UFC 234: Adesanya and Silva put on a show for the ages
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”
Hugh Jackman’s famous quote playing P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman wasn’t intended as a sports reference, but time and time again, we as sports fans find ourselves gravitating to the greatest of showmen. From Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, the world stops and stares in awe when these athletes perform their trade, exhibiting both silky smooth movement that make it seem like the average 3rd grader should be able to execute their maneuvers, as well as feats of pure athleticism and toughness that will never be replicated by another human.
Combat sports have an interesting place when it comes to showmanship. For most sports, the showmanship doesn’t begin until the athlete steps onto their competitive battlefield. For combat sports, and MMA in particular, the showmanship begins well before the athlete steps into the ring or cage. It’s an incredible skill to be able to generate interest in a fight, as well as being able to back it up with showstopping skill.
In MMA, there are three different type of successful showmen. The first is a category that Conor McGregor has built by himself, the businessmen. These fighters use mental and verbal warfare to build a brand, and use the brand to sell fights. It doesn’t matter who they fight, they’re going to use their brand and their showmanship to sell fights and they have unworldly skill to back-up their claims. McGregor is the king of this class. “The Notorious” has built his own brand (including leveraging his brand to launch his own whiskey), and has elite and precise striking that vaulted him to become the UFC’s first “double champ” and enamoured him to both die-hard and casual MMA fans-alike. Fighters like Colby Covington and Kevin Lee are trying to build themselves into this brand category by developing the cocky persona of McGregor, but they don’t have the silver tongue of McGregor, nor his Octagon skills to truly be considered showmen.
The second type of MMA showmen are the everymen, those who on the surface, don’t appear to have many differences with the fans who adore them, but you know you’re in for a treat whenever they step into the cage. These fighters endure themselves to fans by achieving success through their toughness, without exhibiting an elite skillset that would otherwise set them apart. Quite frankly, these fighters tend to have a little bit (or a lot) of jackass in them, only helping grow their personality. The Diaz brothers embody this type of showmen. They possess that “anytime, any place, anybody” mentality that fans adore them for, and if you’re going to watch a Diaz fight, you better be prepared for an all-out war with unrelenting pressure. Even the “screw-you” moves they pull inside the octagon, namely the Stockton slap, brings fans to the screens as no two fights are ever the same. While the majority of the Diaz brother’s showmanship comes inside the Octagon, their never-back-down, Stockton attitudes helps them generate interest pre and post bout, with some incredible exchanges in pre-fight press conferences and post-fight Octagon interviews. Nate Diaz famously used the microphone to build a rivalry with Conor McGregor that he quite frankly had no business being involved in. It turned out to be one of the best moves the UFC made, as they finally had someone who could compete with McGregor’s showmanship, albeit a completely different type of showmanship. Donald Cerrone also finds himself on the fringes of this category, although he doesn’t quite have the mic skills or the attitude to fully entrench himself here.
The last group of showmen is the most interesting as these fighters have built their popularity based almost entirely on their in-ring performance. These types of fighters have such incredible skill that it leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat because you don’t want to miss a moment of the action. If you blink, you’ll probably miss something you’ll never see again. These fighters don’t have to rely on their microphone talents because their unmatched skills have never been seen before in the cage, with fans eagerly anticipating the next card these fighters appear on. They move around the mat with such fluid, uninterrupted movement that calling them freestyle fighters doesn’t do justice to just how incredible and captivating their every motion is.
In MMA, it’s rare that we get an opportunity to see two true showmen face off, and because of the sheer lack of them, it’s even more rare that we get to see two showmen from the third group battle head-to-head, however on Saturday night, Rod Laver Arena played host to just that kind of matchup.
Thrust into the main event of UFC 234 due to a last-minute injury pull-out by middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, MMA-legend Anderson “The Spider” Silva and rising superstar Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya pitted two of the most unique strikers the UFC has ever seen against one another in a battle of the past and future of the middleweight division.
What made the matchup so fascinating is that for the first time in both of their careers, each man was facing a fighter with a similar freestyle striking skillset. Both fighters are considered true artists of striking, using unique angles and patterns that are nearly impossible to duplicate in another fighter without sheer God-given talent.
I watched the bout with two of my closest friends, one of whom has only started watching MMA in the past little while, thanks to the hype train of Khabib vs McGregor at UFC 229. Since then, my friend has watched every PPV event with me. After the Adesanya-Silva fight concluded, my friend turned to me and proclaimed that it was the most entertaining MMA fight he’s watch. When I asked why, he told me that he loved both the showmanship of the two fighters, as well as the edge-of-your-seat action that both men displayed, making it impossible to turn away from the screen for even a second. The skillful showman is such a rare breed of fighter that when we’re blessed with the opportunity to see both of them practice their trade at the same time, every fan watching, die-hard or casual, can tell something special is occurring right before their eyes.
