Wanderlei Interview.

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10/16/07 7:15:36PM
Wanderlei Silva - The Return of The Axe Murderer - Part I By Thomas Gerbasi

When the word "legendary" precedes your name, it can sometimes be a license to forget where you came from, to avoid the people who supported you through the lean times, and to look down from your ivory tower as a different person than the one you started out as.

But spend a little time with former PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva, a true legend in the sport of mixed martial arts if there ever was one, and you will find someone who hasn’t changed a bit over his 11 years in the fight game. If anything, he has grown more attached to his fanbase and to his role as an ambassador for the sport as he has gotten older.

This was never more evident than in the days leading up to UFC 76 in Anaheim on September 22nd. Recently re-signed to the UFC after a seven year stint in PRIDE that saw him establish himself as one of MMA’s greats, Silva was greeted by scores of fans at every turn, whether at the event weigh-in, the arena, or at the host hotel. There were no bodyguards around Silva, no buffers to keep the people away, and he greeted every fan with the same enthusiasm and gratitude. Even those disappointed when a Friday autograph session had to end had their day brightened when Silva made an effort to shake hands with everyone who didn’t get an opportunity to get their items signed.

For someone so intimidating when the bell rings, it was the starkest of contrasts.

“I come from a very simple family,” Silva explained to UFC.com. “My father had a very, very small bar, and I worked there for ten years. I fought in Japan and still worked in the bar. I had maybe four, five fights, I wasn’t famous, and had money, but just a little bit. I would work, stop and go running, come back, work some more, and you learn that everyone is the same. The fans are great because they want to talk, and they pay your money. They buy the pay-per-view, they buy your brand, and you need to respect them if you want them to respect you. It’s a big lesson my father gave to me.”

Watching Silva interact with the fans gives you a thorough lesson in class, but what is even more amazing is that the famed “Axe Murderer” has only competed twice in the United States, yet is revered here like any of the UFC’s current superstars. This popularity even surprised Silva.

“A little bit,” he said. “I know I have many fans here, but in Japan the fans are quiet and don’t talk much. Here, everyone wants to talk to me, shake my hand, and take my picture. I love it. I love the energy the fans give to me and it’s a great motivation for me for my next fight.”

What that next fight will be is open to plenty of conjecture at this point, though it is expected to take place in December. Of course, on the afternoon of September 22nd, Silva’s first UFC fight since 2000 was pretty much a done deal – if former UFC light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell got by Keith Jardine later that night, the fight fans had been anticipating for years would become a reality. Silva didn’t hesitate when asked if he was nervous about the result of Liddell-Jardine, though he injected a dose of humor into his response.

“Nervous?” asked Silva. “Of course. I want to fight him (Liddell). I’ve waited so long for this fight and everyone wants to see it. But a fight is a fight and this guy (Jardine) is a strong guy. But they have a movie out now, I see it many times on the TV, it says ‘Good Luck Chuck.’ (Laughs) That’s the message I give for him – good luck Chuck.”

Silva’s well wishes weren’t enough for ‘The Iceman’ though, as Liddell dropped a three round split decision to Jardine, putting the dream matchup on hold once again. Yet despite Liddell’s two fight losing streak (which is matched by Silva’s back-to-back losses to Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson), what fight fan out there wouldn’t want to see these two future Hall of Famers duke it out, regardless of whether they lost two or two hundred fights in a row?

Exactly. Everyone still wants to see Silva vs Liddell, especially ‘The Axe Murderer’, who has had his eye on fighting the Californian ever since they fought on the same IVC show in Brazil (Silva against Mike Van Arsdale, Liddell against Pele Land-Jons) in 1998.

“He’s a great fighter,” said Silva of Liddell. “There are many good fighters, but for my first fight, I want to go with the best man. Even though he’s not champion anymore, he’s still the best man. There’s only one ending to this fight and it won’t go to a decision. One guy will go down – me or him. I don’t want judges.”

When Silva talks about fighting – especially about fighting the likes of Liddell or his old nemesis in PRIDE, current UFC light heavyweight boss Quinton Jackson – his eyes narrow and you can almost feel the room getting smaller. He will tap your arm for emphasis, and the intensity that has fueled him throughout his career is evident. No question about it, Silva is the scariest nice guy you will ever meet.

“Many people say that I’m two different people,” he laughs, before explaining the transformation from gentleman to terror once the bell rings. “I trained hard for three or four months for this moment. I want to give my best, I want to win, I want to give a show for my fans, and in my mind, I don’t know, but I change. I want to kill the guy. At times, I fight with my heart a lot and not with my head. Now I have more experience in these situations, but it’s still my style.”

