clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The unlikely story of Joe Silva, a guy working at an arcade who changed the history of MMA

New, 59 comments
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Many decades ago, CBS had a television show about a loading dock worker who by a rare twist of fate, was promoted to being the vice president of the company he worked for. In doing so, his real life blue-collar existence gave him street smarts that the more educated stuffed shirts in the company's ivory towers couldn't relate to.

Every episode, the company would get into one problem or another. And in the end, the most unlikely executive every week managed to save the day.

The show was immediately dismissed by critics as preposterous, and has long been forgotten about.

Some 20 years ago, a 29-year-old guy working at an arcade parlor made a random phone call to a major New York executive who didn't know him. By some fluke, the executive took the call, and was fascinated by his knowledge of a subject that almost nobody really truly knew. During the ensuing decades, a series of flukes then followed, which ended up with him as vice president and one of the key people in building toward the biggest sports purchase in history.

Word came out this week that Joe Silva, the UFC's Vice President of Talent Relations, or head matchmaker to use the old-school boxing term, was retiring, probably at the end of this year. The improbable rags-to-riches story ends with the happy ending of being able to take care of his family due to being financially set from getting a big payout from the recent company sale. The story ends with him finally being able to turn off his computer whenever he feels like it.

The computer was just another thing that when this journey started he never owned. 

Silva, along with Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White are the three people most responsible for the success of the UFC, taking it from a barely surviving entity to an incredibly successful sports franchise with a $4 billion price tag. The fact he survived so long in a cutthroat position while refusing to live in Las Vegas speaks volumes about the respect Fertitta and White had for his work.

Silva never sought public fanfare or recognition, and almost never gave public interviews. His decisions on talent and direction, while not always followed by White and Fertitta -- who were far more ambitious about growth -- were always respected. While all three worried about the money fights at the top of the card, the vast majority of matches put together over the last 15 years in UFC were Silva's handiwork. While the fighters would speak his name in interviews, and he'd appear on camera often at the weigh-ins, most of his work was behind-the-scenes.

White rarely talked much about him, past saying an oft-repeated line, "You can never win an argument with Joe Silva."

Silva grew up in Richmond, Va., a voracious reader and huge fan of fighting, whether it was boxing, kickboxing, martial arts or pro wrestling. When he'd read articles about unbeatable street fighters in Black Belt magazine, with their paralyzing death touches, he did enough sparring and fighting mixed rules matches with his buddies to know it was perhaps more phony than the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling matches that he followed and studied the matchmaking of. He knew that boxing was often a sport of mismatches, and unlike what the public believed, boxers were not the greatest fighters in the world. He knew about the value of wresting and submissions in real-life full combat situations long before most in the fighting world had a clue what they were. And he knew the fantasy of what real fights were propagated in martial arts movies, or that sports people who thought of boxing as real fighting was a false reality.

When UFC came along in 1993, it was a venue that was exactly like something he wanted, where people would learn what real fighting was, as opposed to the various fantasies spread.

After one of the early UFCs, he saw an ad in Black Belt magazine from Semaphore Entertainment Group, the parent company of the UFC, looking for fighters. He called the number, not expecting anything. For whatever reason, Campbell McLaren, who was running the UFC, took the call. They talked for hours. They continued to talk. McLaren was fascinated by his knowledge and perspective and wanted him to start attending shows. Silva, who had never been on an airplane in his life, continually turned him down.

Finally, at the end of 1995, SEG promoted a show called the Ultimate Ultimate. It was a one-night tournament of champions with the best lineup in the company's history. The lure of such a card overrode his not wanting to get on a plane.

Before long, McLaren would refer to Silva as the UFC's greatest fan, and then hired him, sometimes calling him "our secret weapon."

When UFC tried to shed its no rules image, it was Silva who worked with John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick to write the sport's first rule book. 

Had UFC been sold in 2000 to Dan Lambert, now the owner of American Top Team, as all signs pointed at the time, Silva's story would have likely ended. Instead, it was sold to the Fertitta Brothers. White, who was put in charge, had found out about UFC being for sale because at the time he was the manager of two of its top fighters, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.

