UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is "like water"
Among MMA’s top stars, few are as unknown and seemingly unknowable as longtime UFC middleweight champion Anderson "the Spider" Silva. Silva, an unprecedented 13-0 in the UFC and the world’s top 185 pound fighter for over four straight years, is no stranger to the spotlight. But the images that emerge of Silva are so often unclear and even contradictory.
Silva at his best is a playful and lovable personality with an engaging smile and sense of humor. He once danced to the Pride ring like Michael Jackson and filmed a comical vignette for the UFC built around his love of the Big Mac sandwich. Silva’s friends and training partners are fiercely loyal to him, and he holds a particularly close bond with his family.
But a different Spider has been on display at other points in his MMA career. After crowd displeasing performances against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia, Silva was greeted with heavy criticism from fans, media and UFC president Dana White. A sullen Silva responded to the criticism by retreating into a cocoon. He became unresponsive to certain questions from the media and atypically hostile towards some of his opponents. Fans were left wondering what to make of the dominant Brazilian champion.
Stepping in to attempt to answer that question is a new documentary, Like Water, which debuts at Tribeca Film Festival in New York April 21-30. The documentary, directed by Pablo Croce and produced by Jared Freedman, Ed Soares and Jerome Dahan, covers the buildup to and fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen at UFC 117.
For Freedman, the documentary provided an opportunity to show fans a more complete picture of the sport’s most dynamic fighter.
"If I’m going to do a story on a fighter, who deserves a story?" Freedman asks rhetorically. "The only person I really wanted to focus on was Anderson. He’s the best, and he’s also one of the guys that people have a misperception of. That’s what intrigued me as a filmmaker."
In advance of the premiere of Like Water, Silva traveled to Los Angeles, where he spoke at length about the project and his career. At the Black House gym where Silva often prepares for fights, the Spider is comfortable and at home. Fight worn apparel of fellow Black House members adorns the walls of the gym. Silva’s longtime manager, translator and confidant Ed Soares is seemingly omnipresent to look out for Silva’s interests.
Family and Friends
Anderson Silva is a toucher. His English skills are still not all that good, so he warms up to people physically: with a friendly hug, handshake or pat on the back. It’s a striking contrast to the gruff demeanors often put up by men who fight for a living.
Silva’s warmth shines through in Like Water. The film shows Silva hanging out with his children in Brazil. His living room is decorated not with MMA mementos but with his children’s art projects and games. His UFC middleweight title looks almost out of place. Silva met his wife when they were both teenagers and had children at an early age. It’s an experience that affected the course of his fighting career.
"Having kids and a relationship at such an early age definitely built up my hunger and perseverance to succeed," Silva says through Soares’ translation. "Definitely I feel my kids played a big role in why I was so successful in fighting."
Beyond his immediate family, Silva has a great bond with many of his training partners and especially to former Pride and UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In Like Water, Silva discusses his relationship with Nogueira and how if it were not for Nogueira, Silva might never have ended up having the career that he did.
When Silva started competing in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships, he was fighting for the highly successful Chute Boxe Academy. Chute Boxe featured some of the top fighters in the world, including longtime Pride middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva. Anderson Silva had a falling out with Chute Boxe and as a result found it difficult to get fights booked in what was then the world’s top MMA organization.
A demoralized Anderson Silva contemplated retirement and was planning a move to the United States to transition to teaching and running a gym. It was at that low point that Nogueira stepped in to help. Nogueira was a part of the Brazilian Top Team, Chute Boxe’s key rival, but he had always taken a liking to Silva.
Nogueira encouraged Silva to continue fighting and personally fought to get him fights. The partnership eventually grew into the Black House fight team, which comprises perhaps the best roster of fighters in the sport: Silva, the Nogueiras, Jose Aldo, Junior Dos Santos, Lyoto Machida and many more.
This tight relationship between Silva and Nogueira served to add fuel to the fire for Silva’s fight with Chael Sonnen. Sonnen issued a seemingly endless string of insults directed at Silva but none stung deeper than Sonnen’s assertion that Silva’s cherished jiu jitsu black belt from the Nogueira brothers was akin to a child receiving a toy in a Happy Meal.
