UFC fans are fickle; Philadelphia fans notoriously so. Saturday night was no exception. Before the co-main event between UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva and fan favorite Forrest Griffin, Silva was booed vociferously every time he appeared on camera. Griffin, whose fight with Stephan Bonnar capped off the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and helped save the sport of MMA, is a huge fan favorite everywhere the UFC goes. When he came out to punk band The Dropkick Murphys, the crowd erupted.
When the fight was over, their roles were reversed. Silva was bathing in the crowds love, cheered even as he carried on in an unintelligible stream of Portuguese. Griffin didn’t stick around to do the traditional post-fight interview. As he slunk out of the ring and departed for the back, appearing very much like a scolded child, the fans booed wildly. Such was the power of Silva’s showing. After lackluster performances in his last two fights, the fighter UFC President Dana White has called the best pound for pound fighter in the world, was back in the crowd’s good graces.
“The crowd can think what they want,” Silva said. “They booed me last time and they booed (opponent) Thales Leites too. It was a different kind of fight and styles make fights. Forrest was ready to stand there and exchange. He came to fight.”
Silva looked like he was a different class of fighter, toying with Griffin, who is no slouch. The former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion looked slow and ponderous as he chased Silva across the ring. Trying to outbox Silva was the wrong strategy for Griffin, but he’s made a career out of being a volume fighter who outworks his opponent standing. Silva was so fast that he dismissively dropped his hands, daring Griffin to try to hit him, rolling his shoulders and dodging punches like Muhammad Ali in his prime. Out of nowhere, Silva would spring into attack mode. He knocked Griffin down three times in the fight, the final knockdown coming with an off balance jab, bringing back memories of Seth Petruzelli’s glancing blow that knocked out Kimbo Slice in the final show for the floundering Elite XC promotion last year.
Unlike Slice, Griffin was not knocked unconscious. Instead, he flopped to the ground and looked up at Silva who was coming forward with bad intentions. Instead of tapping out, Griffin raised his arms, clearly crying ‘uncle.’ Griffin may not have been out cold, but he was clearly outclassed. There is a moment in every Silva fight when his opponent realizes how fast he is and how hard he hits. Griffin realized it early and clearly wanted to be anywhere other than the Spectrum Center. Sources close to Griffin’s camp say the former champion rushed out of the cage not because his feelings were hurt, but because he may have dislocated his jaw and was having trouble hearing.
The UFC has an interesting conundrum on their hands in Silva. He is one of the very best fighters in the promotion, trailing only Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the company, but has never been a very popular fighter with the fans. His pay per view bouts are routinely the least successful shows the UFC runs. Shows headlined with Silva averaged 337,500 buys last year. Without him in in the top spot, the UFC averaged 525,238 buys.
Part of the problem has been Silva’s inability to speak English, but he revealed in his post fight interview that he spoke the language passingly well, something people who had been around him backstage already knew. This was a big step in gaining the crowd’s favor. UFC fans are very patient with foreign fighters when they at least make the effort to speak to them in English. Silva’s former training partner Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida also turned a hostile crowd in his favor by doing a postfight interview in English.
Silva’s epic performance came, amazingly enough, when his mind was on more than just MMA. For years he has dreamed of a fight with boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. Jones was in the crowd in Philadelphia as the two men tried to hype up a future fight that Silva plans on accepting as soon as his UFC contract expires after three more fights. The boxing match is a sticking point between Silva and the UFC, as White has refused his request to participate in the sweet science between his cage bouts. Soon the two men may have something else to argue about.
What’s next for Silva after a UFC-record ten wins in a row is unclear. His next fight was supposed to be a defense of his Middleweight Championship in a rematch against wrestling standout Dan Henderson. Henderson was the first fighter in the UFC to win a round from Silva, but he was finished on the ground with a triangle choke in the second round. After the post fight press conference a monkey wrench was thrown into the equation. Silva’s manager Ed Soares told White that Silva was willing to move to 205 pounds permanently and vacate his championship at middleweight. White seemed intrigued by the idea, noting that there are plenty of big matchups at that weight class, unlike middleweight where Silva has already disposed of most of the credible challengers.
White and the fans will want to see a dream match between Silva and Machida. The two men are friends and insist the fight will not take place. “He’s my friend and the fight will never happen,” Silva said, but money has a way of making those concerns disappear. Their sparring matches were legendary and Machida may be the only man alive who can match up favorably with Silva’s combination of speed and skill. It will be a match for the ages, but it will take all of White’s formidable guile and matchmaking prowess to pull off.