Mixed Martial Arts legend Wanderlei Silva laced his fingers and rolled his wrists, his name echoing from the loudspeakers, his pale gray eyes—lightless and flat—gazing out his scar-latticed face, fixing his opponent a serial killer’s stare. Across the cage, UFC light-heavyweight Brian Stann returned the look, and a collective cry surged from the stands of the Saitama Super Arena.
Referee Marc Goddard beckoned them forward. They came together, inches apart; eyes locked and determined—Silva in red, frothing on his toes, a pit bull against its leash; Stann in blue, feet set and brow furrowed. Force warbled between them like heat rippling from pavement. Both appeared utterly concentrated in their own way: Stann, intent on victory; Silva hungry for destruction.
They touched gloves and drifted back to their corners. The stands boiled as they awaited the start of the round, the first of five—this was the main event of the evening, and the fight they’d come to see. The principles glared into each other’s eyes, unconscious of the churning lights above, the noisy dark beyond. Slowly, in gradients of oblivion, the world surrounding the Octagon in Saitama, Japan, fell away.
It was March 3rd, 2013, UFC on Fuel 8. For Brian Stann, a hard-hitting, crisp-striking ex-marine coming off a unanimous decision loss to Michael Bisping, it was the chance to show he still belonged in the upper-tiers of MMA combat. Silva, though aging, was a mythic figure within that sphere (his nickname is “the Axe Murderer”), and a win against the bald-headed Brazilian would advance Stann’s status as a marquee fighter.
For Wanderlei Silva it was the opportunity to perform, perhaps for the last time (he was 36, and a battle-worn veteran of no-holds-barred fighting), before his beloved Japanese. Because it was here, in the Land of the Rising Sun, he’d earned his reputation as one of the greatest fighters alive, competing for the now defunct Pride FC promotion, and brutalizing other greats like Kazushi Sakuraba, Quinton Jackson, and Dan Henderson en-route to seizing the banner’s middleweight championship. Here, in this place of samurai and ancient duels, where a warrior’s spirit is measured in blood and fighters are idolized like rock stars, Silva had fought and smashed and won and lost. Here, he’d garnered fame and recognition across the globe. And here, in the darkening hours of his career, he’d fight again, against a younger foe, renowned likewise for his heavy hands and finishing prowess.
The horn sounded and Marc Goddard stepped back. A cheer went up from the crowds, and the fighters crossed the ashen expanse of the Octagon.
Both Silva and Stann are regarded for their aggression, and their ability to impose their wills on their opposition, but the manner they accomplish this differs. Stann is technical, patient; he has the look of a hunter as he stalks, inch by inch, his fists at his chin, his strikes straight and sharp. Silva, reared in the Chute Box gym (rooted in a historical rivalry between the students of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and box Thailandes), honed his furious style in bareknuckle Vale Tudo bouts in Brazil, and is wild and unendingly vicious in his pursuit. His punches are hooked and fast, and they come at you from all angles in rapid succession, and they keep coming until you collapse, and will continue unless the referee intervenes. Stann fights to win (in a televised interview he once acknowledged, “…it isn’t a fight to the death”).
Silva fights for the kill.
In his recent outings, however, the Brazilian had adopted the methodologies of a counterpuncher, bowling his shoulders, hunkering down, and waiting for his opponent to make the first move, his right hand pulled back and ready to fire. This was the case as the opening round unfolded, with Silva low and tight, his gloved knuckles like little leather clubs, and Stann pursuing—bobbing, feinting, and jabbing, gauging his opponent’s movements. Silva backed into the cage. Stann, sensing opportunity, or perhaps merely to see what would happen, lunged with a straight right, followed by a left—and Silva countered with a flurry of his own, left, right, the sound of punches like a cleaver being driven through a T-bone.
The crowds cheered, and the fighters tumbled towards the cage, fists blurred. Stann was caught, slipped; Silva pounced, and the ex-Marine leapt to his feet, pushing through the onslaught of leather being laid upon him, and they fell into the clinch, each tugging at the other. Silva leveled a knee; Stann retaliated. They spun and yanked in the clinch, vying for control, spinning over the canvas like an angry centrifuge, a yin and yang, red and blue, round and round, back and forth.
And then, to the screaming adulation of the stands, their tattooed arms locked round their muscled necks, they traded blows, fists pumping into each other’s faces like alternating pistons. Punch after punch, and Stann landed with a heavy hook and for the first time that night Silva went down.
Silva’s forearms hit the canvas. The crowds roared. But the Axe-Murderer is tough, a knuckle-hardened patchwork of muscle and callus, and he recovered quickly. He pressed Stann into the cage, hunting a takedown, and they returned to the clinch. When they separated, Silva took a heavy breath, and blood plinked from a gash in Stann’s nose.
A little over a minute had elapsed.
