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There’s no glorious ending for Anderson Silva (or BJ Penn)

UFC 237: Cannonier v Silva Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

There was a time when Anderson Silva was the most spectacular fighter on the planet. It was a great era. Every few months, Silva would show up, dance and weave, lull and measure, then uncoil some superhuman ferocity that would often leave his opponents folded in a heap. If he didn’t leave them broken, he at least made them look ridiculous, like some cartoon character chasing his own tail. In some cases, Silva quite literally clowned them. He was so good we were often left to wonder if he did that in hopes of entertaining the crowd or just himself. He was quirky and unpredictable and fun.

Silva is still quirky and unpredictable. Those traits have followed him, even into sports old-age. He is 44 years old now, ancient for professional athletics, and so the last of those qualities — fun — no longer follows him like the ever-present shadow it once was.

In other sports, he might still be a joyous nostalgia act. Bartolo Colon, once a premier fireballer, became baseball’s clown prince as he played until age 45. Vince Carter, once a high-flying, dunking phenom, is now 42 and looked at as the ageless wonder of the NBA. But this is fighting. The consequences of slower reflexes or blunted tools are just too severe. We were reminded of that again at UFC 237 after Silva crumpled to the ground following the last of 12 leg kicks from Jared Cannonier. He screamed and squirmed and (thankfully) surrendered. The moment looked dangerously close to his leg injury suffered against Chris Weidman in 2013.

Ah yes, Weidman, a.k.a. the beginning of the end for Silva. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was basically it for the legend. Since his first loss to Weidman in July 2013, Silva has won but a single time, and even that — a unanimous decision win over Derek Brunson — is mostly viewed as a poor judges’ decision.

For a long time, the losses could be explained away. The first Weidman loss was a fluke. (The second one, too.) Michael Bisping and Daniel Cormier are both Grade A opponents, and so anyone could lose to them. Israel Adesanya is a star in the making. But that ended last night.

To be sure, Cannonier is a capable fighter, even an improving one. But he’s also 35 years old and has never in his career beaten a top-five opponent. Before Saturday, he had gone 4-4 in the UFC. This was a fight Silva could win. Yet he couldn’t. And he didn’t lose because of a fluky leg injury; he lost as the result of Cannonier’s preparation and execution. The American went to the legs early and often. Even if you took away that final strike, Cannonier was handily winning the first round. He was patient in picking his shots but made them count (he connected on 18 of 32 strikes, per UFC Stats). He didn’t overextend, as many Silva opponents do. He was disciplined. He was better.

“People get in front of him and they’re all mesmerized by what he’s done and what he’s doing and all that stuff, but a fight is a fight,” Cannonier said afterward. In a way, he was confirming what we already knew. Silva has come down from the clouds, a fallen deity.

Almost every fight legend goes out in a similar way. Hell, on the same card, we saw B.J. Penn suffer his UFC record seventh consecutive defeat. If it wasn’t for that Brunson fight, Silva would have immediately tied the record.

There are still fights left on his contract — at least a couple, he said earlier this week — and he plans to fight them out. Hopefully, he rethinks the decision. (Hopefully, Penn does too.) It’s hard to imagine how intoxicating it is to feel the roar of the crowd when you do something great, and how addictive the rush of victory is, but it’s not time. It’s past time.

No one gets to fight forever, not even one of the very best to ever do it. Just like anyone else, if he fights long enough, he goes from wizard to wanting.

If we’re being honest, the UFC could probably find another winnable matchup for Silva (and for Penn, too). They could dig further down their rosters, but even then we wouldn’t view it as a sure thing. Even then, it might make us squirm. Personal issues and P.E.D. violations aside — and those are very heavy asides, I fully acknowledge — we grew to watch and appreciate Silva and Penn because of their willingness to chase glory. I no longer want to see them pursue that perfect ending. They’ve given enough, yet there is still so much left to lose.

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