It was a storybook ending for Wanderlei Silva and Mark Hunt as they returned to the site of past glories on Saturday night for UFC on Fuel 8 at the Saitama Super Arena.
It was a dozen years ago, in the same arena, when Silva (35-12, 1 no-contest) went from being a regular fighter known for his aggressive style, to being a mainstream sports star in Japan. At the time, Kazushi Sakuraba had become a Japanese national hero for wins over four different Gracie family members, and was the biggest name in the sport in Japan. But Silva overwhelmed Sakuraba in 1:38 in their March 25, 2001, main event. In doing so, he became an instant superstar. This led to a rematch later that year, the first time an MMA event had legitimately sold out the Tokyo Dome.
But it had been more than six years since Silva last fought in Japan. It was a period where he had lost six of nine fights.
Instead, it was a scene reminiscent of the night when it looked like Tito Ortiz was going to bid farewell to UFC after a series of losses, and he shocked the entire MMA world by beating a heavily-favored Ryan Bader.
Silva, in a fight many were speculating would be his last in UFC, got the "Ortiz" moment.
Silva was knocked down three times in a first round by the favored Brian Stann (12-6), that brought back memories of the legendary Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama brawl. But he came back in round two, with a hard right that may have finished Stann on its own. But he insured the deal with a follow-up left hook, and punches on the ground.
"I'm so proud," said an emotional Silva in the ring. "Thanks Dana White, thanks Joe Silva for giving me the wonderful opportunity to fight here in Japan."
While Silva was becoming the legend killer in Pride with his first two wins over Sakuraba, that same year Hunt was also becoming a big star in Japan. Hunt first made his name as a kickboxer, winning the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix tournament. In those days, the K-1 tournament was so big that in Japan it was probably the equivalent of a Final Four or a World Series in the U.S.
Hunt (9-7), a New Zealand native known a "The Super Samoan," a short, stocky, super heavyweight known for knockout power and an iron chin, has remained a celebrity. Even 11 years after his big triumph, Hunt was brought to Japan at the end of the past year for sports celebrities arm wrestling and tug-of-war tournaments, featuring celebrity athletes from a number of sports in Japan. To show his raw power, Hunt won the tug-of-war, beating huge sumos, football players and even 330-pound Bob Sapp.
But as an MMA fighter, Hunt has had mixed results. Between 2006 and 2009, he lost five fights in a row. He was under contract to Pride when it folded and UFC had no interest in him. The only reason he got into UFC was due to a lengthy legal battle where the company was forced to honor his Pride contract.
Now, one month shy of 39, Hunt has the longest winning streak among the top UFC heavyweights. His knockout win over Stefan Struve (29-6) made four in a row.
Both Silva and Hunt were both sizeable underdogs, although stylistically it would have been foolish to believe they didn't stand a chance because punching power is still the last physical attribute for fighters to go.
It was a big night, both good and bad, for several, so let's look at how the fortunes changed for five:
MARK HUNT - With consecutive wins over Chris Tuchscherer, Ben Rothwell, Cheick Kongo and Struve, suddenly Hunt has earned the right to be put in with a top level heavyweight.
The very idea something like this would have been possible would have been preposterous when he made his UFC debut, where he was submitted in 1:03 to Sean McCorkle, someone long gone from the UFC.
Hunt's stand up game makes him dangerous for any heavyweight in the game. But his training with the American Top Team over the past year since he last fought has made a major difference. Hunt was always going to be dangerous for anyone standing, but the book on him was he was a turtle on his back.
But Saturday, Hunt survived being mounted and pounded in both the first and second rounds, as well as a number of submission attempts. And Struve is top shelf on the ground, with 16 submission wins in his career.
If you've got a Mark Hunt who can stay out of trouble on the ground, you've got someone who can be dangerous for almost any heavyweight on the roster.
DIEGO SANCHEZ - Sanchez (26-5) scored a split decision over Takanori Gomi, in a fight he was heavily favored in.
But the fight was close enough that the returning stars of Pride trio booked in the top three matches nearly had a clean sweep.
Sanchez missed weight by two pounds in his return to the lightweight division. He did not look like himself during the fight. With Stephan Bonnar and Kenny Florian retired, Forrest Griffin near the end of his career, and Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, and Chris Leben having bad performances their last time out, it hits home that we've seen the rise to the top and going back down of most of the stars of that first year of The Ultimate Fighter.
Now 31, the best that can be said is he got his hand raised and can move forward, Sanchez is small by today's welterweight standards, but there is a question now about where he now stands as a lightweight.
HECTOR LOMBARD - Nobody lost more on Saturday than Lombard (32-4-1, 1 no contest), in dropping a close split decision to Yushin Okami. Lombard had stumbled, losing a close decision to Tim Boetsch in his UFC debut. But he claimed to have been seriously injured before the fight, and he didn't fight like he normally did. But he rebounded in December with a first-round knockout of Rousimar Palhares.
Lombard was given a fat contract to come into UFC. He was Bellator's middleweight champion and hadn't lost in his previous 25 fights. The feeling is with one win, and his streak, he could be a legitimate contender to Anderson Silva. After the win over Palhares, it was easy to dismiss the Boetsch fight, and that he could be a viable title contender.
But with the loss to Okami, even though close, it's very questionable, at 35, whether Lombard really can get to that level. He's far from a title match. He was taken down repeatedly by Okami, who is good at takedowns, but far from the best in that aspect in the division. And with his high salary, given because of the feeling he was going to be fast-tracked for Anderson Silva, one wonders what his future is, particularly after Jon Fitch was cut, and Lombard has a far higher salary and is every bit as far from title contention.
WANDERLEI SILVA - If Wanderlei Silva's career was a movie, there could be no better final scene. Brian Stann proved to be the perfect opponent to have a match reminiscent of Silva's wars in Japan during hie heyday. And even though losing, Stann all week talked about the historical significance, noting he would never be the fighter Silva was in his prime.
"Wanderlei's always been one of my favorite fighters ever," said Stann moments after the loss. "He's one of the fighters who inspired me to start in this sport. I'm very, very proud to have been part of his career, as much as this hurts and my heart is broken. I'm still proud I put my name on the line and I fought him."
Silva, 36, is probably never going to be in the title picture. And given the excitement in the match, and the setting, it's hard to believe he'll have another moment that will top this.
Silva, like former rival Chuck Liddell, has a certain respect from the fans for what he's done. It seems no matter how many times he loses, he remains one of the most popular fighters in the sport. He's aware his clock his ticking, but for one night, he got to be what he once was.
"I'll fight (again)," he said. "I feel healthy, I've had a couple of injuries. Sooner or later I need to stop. I'm happy for having the energy to make this show for my fans. I like to make my fans happy around the world."
BRIAN STANN - People may say that in a fight as exciting as Silva vs. Stann that there are no losers. And from a marketability standpoint, Stann didn't hurt himself. If anything, he'll gain in popularity his performance in losing. And Stann has a lot going for him, between a usually exciting fighting style, his background and his speaking ability.
But as far as being a meaningful opponent for the top middleweights, the division he's moving back into, it's going to be tough. Since his Memorial Day weekend win over Jorge Santiago, a fight of the night where he came across as a rising superstar both physically and verbally, Stann has now lost three out of four fights. Granted, the losses have been all to big names, Silva, Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping.
His next fight may not be a must-win for his job. Stann has enough going for him that the frequent three losses in a row and you're gone rule may not apply, even in these times of major roster cuts. But for him to be considered anything more than a popular guy to have on the card, and be able to be a strong featured fighter, he's desperately in need of a win.