It’s a style that has endeared him to fight fans worldwide, who vigorously defend their hero at every turn simply for the fact that win or lose, he’s coming to fight and that he will keep swinging until someone isn’t standing anymore. Wanderlei Silva is not a points fighter.

“Lose or win, I love it,” said Silva. “Of course I love to win and it’s why I train, but I also love the show. I love to give emotion, and in my mind I’m thinking if I win but there is no emotion, I would prefer to lose a great match where I’m down, the other guy is down, and the crowd goes (makes cheering sound). The guy who is serious and who fights with his heart is a warrior. There are guys who fight only for the money or for the win or to take pictures, and I’m not like that. I like to fight, it’s my job, and I fight with my heart every time.”

Strangely enough though, if you look back at his early career, Silva’s eventual ascension wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. A Muay Thai ace who tore through the Vale Tudo circuit back home in Brazil after making his pro debut in 1996, with his only loss coming due to a cut, Silva was brought to the UFC in 1998 to battle ‘The Phenom’, countryman Vitor Belfort.

The still-explosive Belfort stopped Silva in just 44 seconds, and though he would rebound with a UFC win over Tony Petarra and put together three wins in PRIDE, Silva rolled the dice by going back to the UFC and then lost via decision in a title bout against Tito Ortiz, putting the 11-3 fighter’s future in question.

“My last fight in UFC in Japan with Tito, it was a very small show,” remembered Silva. “And after the fight with him I didn’t have an event. I didn’t go back to PRIDE, I didn’t fight anymore in UFC, and in my mind, I thought, ‘I’m finished.’ I changed from PRIDE to UFC, but I lost.”After dropping a five round decision to Tito Ortiz at UFC 25 in April of 2000, the then-23 year old Wanderlei Silva was at a crossroads in his mixed martial arts career. He had left Japan’s PRIDE organization (where he was 3-0) to take a world title shot in the UFC, but having lost, he was a man without a venue to fight in.

But after a 39 second knockout of Todd Medina in a Meca Vale Tudo show in his hometown of Curitiba, Brazil less than four months after the Ortiz fight, Silva was welcomed back into PRIDE, where he began a reign of terror that saw him go on a 17 fight unbeaten streak with the only hiccups being a draw with Mirko Cro Cop and a no contest with Gilbert Yvel.

It was as if a new fighter was born in the Land of the Rising Sun, but for Silva, the explanation for his MMA rebirth was a simple one.

“In PRIDE, I went step by step,” he said. “In UFC, they gave me the big names to fight and there was a lot of pressure. And before, I was also working another job and training. I didn’t have the money only to train. Now I was a professional fighter.”

In other words, fights against the Dan Hendersons and Kazushi Sakurabas of the world were mixed with bouts against lesser names like Shungo Oyama and Tatsuya Iwasaki, allowing Silva to build his confidence and his game at a pace that was hectic but wise for the time as he became a superstar in Japan, something helped by his three stoppages of national icon Sakuraba.

And at the same time, Silva – known for his aggression and Muay Thai attack – slowly added more wrinkles to his fight game, making him even more dangerous.

“I changed my style,” said Silva. “Before I didn’t train in wrestling, I didn’t train in a lot of jiu-jitsu. I trained only in Muay Thai. Now I’m a more complete fighter. I’m very experienced, I’ve fought many times, and I’m more confident.”

Silva’s confidence was at its peak when he battled current UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson in 2003 and 2004, walking away with a TKO win in the first bout and a devastating knee-induced knockout in the rematch.

That second win over Jackson may have been Silva’s finest moment in PRIDE, but over the next two and a half years, the pace of fighting constantly against some of the best fighters in the world started to catch up to him. He would lose to heavyweight Mark Hunt in his next fight, and also get decisioned by Ricardo Arona (a loss later avenged). The key defeats though would be knockouts in 2006 and February of 2007 to Cro Cop and Henderson. After the losses, some have questioned whether Silva’s best days are behind him. But to the fighter, he admits that all he really needed was some time off.

“I was fighting a lot,” said Silva. “The last six years I was fighting every two or three months. Now I stopped to stay with my family, I relaxed, traveled, made the decision to move here, and it’s good because I cleared my head, I have motivation again, and I’m hungry to win. I need to win.”

Earlier this year, Silva made the decision to move to the United States to live and train, and shortly thereafter, he signed with the UFC, with his first fight back expected to take place in December. The break has apparently done him good, as he looks ready to fight tomorrow thanks to a daily training regimen with conditioning coach Rafael Alejarra.

