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If this is the end, Wanderlei Silva leaves the sport with a complex legacy

Wanderlei Silva's 18-year-career as an MMA fighter saw him spend more than a decade as one of the most popular fights the sport has ever seen. And it may have ended this past week, in disgrace.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Few fighters in history will end up having as complex a legacy as Wanderlei Cesar da Silva, who announced his retirement on Friday in a videotaped interview that came across a bitter attack on the UFC and, four days later, may have shut the door on a return.

The Nevada Athletic Commission’s indefinite suspension of Silva, which was outright categorized that he would never be allowed to be licensed in the state again, looks to have been an administrative end to his career, at least in the UFC, and likely the United States.

The UFC has never defied -- and probably never will defy -- the NAC by using a suspended fighter outside the U.S. It's just now how Zuffa operates, especially since CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, along with major executives Marc Ratner and Kirk Hendrick, have backgrounds with the commission prior to their days with the UFC. Commissions in the U.S. and Canada respect suspensions from other commissions.

By releasing the video, Silva, who at first looked to be a sure-fire Hall of Famer, may have prevented himself from getting into the only major Hall of Fame the sport has. Well, at least until there's a reconciliation. But even then, the close of his career being a lifetime ban for running from a drug test is probably the worst ending possible to a career, and it raises obvious questions. And the funny thing is, a year earlier, he could have had a perfect ending.

For a guy who never once said it was time to step away for the usual reasons of age catching up with him, instead claiming he was leaving because he had no stage to get the proper respect, the decision to retire came across as rash and hasty. But after the commission hearing, his retirement was almost a moot point. Fighters constantly reconsider retirement announcements, but now any second thoughts can be removed from the equation.

The question becomes, what does he do now? Does the UFC release him and allow him to fight overseas with another organization? Because there are plenty of places, Japan in particular, with no commission regulation. Or, if he is released from his UFC contract, does he take rumored pro wrestling offers from Japan -- rumors that started circulating about a week before his retirement -- to reprise his legendary rivalry with Kazushi Sakuraba on the entertainment stage?

Silva has done little but talk about future fights, particularly with Chael Sonnen, for the past year. Even when Sonnen retired, and his own future as far as being licensed was called into question, Silva appeared in denial, and continued to promote the idea of the fight. Until Friday, he never spoke about retirement. On the flip-side, one could argue that even if this was the biggest black eye ending of a genuine legend in the history of MMA, perhaps the timing was for the best.

At 38, his best days are long behind him, even though he can still compete at a decent level. His ring style and training style --  basically competing in wars and preparing by training like it was a war -- were obviously no good for longevity. Yet, because of his name and the excitement level he brought, he spent seven years in the UFC when he was already past his peak.

Silva’s 18-year career spanned the gamut of brutal Vale Tudo fights in Brazil -- where no gloves were used, and things like head butts, stomps and soccer kicks were permissible -- to all-out wars behind closed doors at the Chute Boxe Academy in Curitiba. His career included some of the most memorable and important fights in MMA history.

He helped take the Pride Fighting Championships and MMA in Japan in general to new levels of popularity. For years Silva was half of the ultimate forbidden fruit bout of the time -- a dream match against the UFC's Chuck Liddell. The fight nearly happened a few times when both were the respective 205-pound champions of their organizations. And even though it took place after each had lost their title, when it finally did take place at UFC 79, it lived up to all expectations.

But the wars took their toll. Silva was only 31 when he debuted in the UFC against Liddell on Dec. 29, 2007. And even then, he was not the same fighter he had been a few years earlier. Still, he showed signs of the explosiveness and ferocity that made him one of the most popular fighters in history right up until his last fight.

His name was big enough that had his fight with Sonnen not been derailed by both fighter's issues with drug testing, it would have likely been the UFC’s biggest fight of 2014 that didn’t involve a championship belt.

