camp, he left Brazil for two months to live in Los Angeles and train with Team Black House. To do that, he leaves behind his family -- his wife, three sons and two daughters -- and spends much of the time pining for them. At one point before the Sonnen fight, he is asked what his goal is. "To come back home in one piece," he says without hesitation. For a champion at the top of his game, in the midst of a record title run, it's a candid admission, one rooted in his love of family, noting that to them, winning or losing is not important. "To them, I will always be champion," he says.

Yet these personal, introspective moments are somewhat rare. Silva the subject can be just as elusive as Silva the fighter. Media members have already known that for years, and that too, is covered. During the leadup to the fight with Sonnen, the challenger's trash talk was ratcheted up to Defcon 1, yet the more he had to say, the quieter Silva became.

It reached head-scratching levels during a media teleconference for the fight, during which Silva answered several queries with one-word answers. With each passing answer, the frustration grows for Silva's manager Ed Soares, who is translating for him. Afterward, a weary Soares offers a half-hearted explanation of Silva's behavior when in the midst of his answer, his phone rings. It's UFC president Dana White, and it's clear he isn't happy.

Silva's mercurial behavior -- both in the cage and out -- is never really explained. But in some ways we learn it can't be; it's simply who he is. At times he's childlike, at times he's reflective. At one point, he exasperatedly bemoans the repetitive nature of media questions, complaining that he repeatedly hears the same ones, and that the answers are already known. His cage antics are seen but he offers no commentary on why he clowned Maia, though he later alludes to it by essentially saying that winning is his only reply to negative reviews.

But we also get full view of the burden of expectation placed on his shoulders. Success isn't enough, he has to win with style. Autograph hunters and picture seekers swarm him repeatedly. The critics have their pencils sharpened and at the ready.

Silva's means of deflection isn't a verbal reply or refutation, it's his way of life. His dedication to martial arts and his view of it don't require him to please anyone as much as it requires him to fight by its codes. In that, he finds peace. That's obvious during a moment he shares with Lyoto Machida. At the time, Machida was coming off his first career loss, a knockout at the hands of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua that had cost him the light-heavyweight championship. Silva advises Machida that he should not change his style to placate fans, that he must fight in his own way.

That's easy for Silva to say. He's a singular talent in a world full of carbon copies. Even though you know Silva will beat Sonnen in the end, seeing his dedication and commitment to the goal enriches the knowledge of the outcome. At one point, one of Silva's training partners tells him, "You're going to knock him out." Sonnen had trashed Silva's jiu-jitsu teachers, the Nogueira brothers in the leadup to the fight, and it was clearly in the front of his mind at that moment. "No," he said, "I'm going to submit him."

That foreshadowing might get lost in the shuffle for any non-MMA fan who watches the documentary, but for the rest of us, it's like Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. So when he does get Sonnen to tap out in the fifth and final round of a fight he seemed well on the way to losing, it made something else he said at the beginning of the film sound downright prophetic: "I'm not the best, but I'm capable of achieving the impossible."

This is a film that captures the greatest triumph of one of MMA's greatest champions. It is a valuable snapshot of an important figure in a sport that sorely lacks such historical perspectives. At a run time of 75 minutes, "Like Water" goes by in a flash. Much like Silva himself, the film leaves us assured we were graced by the presence of an epic figure while wishing we got to see a little more of him.

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