This sequence proved a mere prelude to the rest of the fight. For the next four minutes, Brian Stann pursued Silva with single-minded purpose, walking the Brazilian down with linear, economical punches, Silva countering with ferocious loping strikes and a crazed grin stitched across his face. They fought over every inch of the canvas, neither willing to back down, neither willing to relinquish control, like soldiers for an important landmark—slugging beneath the hot white lights, any notions of defense or safety a distant memory, the crowds shouting encouragement, the rat-a-tat-tat of the warriors’ bouncing fists like spates of small arms fire… Silva went down again, came up swinging… And, shortly after, down went Stann. They fought on, Stann bursting to his feet, punching even as he regained his wits, instincts taking over… Stann, normally composed in his advances, had no choice but to brawl in these violent, toe-to-toe exchanges, and the Brazilian snapped into the cage, grinding down on his mouthguard, his fists a dark haze, blood flecking from Stann’s nose, each throwing leather as if fighting for their very lives—staggering, bone-breaking blows that would have felled lesser men.
Stann was caught again, and he leaned against Silva and wrenched him to the ground. He landed in the Brazilian’s guard, blood running from his nose and pooling on Silva’s chest, and the round ended with Stann landing punches from the top. They ambled to their feet, coated in a fine layer of red, and returned to their corners. According to Fightmetric.com, after five minutes of fighting, 139 strikes had been thrown.
The crowds screamed; the horn rang.
They came out for the second more cautious than the first, each wary of the other’s power—Silva looking as if he’d been tenderized, and Stann bleeding from the bridge of his nose. The American moved towards his foe with that implacable, step-by-step progression, feinting, moving his head. Silva waited, his stance squared, his chest heaving, hands held like clenched calipers before him. They circled, both jabbing, both countering, Stann softening Silva’s shins with lead leg kicks, Silva lunging with wild, angry hooks. Though now and again they’d flash together with the ferocity of beta fish, smash and then retreat, the pace of round two was slower; Stann had settled into a strategy and, despite his battered visage, seemed to be in control. Silva was content to wait and swing.
The change happened following an accidental low blow, at the midway point of the round. As is sometimes the case with inside leg kicks, especially in fights of this nature, Stann misjudged the distance and struck the Brazilian in the groin as he moved forwards.
Silva was given a slight reprieve. When the fight resumed, it saw the Axe Murderer as the aggressor and Stann on the defense.
Stann landed a right as he circled away; Silva answered with a high kick. He stalked his opponent, a vicious sheen to his flint-like eyes. Stann peppered him with long jabs and leg kicks, keeping the fight on the outside, where he could pick at Silva, piece by piece. Silva came forward, undeterred.
And then, with a minute left, Silva bit down and stepped in, a wild right hook that caught Stann flush on the chin, followed by a left hook to the cheek. And Stann crashed into the canvas, his eyes empty and wide, and Silva went for the kill.
Moments later, Marc Goddard had wedged himself between them, and the fight was over. Wanderlei Silva had won by knockout at 4 minutes and 8 seconds of the second round. His first fight in Japan in seven years. A vicious, incredible homecoming performance.
After, with a great grin spread across his bruised and swollen face, Silva said, addressing the crowds, “I’m so proud… I’m proud to fight for you… Thank you for this opportunity to fight for my brothers in Japan.”
His punch-drunk voice made his words hard to understand, though, and was—in the end—a sobering reminder of the price fighters pay to put on entertaining shows, of the violence fans must reconcile.
Said Stann, “I knew what I had to risk when I signed that dotted line next to that man, fighting here in Japan.”
In his book, What it is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes writes in detail of something he calls, “The Temple of Mars;” an ineffable state of mind experienced by soldiers in the midst of battle. It is a sacred space, entered when one is in the presence of death, where one achieves “total focus on the present...” In this temple, this place of war, the reality of one’s own mortality is poignantly apparent—and thus everything feels holy and rarefied. Everything borders on the infinite.
This level of consciousness is not limited to soldiers, however; fighters experience it too. It’s what Sam Sheridan is talking about when he refers to “deep waters” in his essays on boxing— “…the moments when a great fighter is facing a superior athlete, a man who has spent his whole life honing lethal skills, in front of millions of people; when the great fighter is fighting better than he ever has before, better than anyone thought possible, and the opponent is still coming. When a man’s only hope is to reach down deep into himself and find a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… They’ve seen through the vagaries of their human soul.”
The sanctified realm is part of what draws viewers to combat sports; in watching men and women lay themselves bare, giving their all to the moment and risking their very lives, we feel connected to something greater than ourselves—something eternal and transcendent—if only by proxy.
In few fights is this truer than the combat between Brian Stann and Wanderlei Silva. Though the bout itself lasted less than ten minutes, those who saw it will remember its ferocious abandon forever.