After spending all year talking about wanting to fight Sonnen, in the retirement video Silva admitted for the first time that he really didn’t want to -- or at least didn’t want to until the end of the year. He blamed the UFC for pressuring him into taking the fight, at first in May, and when he turned down that date, next in July. He said his training didn’t go the way he wanted, and he wouldn’t have been at 100 percent. He even turned down the UFC’s offer to increase his purse to get him to fight on the July show. He claimed if they were willing to pay him more to fight in July, they should have offered more money to him from the start, saying they don’t pay the fighters enough.

"They told me I had to fight on that date and offered me a bunch of money," Silva said in his retirement video. "They would pay me extra to fight on that date. So I asked myself, if they had the money, why didn’t they offer it to me before? They always hold on to the money. So they always underpay the athletes. But they do have the money."

At his hearing, his lawyer Ross Goodman noted Silva had never signed a contract for the Sonnen fight, even though he appeared on a stage to promote the July 3 fight the day before he fled the drug test.

Silva started pushing for the Sonnen fight in 2013, with words at first, and later a taped confrontation. That set up a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter in Brazil opposite Sonnen, designed to promote their fight after the show had aired this past spring. He claimed he told UFC he wouldn’t be ready to fight until the end of 2014.

Had Silva announced his retirement in the cage after his last fight, a win over Brian Stann at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan on March 3, 2013, it would have been the storybook ending everyone wants and almost nobody gets. It was one of the wildest fights in UFC history. It was almost like a choreographed version of the craziest fight you could put together in a movie script. The old "Axe Murderer" returns one last time and scores one last signature knockout, in the arena that made him a legend.

The first round was one of the most exciting in MMA history. Silva was knocked down three times, and Stann twice. Silva finished Stann’s night with a second-round knockout. And, 18 months later, it looks like each ended the others' career at the same moment. Stann retired a few months later and now Silva has followed suit.

But the last year hasn’t done Silva much good. He came across as a thug through his season on TUF Brazil. His behavior lost him so much popularity that a national poll saw the Brazilian fan-base favoring Sonnen, who was the most hated MMA fighter in that country’s modern history when TUF Brazil started. Still, Silva kept telling fans he wanted the Sonnen fight. He would post videos hyping it. All the while, behind the scenes, he wouldn’t sign the bout agreement for the fight.

Then it fell apart, seemingly for good, when both men had issues with surprise drug testing in late May.

Silva evaded the test, claiming later it was because he thought a diuretic he was taking to eliminate swelling might show up. Sonnen failed his, for drugs medically prescribed to help kick his body back into gear after Nevada and the UFC banned usage of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), of which he'd previously had an exemption to use.  Sonnen could have survived that bullet and probably fought again, but a second test -- taken a few weeks later -- also added human growth hormone (HGH) and erythropoietin (EPO) to the substances he tested positive for. Sonnen didn’t contest the results, and has admitted to using the banned substances. He then announced his retirement.

In time, nostalgia will likely be kind to the tarnished end of the Silva career. Whatever PED questions there are regarding Silva’s prime while fighting in Japan have to be put into perspective, because Pride neither tested for such drugs, nor banned them. PEDs ran rampant across the organization. Silva wasn’t the same fighter in the UFC, but the reality was, he was fading in Pride as well. In his last fight before signing with UFC, he was knocked out by Dan Henderson at Pride 32. The loss ended a nearly five-and-a-half year reign as Pride middleweight champion, which, in that promotion, was the 203.6-pound weight division.

Birth of 'The Axe Murderer'

In the days when No Holds Barred (NHB) fights -- as they were known at the time -- were few, Silva garnered a reputation in his very first year of competition. He scored three wins in less than four minutes in wild Brazilian fights with no gloves and virtually no rules, including a win over top American wrestler, Sean Bormet.

The fight that made people take notice, though, was on Aug. 23, 1998, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when he finished Mike Van Arsdale in four minutes. At the time, wrestlers were dominating the sport, and Van Arsdale was a genuine world class wrestler who showed an early aptitude for striking. Still, Silva beat him in brutal fashion, and signaled his arrival.

