The Brazilian idol returns to the Octagon as cultural icon to his people
Anderson Silva will be back in the Octagon on Saturday night, in person and in legend, the centerpiece of a UFC Fight Night London event pitting him against English star Michael Bisping in his hometown. For UFC fans everywhere, it’s a treat. For UFC FIGHT PASS audiences, it’s a coup.
For millions of Brazilians, it’s the much-anticipated return of a national treasure, an endearing athlete who has been able to overcome once more. Even though he is a former champion, “The Spider” remains one of the most admired and beloved athletes ever in this vast sports loving country, and his fights typically compel everyone in Brazil to stop and watch.
To understand this worship, you must go back to Feb. 5, 2011 and the legendary UFC 126 showdown at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The undefeated Brazilian UFC champion of four years needed only one shot to take down a fellow Brazilian, Vitor Belfort, who had his own history in mixed martial arts – and was very well-known by the masses. Months later, Anderson Silva appeared in every TV show, every magazine cover and across everything a real idol can only dream about.
More than for his victories with a perfect front kick, Spider Silva has become one of the major sports figures in Brazil for everything he represents: He was abandoned by his parents very young, lived with his military uncle and aunt in another city, tried to be a soccer player, grew up in financial struggles, became a decorated fighter and carried his country’s flag around the world.
“Anderson Silva takes Brazil to a level no other MMA athlete does. Maybe (his stardom) is able to beat most soccer players. His media exposure is in a whole different level,” explains Marcelo Alonso, editor for the Brazilian website Portal do Vale Tudo.
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For every title dispute, inside or outside Brazil, every Brazilian makes it a practice to gather together for Silva fights. His entrance song, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” is still played at parties, and fight gyms are crowded with new students willing to learn the front kick, the head movements and everything he has presented in his many bouts.
“Brazilian sports have always had legendary heroes. This list includes Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, Ayrton Senna, Oscar Schmidt, Gustavo Kuerten and many others,” says Marcelo Russio, editor for Combate.com. “When they retired, the whole country became orphans of the talent they stopped performing, and that represented us very well. Anderson Silva is at this point alongside the greatest heroes of our (Brazilian) sport.
Silva’s success carried the weight of a nation’s hopes and dreams, even when other sporting heroes faltered. But The Spider could not possibly sustain this responsibility forever.
If the Brazilian national soccer team didn’t do well in tournaments, Anderson Silva was breaking all the records inside the Octagon. He was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, had the biggest win streak, most title defenses and everything else.
But he ended up meeting an American who understood his game and knocked him out with a powerless jab.
A Third Beginning
On the night of his Chris Weidman loss in July 2013 at UFC 162, Silva left his phone unanswered and tried not to concern himself with the criticism.
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“Let’s go out and have dinner, but I advise you to take off the uniforms. I’m monitoring the social media and they’re not happy with us,” he told his team while he still in his hotel room at MGM Grand. He remained quiet the rest of the evening, thinking about everything that had happened, but the next day he was already talking about going back and fighting “for the Brazilian people.”
Said and done. A few months later, the rematch against Weidman was announced. Many didn’t believe Silva would step back in the Octagon. Why risk his legacy once more?
“Because I owe this to my country, they need happiness,” Silva kept saying. Brazilians forgot the anger after The Spider’s first shocking defeat, and once again came together to watch their biggest idol.
However, fate intervened again, cruelly. It dictated that Silva suffer a horrific accident and brutally break his leg in the second round of the fight. It appeared as if every Brazilian felt Spider’s screams from inside the Octagon, while Weidman celebrated without knowing the seriousness of the injury.
The former champion went straight to surgery, and a few hours later, while still under effect of the anesthesia and medications, sent a message to his team: “When will I be able to come back and train?”
This is how legends are cemented.
The Brazilian media stood vigil overnight at the hospital in Las Vegas, offering reports to everyone clamoring to know how Silva was recovering. For months, Silva’s condition, his recovery and any news of a return was top of mind everywhere in Brazil, even on the country’s most traditional TV evening news programs, as their champ spend six months recuperating. The onslaught of information remained steady as Silver grew stronger, until it was confirmed he would come back against Nick Diaz.
“His victories and defeats are similar to the national soccer team winning or being eliminated from the World Cup,” Russio says. “The difference between Anderson and most sports idols in Brazil is that he came back when everyone thought his career was done. And his comeback gave Brazil what it needed: the comfort of being represented once more by a giant.”
A global giant. And that’s how it happened. Brazilians came together again and cheered for Silva’s triumphant return as if it was the World Cup’s final match. The cry of the Spider at the end of the fight brought tears to those cheering and celebrating at home.
Days later, in his first visit to Brazil after the comeback, it was common for Silva to hear this everywhere he went: “The Champ’s back!”
This week, the cheers and the cries are the same. The Champ, the legend, The Spider, is back, in Brazil and everywhere else. And it’s time to gather together, again.