"I felt it was my obligation as a black belt of Rodrigo Nogueira that he needed to respect that," Silva says. "I believe that’s exactly what I did."
Respect is an important trait to Silva, and nothing angers him more than an opponent not showing him the respect he feels he is owed.
"The thing I always demand is respect," Silva acknowledges. "I respect everybody and have a history in the sport and I believe people need to respect me. When they cross that line of respect is when they don’t really understand what happens. And things happen to them that they never imagined would happen. To me, you have to keep respect. When you don’t, not good things are going to happen to you."
Besides disrespect, Silva’s demeanor can also become prickly when taking questions from media. Like Water shows footage of a conference call Silva did for his fight with Chael Sonnen where a clearly agitated Silva greeted most questions with one word answers. Ed Soares’ frustration was apparent and after the conference call ended, he was treated to a not particularly friendly conversation with Dana White.
Silva’s at times confrontational relationship with the media could be attributed to shyness or to a suspicion that reporters are looking to generate controversy and create trouble for him. But Silva asserts that the problem for him is an issue of redundancy.
"My uncle always told me that the answer to a question is only good if it’s a good question," Silva says. "Unfortunately, the reporters ask the same questions over and over again. When reporters keep asking the same questions, they’ve got to recognize I may hear these questions 20 to 30 times in a matter of days. It gets to the point where I think, ‘Read the other interviews!’"
While the one-sided war of words dominated coverage heading into the fight between Sonnen and Silva, Like Water documents an equally compelling story that developed heading into the fight. The film shows the severe injury to Silva’s ribs that nearly derailed the fight from taking place.
On Sunday morning the week before UFC 117, Silva’s manager Ed Soares was in his room working on business when his wife informed him that his phone kept ringing. He went to check his phone and saw that he had thirteen missed phone calls from Silva over the course of a 20 minute period. Silva was preparing for the fight when he suffered a painful injury to his ribs.
Soares met Silva at the hospital, where Silva received X-rays. The doctor informed Silva that his ribcage was badly swollen and recommended that he didn’t fight Sonnen. Silva was supposed to travel down to San Diego that day to corner Mark Munoz in a semi-main event bout against Yushin Okami, but he didn’t make the drive.
Instead, Silva laid in bed for the next few days until he needed to make the trip to Oakland to fight Sonnen. Silva had fought before with injuries, but he cites the fight with Sonnen as the worst he ever felt going into a fight. Silva ultimately concluded that the show had to go on. Sonnen proceeded to dominate the fight with Silva for over twenty minutes, until Silva showed his Nogueira black belt jiu jitsu skills with a late triangle choke and armbar submission.
Next on the docket for Silva is a fight with Yushin Okami for the UFC middleweight title in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Okami was the last fighter to record a win over Silva, albeit a controversial disqualification in 2006. It’s a sore subject for Silva, who feels he wasn’t properly apprised of the rules by the promoters of the event.
Silva had been fighting in events where upkicks on a grounded opponent were legal and he wasn’t aware that they were illegal for the Okami fight. Silva landed an upkick on Okami and when Okami couldn’t continue Silva lost via disqualification. Compounding Silva’s frustration was his feeling that Okami should have continued the fight.
"I was a little surprised with his reaction to that," Silva says. "Do I think he could have continued? I do think he could have continued. But he had the rules in his favor. I did an illegal kick and he chose that it was better not to continue."
The rematch will Okami will be Silva’s first fight in his home country since 2003, something that means a lot to him.
"I’m very excited and very happy that I’m going to be fighting in Brazil," Silva notes. "But there’s also a lot more responsibility fighting in my home country. I’m going to be fighting in front of a stadium full of Brazilians and on top of that millions of Brazilians will be watching on TV and I feel they’re going to be expecting a lot from me."
In the meantime, fans can learn more about Silva through the new documentary that seeks to explore the personality of the often enigmatic fighter. "Like Water" was a philosophy espoused by Bruce Lee and is one that the multiplicitous champion identifies with.
"Water gives life but it can also take your life," Silva says. "Water comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be calm and it can be strong. I feel that represents myself in the Octagon. You have to be able to adapt and water adapts to whatever it is in."
Photo: Anderson Silva. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times.