Silva was signed to the UFC for his first run, debuting in a top position on UFC’s inaugural show in Brazil, on Oct. 16, 1998, again in Sao Paulo. He was put in the No. 2 fight on the show against 19-year old Vitor Belfort, underneath the Frank Shamrock-John Lober main event, which was a under 200-pound title match. It was the technical boxing-trained striker in Belfort against the wild brawling striker in Silva. Belfort overwhelmed Silva by moving in with rapid punches, and, in one of the most replayed clips in MMA history, "The Phenom" ended Silva’s night in 45 seconds.

But Silva went on a six-fight winning streak afterwards. When Shamrock retired, the UFC moved the 200-pound weight class to 205, and changed the name from middleweight to light heavyweight, largely to accommodate Tito Ortiz, its top star in the division. Silva had started fighting in Pride by that time and was known in Japan, but nowhere near the star he’d soon become.

Ortiz vs. Silva headlined Ultimate Japan 3, on April 14, 2000, to create the first UFC light heavyweight champion. Ortiz won a five-round decision in a lackluster fight, most of which Ortiz controlled by holding Silva down. But the fight that made Silva’s career happened on March 25, 2001, at the Saitama Super Arena.

The reality of Sakuraba is that he had a great low single-leg takedown and very good submissions, but his striking was never anything special. The sad part about him is, with Japan being more about storylines than sport, Sakuraba was usually fighting much bigger men that he was expected to overcome; today someone his size would have probably fight at lightweight, maybe welterweight at the highest. Yet during his prime, Sakuraba was facing the toughest light heavyweights in the world.

And in 2001, perhaps none were more dangerous than Silva. When they fought, Silva destroyed Sakuraba in 1:38 with knees and soccer kicks at the Saitama Super Arena. It was the right win at the right time, and Silva instantly became a scary superstar.

Of course, it being Japan, Sakuraba had to gain revenge, and the rematch on Nov. 3, 2001 was so big that it was moved to the Tokyo Dome. Unlike the previous Pride shows at the Tokyo Dome where lots of tickets were given away and attendance claims were greatly exaggerated to the public, this was the real deal.

Sakuraba vs. Silva was easily the most anticipated MMA fight up to that point in Japan, and in reality, ever for the sport. It sold out, with 53,000 people in attendance. Pride created a middleweight championship belt to go to the winner to add to the aura. This time Sakuraba was far more competitive, getting Silva on his back on more than one occasion. But Silva slammed Sakuraba on his shoulder, causing it to dislocate, and the match was stopped by the doctor at the end of the ten-minute first round.

The game for the next few years was to find the Japanese star to beat Silva. Pride was drawing huge crowds as they sent pro wrestlers, karate fighters and judokas after Silva, all to be destroyed. Sakuraba even got a third fight, where he was finished with a violent one-punch knockout.

Throughout the time, Silva filled the role of the foreign monster well in Japan. He looked scary, and fought scarier. His nickname -- "The Axe Murderer" -- fit the profile. At one point, Silva went 18 fights, mostly against well-known Japanese, without a loss, usually winning in brutal fashion. Included in this streak were two Fights of the Year -- the 2003 bout against judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida, and the second fight against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2004.

For the next couple of years, fans filled arenas and bought pay-per-views to witness the day when a Japanese fighter would do to Silva what Sakuraba had done to the Gracies. But the day never came. By late 2003, when Silva faced Jackson for the first time, the Japanese fans had a change of heart, cheering the established star they knew against the newcomer they didn’t know as well.

Ironically, the end of Silva's streak was in a spectacle of a fight that was hastily put together on the Dec. 31, 2004, show at the Saitama Super Arena. New Year’s Eve was all about a network television special putting the best fighters, as well as celebrities, in matches that were aimed to everyone but serious fight fans. The idea was to get everybody, from children to senior citizens, intrigued by a spectacle of stars fighting.

Among the many gimmicks that year was pitting Silva, the unbeatable middleweight champion, against Mark Hunt, who outweighed him by 76 pounds. Silva actually got Hunt down during the fight, but when they were standing it was bad news for Silva. He punches didn't have the power to hurt the man with a cinder block of a head, nor was it good for him to take power shots from a huge heavyweight. Even with that being the case, the fight was competitive and went the distance, with Silva losing via split decision.