The fight itself started with Adesanya using his decorated kickboxing skills to control the distance with some sharp body jabs and heavy leg kicks. As expected between two of the craftiest artists in the world, the bout was just as much a mental war as it was physical, as seen by what the early leg kicks represented. Adesanya kept going low to the outside of the legs and body with his kicks but landed with great effect. It was clear that the Stylebender was trying to set up a high kick, but it was unclear when it would come, leaving Silva open to the body and leg kicks as he defended high. Silva remained composed defensively as he felt the fight out, dodged an incredibly athletic head kick attempt from Adesanya, and the chess match of round 1 ended with Adesanya comfortably winning the round, but Silva coming out unscathed.
The second round is when the showmanship truly began. Adesanya started strong before providing Silva an opportunity to counterstrike as he’s done so many times before. Silva landed flush on a couple shots, but never truly had Adesanya in any danger. After achieving success, Silva started to let his guard down defensively and opened up, which allowed Adesanya to land some clean shots. Silva was completely unfazed by the strikes, even being so bold as to hold his chin out with his hands down, inviting the Stylebender to come throw more shots.
As the fighters loosened up, their personalities came out, with Silva blocking punches by waving his hands wildly in the air, and Adesanya urging Silva to bring the fight to him with his trademarked Stylebender pose and hand call. There was a great moment with Silva backed up against the cage, laughing and urging Adesanya to come meet him in the corner, while Adesanya stood in the middle of the cage and telling Silva they were going to fight on Adesanya’s terms.
The later part of round two is when both fighters started displaying their incredible athleticism, with Stylebender throwing unique combinations involving swinging high kicks, while the Spider narrowly missed with a flying knee that ended up hitting near the top of the six-foot cage. Adesanya controlled most of the round, but Silva had enough of a flurry when he started counterstriking that he won the round on one judge’s card.
The third round featured a lot of astonishing kick attempts that narrowly missed the mark, with both men constantly changing angles and directions of attack. Silva tightened up his defense again in round three, but Adesanya continued to find success from range.
By the end of the fifteen minutes, Adesanya was a clear winner, but the only complaint fans had was that we didn’t get to ten more minutes of the performance from the two men. That’s what makes it so special whenever showmen step into their arena, and even more special when we get to see two of them compete against one another. Even in a bout with a clear favourite and winner in Adesanya, people’s eyes were glued to their television sets out of fear that they’d miss something incredible.
This fight represented a passing of the torch, from the greatest freestyle showman MMA has ever seen, to the man who hopes to take his throne. The Spider’s days in the UFC are numbered, with the 43-year-old likely calling it a career after one more fight in his backyard of Curitiba, Brazil on May’s UFC 237. For all that seems to go wrong in MMA with injuries, pull-outs and cancelled events, the MMA-Gods blessed us with a bout that should have never come together, with Anderson Silva needing to battle back from a PED-fiasco, and Adesanya taking his fifth UFC fight inside of a year to make it work.
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”
Silva will end his career as a contender to be the UFC’s greatest of all time. The Spider was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the octagon with unmatched striking and unique movement, and it’s for this reason his legacy will live on long after he hangs up the gloves, through freestyle fighters such as Adesanya. In 14 years, when Adesanya reaches 43 years-old, he will hopefully be entrenched in the GOAT conversation, but we can only hope there will be new freestyle fighters that can take the reigns as the third type of showman, because this elite group is exactly what MMA needs.
When we look back at UFC 234, we won’t remember ten of the 11 fights on the card, nor will it be top of mind that we lost our title fight the day of the event. What we will remember is the opportunity to see the past and the future of the UFC combine to bring us a methodical fight featuring elite skill and showmanship at the highest level. We will remember the incredible sportsmanship and respect shown between such similar stars after the bout concluded. We will remember that we got to watch a head-to-head battle between two men, one of whom has made his difference and the other who is currently making his difference by being unlike anyone else that has stepped into the octagon.
Both men leave the octagon heading in different directions. For Adesanya, a title shot could very well be on the cards. Silva should have a winnable swansong booked soon. Adesanya should go on to have a very successful MMA career and history will judge Silva very kindly. While the two fighters will compete in different eras of MMA, UFC 234 and Rod Laver Arena will forever connect them. Their incredible skill and distinctive style have differentiated them in the MMA circle and while we may never see anyone else like them, Saturday night provided a platform for two of the most unique showmen in the game to put on a dance that MMA-junkies like myself won’t soon forget.
For one night, Adesanya and Silva made a difference by being exactly like each other.