In 1997, Ortiz, then a college wrestler at Bakersfield State, competed in a UFC tournament as an amateur. After winning a fight, he, in his second fight, was matched with Guy Mezger, a more experienced fighter who was already a star in Japan. Ortiz took Mezger down and had him in a bad way, dropping knees on Mezger's head, while holding him in a cradle, cutting him up. Such a move was legal at the time. Mezger ended up bleeding and the fight was stopped to get his cut checked. When the fight restarted, in a standing position, Ortiz shot in a second time, Mezger caught him with a guillotine and won the bout in three minutes.

That could have been the last anyone ever heard of Ortiz. Silva was insistent that had the action not been stopped, that Mezger wasn't getting out of that position. He immediately tabbed Ortiz as someone to bring back. A few years later, Ortiz ended up becoming the UFC's light heavyweight champion. When White asked Ortiz for a suggestion on who should be the matchmaker after he was put in charge of the company, Ortiz suggested Silva. Silva, with no experience whatsoever in management, matchmaking, contract negotiations or anything else, was interviewed for the job, and then hired.

Silva learned about the balance of a sport designed to find out who was the best fighter in the world, with the business realities that as much as people think they want that answer, that isn't what they will necessarily pay to see.

In 2004, after a series of money-losing years and with the company's future on the line, the recognition was that no matter what fights they put on, the UFC could not sustain a profitable pay-per-view business without television. But no television station dared put on fighters that were deemed so controversial.

The UFC had the idea of a Trojan Horse, creating a reality show that would get them on television, and go from there. The idea was a show about White, called "The American Promoter." Silva argued against the format, and came up with an alternative, a reality show with fighters fighting to get a contract with the UFC, with the name, "The Ultimate Fighter."

He also handpicked the fighters for season one.

It wasn't as if everything he did turned to gold. In 2001, when UFC finally got back on pay-per-view with UFC 33, the night was an unmitigated disaster. Boring fights. All decisions, and the production side screwed up on timing with the pay-per-view time slot ending while the main event was still going on.

But if that was the low point, season one of "The Ultimate Fighter" was the high point. Ratings were good. Stars were created. The public saw the UFC and fighters very differently from what the perception of them had been. A couple million new fans were created in weeks, the vast majority being between the age of 18 and 34.

Then Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar tore down the house with one of the all-time greatest fights the first time UFC was on television live. Suddenly, the UFC was all the rage.

Shortly after, the UFC purchased the WEC. That was largely to lock up a television time slot when the Versus Network (now NBC Sports Network) was interested in getting into the MMA game after UFC's success on Spike. Spike had an exclusive deal with the UFC brand.

Silva pitched the idea that rather than offering a similar but lesser UFC product, that the WEC should be built around smaller fighters in what at the time was a big man's sport. It was the success of WEC, and in particular the drawing power of Urijah Faber, which ended up being so successful that those divisions were brought into the UFC and the WEC was closed up.

Things skyrocketed, but also changed. Booking six shows a year with eight fights is one thing. Booking weekly shows with 13 fights is something entirely different. Having to change fights on a daily basis, whether due to injuries, failed drug tests or fighters personal problems made the job a never-ending roller coaster. And there was managing a roster of 500 fighters, and dealing with managers, every one of which would argue that their client deserved more money and higher profile fights. There was the travel roughly every other weekend, as he and Sean Shelby, his protege and assistant, who at first were at every show, ended up being allowed to alternate which shows to travel to.

Silva had at times made the analogy that he had gone from being a chef to a short order cook. The job was filling out matches on a card with who was available, as opposed to more carefully crafted matchmaking that you could do with fewer fighters and fewer slots.

It was Silva's passion for the sport that he dreamed about as a kid but never believed could ever exist that got him in the door, and led him to shaping its direction. But as much as he shared that with White and Fertitta, his personality was very different.

No matter how much money White and Fertitta have, they live for building businesses, and being in the public eye.
Silva worked to make a living for his family. And now he's well off enough that he no longer has to worry about that, and can enjoy his time with them. And he can go back to reading books, now without being interrupted.