LAS VEGAS — No one has ever doubted Joe Silva’s love for martial arts and the UFC. Being the matchmaker for the worldwide leader in MMA for 20 years had its challenges, though.
Silva, who rarely spoke publicly during his tenure with the UFC, detailed some of those things Thursday in his UFC Hall of Fame speech. Silva was inducted into the hall along with Urijah Faber, Kazushi Sakuraba and Maurice Smith.
“I don’t know that I ever did a show where someone didn’t come up to me and say, ‘Joe Silva, you’ve got the best job in the whole world!’” Silva said. “And most of the time would just smile and nod. But in my head, I thought, ‘Really? Have you ever had a job where you’ve had to fire hundreds of people that you like and admire?’ You can’t bring someone new in unless someone leaves.”
Silva, 50, retired from the UFC in December after two decades and booking more than 3,000 fights. Every UFC Hall of Fame fighter and every UFC champion was involved in fights put together by Silva. The Virginia native made millions in the UFC’s $4 billion sale to WME-IMG and decided to step away to spend more time with family.
“People ask me if I miss all the excitement and really I don’t,” Silva said. “Urijah Faber texted me asking me how retirement was going. I told him, It’s been four months and I haven’t had a bad day yet.”
Silva said he spends his days now with his wife Kara and daughter Savannah and friends. He reads books, listens to music, watches movies, plays video games and trains in martial arts like he has all his life.
And, of course, Silva is an avid UFC watcher. He does not miss an event, even now.
“I am still a huge fan of the sport,” Silva said. “I watch every show and I still text with Dana and Lorenzo and Sean and Mick. Every time I hear about some big fight falling out, I text them, ‘I’m so sorry for you and so happy that I don’t have to deal with it.’”
Silva grew up practicing martial arts and devouring all the disciplines he could. He counts Bruce Lee among his inspirations. When the UFC got started in 1993, Silva was immediately interested. Soon after, he was calling the UFC’s office with some ideas for the fledgling fighting organization. He joked “it must have been a slow day,” because they patched him right through to then-UFC president Campbell McLaren.
That conversation ultimately led to Silva being hired by the UFC and he was brought onboard with Zuffa when Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and Dana White bought the promotion from SEG in 2001. Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell recommended Silva to the Zuffa brass and the rest is history. Silva has been a huge part of the growth of the UFC and MMA into a popular worldwide phenomenon.
“Joe Silva is the greatest matchmaker in the history of any combat sport,” White said in his introduction speech for Silva. “And he was instrumental in getting us to where we are today.”
Being matchmaker has its ups and downs and there are constant fires to put out — injuries, contract issues and anything else you could think of. Booking more than 40 events per year with more than 600 fighters on the UFC roster is an incredible undertaking. Silva has since handed off to Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard.
“Working for Dana was very much like being on Star Trek, with him being Captain Kirk and me being Mr. Scotty,” Silva joked. “I’d be like, ‘Captain, she can’t take anymore!’ And he’d be like, ‘Dammit Scotty, make it happen.’ And I would find a way.”
Indeed he would. Probably hundreds, if not thousands of times. In a video package, Shelby said Silva “proves you can hold yourself to the highest standards and still be the absolute best in the world at what you do.”
“He wasn't just a matchmaker,” Shelby added. “There was so much more to it.”
When people compliment him, Silva said he points to the men and women who enter the Octagon and lay it all on the line.
“When somebody would tell me what a good job I did after a good show, I would just say it was the fighters,” Silva said. “They brought it. … The majority of the time the fighters did bring it and for that they have my eternal gratitude.”
Now, in retirement, Silva can just sit back, watch and enjoy the sport that he was so vital in building. It’s all come back around for the obsessive martial arts fanatic from Richmond.
“I started off in this as a passionate fan,” Silva said. “I never intended it to be a career. Now, it’s come full circle and I just get to be a passionate fan of my favorite sport without any of the burdens of responsibility for it. And I cannot be happier.”
In addition to Silva, recently retired longtime contender Urijah Faber became the first inductee into the modern wing of the UFC Hall of Fame since 2015.
Faber, “The California Kid,” is one of the pioneering figures of the lighter weight classes, a star whose reign as WEC featherweight champion from 2006 to 2008 helped catapult the blue cage into international prominence. Known for his infamous walkout to “California Love,” Faber’s consistence and longevity was his biggest calling card — the Sacramento native competed as one of the top-ranked fighters in his divisions throughout the entirety of his 14-year career, even throughout his final year in 2016, when he challenged his foremost rival Dominick Cruz for the UFC bantamweight title.
“I was the era of the hustler,” Faber said, “which means there wasn’t a real opportunity for us lighter weight fighters, or for fighters in general. You thought there was, because you saw people on TV and things like that, but we had to hustle.”
From 2003 to 2015, Faber racked up a remarkable 18-0 record in non-title fights. Faber also headlined WEC’s lone pay-per-view — WEC 48, alongside Jose Aldo — and founded Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male, a team that has established itself as one of the world’s most talented squads for fighters of the lighter weight classes. Faber called it quits in Dec. 2016, defeating Brad Pickett at UFC on FOX 22 in front of his hometown Sacramento crowd, pushing his MMA record to 34-10.
“There’s so much to be said in this and so many people to thank,” Faber said. “My family of course, and my friends and my coaches, my teammates, my managers, and everyone along the way. I just want to thank everybody who has a positive attitude out there, who has good energy, and thank you for being a part of this experience. It’s just the very beginning for me.”
Inducted into the pioneer wing of the UFC Hall of Fame was Kazushi Sakuraba, “The Gracie Hunter,” an iconic and trailblazing figure in Japanese mixed martial arts.
Sakuraba only fought twice in the UFC, both on the same night against the same opponent, Marcus Silveira, who he tapped out with an armbar to win the UFC Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament. From there, Sakuraba built his legend in Japan, becoming the face of Pride Fighting Championships while embarking on a fabled campaign that saw Sakuraba challenge nearly every major figure of his era, regardless of any size disadvantages he faced — which he often did.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Sakuraba fought the likes of Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Filipovic, Kevin Randleman, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ken Shamrock, Renzo Gracie, Quinton Jackson, and Royce Gracie, the last of whom Sakuraba defeated in a classic 90-minute duel in Pride FC’s 2000 openweight grand prix. Sakuraba did it all while employing a wild and entertaining style derived from his pro wrestling roots. Sakuraba hung up his gloves in Dec. 2015, exiting the sport he helped build with a 26–17–1 (2 NC) record.
Rounding out the 2017 Hall of Fame class was Maurice Smith, a former UFC heavyweight titleholder who was also inducted into the pioneer wing.
Smith is most recognized for championing the sprawl and brawl style, a tactic he used to capture with the heavyweight title with a stunning upset over Mark Coleman at UFC 14. Smith defended his belt with a vicious win over Tank Abbott at UFC 15. A talented kickboxer, Smith went on to notch further victories in the UFC, Pride FC, and Strikeforce before retiring with a 14-14 documented MMA record at the age of 51 in 2013.