Barnum, Bailey, Bisping & Silva: When The Circus Came To London
Anderson Silva at the height of his power was untouchable. 'The Spider' won with ease, with style.
Silva did things we never imagined could be done. He front kicked Vitor Belfort in the chin to end a fight. He visited The Matrix against Forrest Griffin, dodging every punch and shocking Griffin with a back-stepping jab for the knockout. Silva baited opponents with a variety of tricks: dropping his hands, gesturing for them to engage, putting his back to the cage and dropping his hands.
Silva was a magician.
These incredible moments were because, for Silva, fighting is a show.
Entering Fight Night London, the narrative the UFC was selling was the return of a legend. Bisping had wanted his shot at the Spider for years. This was a matchup that was meant to happen. It was destined.
In truth, the fight was happening when it was happening for the wrong reasons — not the right ones. Silva wasn’t champion anymore. His career has been in decline. He had clowned against Chris Weidman, got knocked out and then snapped his leg on Weidman’s knee in the rematch. That was two years ago.
Bisping, meanwhile, hadn’t earned his shot at Silva because he had waded through a killer’s row of contenders. This wasn’t a case of him being proven worthy of a shot at the GOAT. His career has been full of almost’s and maybe's. Losses to Chael Sonnen, Belfort, and Luke Rockholdslowed his momentum at key points in his career when title gold was at its brightest.
This fight was a perfect intersection of a star falling into the ranks of the fringe contenders and a man who had made a living there. Silva was no longer the fearsome, untouchable force. Bisping had never in his UFC career staked his claim in the elite class.
That explanation, of course, faded away with each minute on Saturday night. Because when the circus comes to town, the show has a way of stealing our eyes from behind the curtain. It was all kinds of crazy.
The fight began in vintage Silva fashion, a seemingly outright refusal to engage with Bisping. A feeling-out process where he gauges the distance, the pace of his opponent, before drawing them into his venomous straight punch counters.
Due to his great conditioning, Bisping has always set a furious pace from the get-go. In this instance, he stayed measured. He refused to oblige Silva, to allow the Spider the opportunity to counter. Bisping did the opposite of what he normally does.
We’d seen this kind of negotiation play out in a Silva fight before. During the forgettable phase of Silva’s title run, he strung together consecutive performances — against Demian Meia and Thales Leites (who lost on the London card) — where their inability to threaten him on the feet made him refuse to do much of anything. He spent those fights looking more bored than the audience.
Any number of reasons could explain why at Fight Night London the strategy succeeded for Bisping when it did not for Maia and Leites.
For one, Bisping is a superior striker. He has good boxing and excellent defense (though he has a tendency to take punches harder when he does get tagged). Mostly, compared to aforementioned fighters, he’s got far superior cage navigating ability. He gave Silva fewer clean opportunities to counter.
It could also be that as champion Silva had the benefit of the ‘you can’t be the champ without beating the champ’ effect. He didn’t have to fight back because he knew opponents couldn’t take his belt if he didn’t. Therefore, he never felt the pressure to press the issue. Sitting back was a luxury he had.
It could also be that Silva is declining, plain and simple. Whereas once his otherworldly reflexes and accuracy gave him an edge, those fast-twitch reflexes aren’t the same. The quickest gun in the West wasn’t drawing so quickly from his holster anymore.
By refusing to close the distance for Silva, Bisping survived through the first round (most importantly through that last couple of minutes when Silva’s game has always been the most dangerous), even going so far as knocking Silva off-balance at one point. Into the second round, it was more of the same until Bisping caught Silva with a short hook and dropped the former champ onto his back.
Then the dancing bear entered the tent, so to speak. Silva began to clown with a furious intent. He flipped his arms up and down in a patented Wing Chun style. He stood prone against the cage, inviting Bisping in. Bisping refused him, taking a few steps backward and putting his hands on his hips. As Silva stepped towards him, Bisping instantly dropped into his stance and brought his hands back up.
As the round closed out, Silva unloaded a barrage on Bisping, pushing him back. The only thing that stopped the onslaught was the bell. Silva then stepped forward to hug Bisping who frowned and pushed him away.
The moment was amazing because Silva has always got away with such antics. His aura of unpredictability made opponents falter. By shoving Silva back, by refusing to let Silva’s antics steal initiative from him, Bisping made a monumental statement in a small gesture.
As the clock ticked down on the third stanza, Bisping’s mouthguard was knocked out of his mouth. Distracted, Bisping turned to plead with referee Herb Dean. He did what, up until that point, he had refused to do — give Silva the initiative. Silva obliged, driving a jumping knee into Bisping’s chin, dropping the Brit. The bell sounded immediately afterward and Silva, high on himself, began to celebrate like he won the fight. He leapt onto the cage while Dean tried desperately to communicate to everyone – coaches, commission staff – that the fight wasn’t over.
The Spider had bitten himself. If he had pressed his advantage, he may have finished Bisping. Had he not celebrated, Bisping likely would not have made it back to his feet and Dean may have called the fight. Even if Bisping had been able to get onto his stool, he looked hurt enough that he may not have made it back off, which would have ended the fight.
Silva’s clowning, his showmanship, drew out that scene long enough for Bisping to recover. He made it into the fourth and Silva, curiously, refused to press him. Maybe it was the adrenaline dump after his premature celebration, maybe he felt Bisping had recovered. The Spider’s notorious killer instinct failed him.
The rest of the fight brought out every stop – literally and figuratively. Bisping took a groin shot and the fight had to pause. Silva was poked in the eye and the fight had to pause. In the fifth, Bisping’s face required a pause to be checked by a doctor.
By the time Silva front kicked Bisping in the chin (only the greats can reference their best work) the fight had transcended simply fighting into the realm of circus. It was beautiful.
While Bisping walked away the winner (drawing an additional gag from Silva who accused some form of corruption at the post-fight press conference), the true winners were, to spout an apt cliché, the fans.
Silva and Bisping had given us something so ordinary, a fight, and turned it into something greater. It was a show. It was a circus.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.