The streak might have been over, but Silva remained a star. In 2005, in arguably the greatest tournament in MMA history, he lost in the semifinals of the middleweight Grand Prix to Ricardo Arona via decision. But in the rematch, with the title at stake, he avenged himself with a  split decision victory.

In 2006, he entered the Open Weight Grand Prix at a muscular 225 pounds. He beat the big wrestler, Kazuyuki Fujita, in the first round, but was knocked out by the Mirko Cro Cop's trademark left high kick in the semifinals of the tournament. In his first fight in the United States at Pride 32 on February 24, 2007, in Las Vegas -- now with drug testing involved -- he was knocked cold by Dan Henderson, losing his title.

Pride went down in 2007, with the promotion never having found the Japanese fighter to beat Silva, not even among the heavyweights they stuck against him.

That same year, as Zuffa purchased Pride's assets, a key to the deal was the contract of Silva. While both were no longer champions of their respective organization, Silva vs. Liddell could finally happen, and when it did it more than lived up to its hype. It was a three-round war that went down as one of the best fights of its time. Ultimately, Liddell scored the decision.

Silva’s seven years with UFC were largely unremarkable as far as the title situation went. After Liddell, he never earned a championship match. He went 4-5 overall, but every fight was against a major star at the time, including several main events. Still, his aura was strong and from day one until his finale against Stann, he was one of the most popular fighters in the promotion.

Over the period, there were many sparks of the "old Silva." Three of his fights were very memorable; the loss to Liddell, and the wins over Cung Le and Stann. All were among the best fights of their respective years. He completely demolished Keith Jardine in 36 seconds at UFC 84, looking like a throwback to his days in Pride. But he also lost spectacularly, too, getting knocked out quickly by Jackson and Chris Leben.

In the end, Silva was the epitome of a fans’ fighter. His style of coming in, brawling wildly with fists, feet and knees -- particularly in his prime -- gave his fights an aura of violence and excitement. In each fight a finish could come at any second, a prospect that left you on the edge of your seat. He looked the part, too. His signature hand-rolling gesture before the fight gave him a uniqueness, like he couldn’t wait to explode when the bell rang. And oftentimes, that’s exactly what he did.

Silva's superstardom was, in large part, being in the right place at the right time. Sakuraba was really too small for his division, and as the game switched from submission grapplers to strikers with submission defense, somebody was going to make a name off him. Silva was the guy who got him first. But that isn’t to say he wasn’t a great fighter. Even without the Sakuraba matches, he’d have been a fan favorite because of his charisma and ring style.

But that style, particularly the wars in the gym out of the public eye, led to inevitable injuries that hurt him from a longevity aspect. Even still he had more than five years as a champion in a major organization, and could headline cards long after Pride finished up.

There will always be the questions regarding the Pride era, and there is the reality that Silva's streak was fed on facing primarily Japanese fighters who were smaller, many of whom came from pro wrestling (Sakuraba, Alexander Otsuka, Kiyoshi Tamura, Hiromitsu Kanehara, Ikuhisa Minowa, Kazuyuki Fuujta and Yuki Kondo), to fill the narrative that was drawing at the time..

Later, there was his bizarre behavior while coaching TUF, which led to him losing popularity in his native Brazil. There is the aspect of what he said publicly about fighting Sonnen being contradicted with what he was doing privately. And the vision of his running from a drug test, with the physical differences of him from the Pride era to the UFC era -- and the discrepancy in successes -- would be naive to overlook.

In the end, Silva was a crowd-pleaser in three very different versions of the sport. He had more legendary fights than just about anyone. He was one of the sport’s great unique personalities. And he had the luck of timing. But even without it, he would have been one of the most exciting fighters of all-time under any circumstances. He survived at the top for nearly two decades.

In reality, Silva's good points, bad points, and contradictions in many ways represent the good points, bad points and contradictions of the sport itself. He has both seen it all and been it all. In the end, Silva went from a big player from the primitive era of backyard brawls, to the freak show Japanese network television entertainment spectacle era, to the attempts to weave it into a real sport era.

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