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BY WADE KELLER, MMATORCH SUPERVISING EDITOR
[This article was originally published Aug. 28, 2011.]
I don't want to overreact here, but has the question on Anderson Silva changed from "is he the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet" to "is he the best athlete on the planet"?
As Kenny Florian did a good job conveying during the fight last night, Silva's "feeling out" process in the first round is a series of calculations that almost no human brain on this planet could match. What Silva does in terms of learning, on the spot, the tendencies, speed, distance, game plan, and power of his opponent during that first round is akin to watching what Matt Damon's character did in "Good Will Hunting" to mathematical equations. There are just certain brains that are wired to do things at a level out of the comprehension of the average person.
There are great comedians whose ability to dissect the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of our lives on this planet and turn it into laughs are awe-inspiring (and hilarious). There are musicians who do things with guitars, violins, pianos, drums, and harmonicas that is unattainable no matter what level of dedication and practice time and instruction is applied by an everyday person.
There are athletes who rise above virtually everyone else. There was Wayne Gretzky, who knew what his opponents and teammates were going to do before they knew they were going to do it, and combined that intellectual skill with his athleticism to become perhaps the greatest team sport athlete ever. Or else it's Michael Jordan, who made his contemporary All-Stars look ordinary on both ends of the court.
What Anderson Silva does in the ring is poetry. It's also terrifying. The way he dropped his arms and allowed Yushin Okami to punch him, then fired back with a jab that floored Okami seconds later, was scary and beautiful to watch, all at once. The way, seconds before securing his victory, he threw the right to knock Okami down after convincing Okami that he was actually about to throw a left was graceful and vicious all at once.
Florian compared Silva to Muhammad Ali. Now I feel I know what it was like to live through Ali's peak boxing years as a boxing fan. Silva is Gretzky, he is Jordan, he is Tiger Woods, he is a math super-genius, he is the greatest violinist, he is the world's greatest comedian. He has the physical gifts, the mental gifts, and the work ethic to make the most of those physical and mental gifts to become the greatest MMA fighter I've ever seen, and perhaps the greatest athlete on the planet right now.
How do you rate the best athlete? How do you compare team sports to individual sports? It's subjective. It's not something you can feed stats into and get an answer at the end of the ledger. It's just something you feel from watching someone not only better than their top competition by a greater distance than anyone else, but someone who does it with literally jaw-dropping technique and precision and innovation and grace and viciousness. Silva, to me, is that person when I watch him.
George St. Pierre is in that conversation, too, but he's more conventional, less spectacular and dazzling, and less terrifying. In what other sport is someone so dominant as SIlva appears against the best competition in his sport? In recent years there was Roger Federer in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf, Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR. In team sports, there's Kobe Bryant in the NBA, Sidney Crosby in the NHL, Alex Rodriguez in MLB.
In the NFL, some have had stretches of greatness - such as Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Walter Peyton, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, among many others - but the distance between each of them at their best and the second best at that position wasn't as great as Anderson Silva's dominance among his peers in his weight division, nor was the duration of success as impressive as Silva's has been.
Even the Chael Sonnen performance enhances his reputation. His perseverance and stunning come-from-behind win improved his legendary status rather than diminished it, in the context of all else he has done.
Jon Jones, maybe, will seem like someone on his way to being talked about as the next truly great mixed martial artist, but like Lebron James, he has to actually do it and do it for a while before it's fair to enter his name into the discussion.
So while the GSP or Anderson Silva debate will continue, and while a possible Dan Henderson rematch will be seen as a worthy test for Silva, I'm ready to shift to a discussion about whether Silva, over the last 3-5 years, has become the Greatest Pro Athlete on the Planet.
Wade Keller is supervising editor of MMATorch. He has covered MMA since before UFC 1 for the Torch Newsletter, and is among the longest tenured reporters covering the sport. He is a double-black-stripe belt in tae kwon do and has practiced judo and jiu jitsu at the North Star Martial Arts Academy under Michelle Holtze and Tom Crone. He founded MMATorch.com as a dedicated MMA website in 2006 and launched the MMATorch App in 2008. MMATorch is among the top five most read MMA-dedicated brands in the world.
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