“I never trained like I’m training now,” said Silva. “I’m training every day. When you wait, you come back more intense.”

But there’s more than just training to deal with now that he’s settling here in the United States. There are expectations from the fans, a switch from his long time team in Brazil -Chute Boxe, cultural differences (though Silva’s English is vastly improved), and the change in rules from when he was fighting in Japan. But unlike some PRIDE imports who have struggled with the switch in organizations, Silva has enlisted a fellow legend to help him adjust.

“It’s a problem, but no problem,” he laughed when asked about a full-time adjustment to the unified MMA rules used in the United States. “I need to play with the rules and not change them. So I’ll just change my style and I’ll go talk to the best teacher, (UFC heavyweight champion Randy) Couture. Couture will give me the lessons about fighting in the cage. He’s a very smart guy.”

Couture has also earned Silva’s admiration for being able to compete at the elite level at the age of 44, something the 31-year old Brazilian marvels at.

“He’s 44 years old, and after seeing the last fight (with Gabriel Gonzaga), it was incredible,” said Silva. “I’m thinking of a 44 year old fighting with a guy who’s 28 years old, is bigger, has very good jiu-jitsu, good boxing, very good kicks, and the guy (Couture) wins? Incredible.”

So, does ‘The Axe Murderer’ envision sticking around for another 13 years?

“Maybe if I fought someone the same age and the rounds were one or two minutes,” he laughs, “but five minutes as a professional, I think only he could do it. He’s Superman.”

If Couture is Superman, then Silva would at least have to qualify as Batman or Daredevil as far as legacy goes, but he has no intentions on living off his past during his second stay in the UFC. He has a new beginning here in a sport that has changed by leaps and bounds since his last Octagon appearance.

“I look at the UFC now and it’s incredible,” said Silva. “Yesterday (this interview was conducted on September 22nd) when they were checking weights, there were so many people there, I never saw anything like that. It was incredible. When the Fertittas and Dana White bought the UFC, it changed a lot. If you saw the events before, they didn’t have the big names. No TV, no promotion, nothing. These guys came and changed not only the UFC, but the sport in the world. Everyone knows the events, everyone sees it on TV, and it’s everywhere. In four or five years, maybe we won’t have no boxing, or Tae Kwon Do, nothing, only MMA.”
And in that time, Silva plans on wearing the UFC light heavyweight championship belt which is currently held by his old nemesis Jackson. And though much has happened in the three years since they last fought, there is still heat between the two, at least from Silva’s point of view.

“No change, I don’t like him,” said Silva of Jackson. “I’m a professional, but for me, fighting with him is not business, it’s pleasure.”

He smiles when he says it, and outside of a fight with Liddell, fight fans would most likely put Silva vs Jackson III on their 2008 wish lists. Even Juanito Ibarra, Jackson’s manager and trainer, told UFC.com on the day of the UFC 76 weigh-ins that if he could play matchmaker for a day, the fight he would want for his charge is against Silva. ‘The Axe Murderer’ agrees.

“It’s a good match,” said Silva of a fight with ‘Rampage’. “I fought two matches with him and now he’s stronger, he’s a good fighter, and he’s the champion. But I want the belt and every time I want to fight with the best, so of course I want to fight with him.”
One fight that won’t be happening though is one with his former Chute Boxe teammate (and another new UFC recruit), Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, even if his countryman was able to win the belt first.

“I’ll wait, no problem,” said Silva. “He’s a great guy, I respect him a lot and he’s my friend. I trained with him for ten years and I don’t want to fight with him. I was champion for five, six years in Japan, and he waited and didn’t want to fight me. He didn’t talk about anything and he respected me a lot. I feel the same way. If he’s champion, there are many fighters around to fight, and I don’t want to fight him.”

Silva is right; there are plenty of fighters around for him at 205 pounds, and practically every match that could be made right now (Liddell, Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans, Ortiz, Houston Alexander) is an intriguing one. So it goes without saying that it’s a good time to be a fight fan, but an even better time to be Wanderlei Silva,

“It’s a great moment for me,” he said. I’m changing events after fighting in PRIDE for eight years and the UFC is the best in the world and has all the big names. It’s a great opportunity for me.”
10/16/07 8:22:50PM
This guy is awesome.
10/16/07 9:04:16PM
fight fans you can rank this guy wherever you want in your top 10 but his fights are always at the top
10/16/07 10:15:37PM
Wandy is a class act, and truly a legend. I can't wait to see him fight.
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