Anderson Silva's win streak in the UFC currently stands at lucky 13. It also stands alone, as the longest unbeaten octagon stretch of all-time. For people who don't regularly follow mixed martial arts, it may be hard to understand what an impressive achievement that is. Even though the UFC has only been promoting events for about 18 years, it has seen hundreds of fighters try their brand of fighting in the octagon, and no one has ever done what Silva has done.
His achievement is MMA's equivalent of the Miami Dolphins' perfect season.
If you follow boxing, 13 wins in a row doesn't seem like a big deal, as top fighters often compile 20 or 30 straight, but boxing and MMA have completely different philosophies. While boxing babies its contenders, moving them up the ladder one small rung at a time, MMA ascribes to a sink-or-swim belief. At the highest level, either you can hang, or you can't.
The two sports are also completely different strategically. In boxing, you can only change the angle of the punch. MMA is much deeper, more multi-textured. You can win with a punch, an elbow, a knee, a shin. You can strike, wrestle and submit. The permutations on techniques are endless, and it's impossible to be good at all of them. That's what makes Silva's run so magical. He's beaten every kind of fighter, in every kind of fight.
Silva has had few gimmes during his UFC career, though he has also had some luck in ruling over a division that has been arguably the weakest of the five majors the UFC has promoted during the entirety of his run.
On Saturday night at UFC 134, Silva will face Yushin Okami, who is the last man to defeat him, at least on paper. When the two fought in January 2006, they were both welterweights, and their bout took place in a small Hawaiian promotion with few more than the locals watching. This time, the world will take interest. The event takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, about 300 miles from Silva's birthplace of Sao Paulo.
That Silva returns home as the reigning champion, and on a night when MMA returns to its birthplace, seems rather fitting.
Making Silva's streak all the more impressive is his age. At 36, Silva is the oldest reigning champion in the UFC. Like most sports, MMA is a young man's game, and Silva's style is predicated on quickness and movement, two things that are often adversely impacted by time. Yet all but two of his wins (Henderson and Travis Lutter) came against men that were younger than him.
Still, he has been a mercurial talent at times. While he has finished 11 of 13 opponents during his stretch, the two times he has gone to a decision came against men he seemed fully capable of dominating. That has led many to wonder whether he raises his game to meet any challenge, or if he is simply so good that he gets bored when unchallenged.
Whatever the case, few expect motivation to be an issue in Rio, with both the prospect of redemption and the reality of fighting at home fueling him. For his part, Silva says there is no added interest simply because of the rematch.
"I train for the best fighters in the world," he said in a recent teleconference. "A fight is a fight, and Okami is a good fight." Okami also discounts the past result, calling it an "old story."
But Okami also has something else to fight for, and that's his home country, Japan. As one of its most successful recent MMA exports, Okami is carrying the pride of a nation that was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami.
"Japan is suffering under a very difficult situation," he said through an interpreter. "The people are cheering me, so when I bring the belt back to Japan it will add one more boost to the Japanese recovery."
On paper, Okami has the kind of game that could give Silva trouble. He is a strong wrestler who can take a fight to the ground, and he has excellent top-side control, which could make the fight more a grind than a sprint. Yet time after time, Silva has solved the matchup problems in front of him. Okami is not a better wrestler than either Sonnen or Henderson, but he is more conservative, and taking chances against Silva is usually a recipe for disaster.
The law of averages suggests that Silva will eventually lose. Then again, maybe the law of averages does not apply to someone who seems to exist above all expectations of reason and performance. Brock Lesnar may be the biggest draw in MMA, but he doesn't have Silva's deep understanding of the game. And Georges St-Pierre may be its poster boy, but he lacks Silva's killer instinct. The beauty of Anderson Silva is that he perfectly melds MMA's gracefulness and violence in a way no one else ever has. He is an athlete and a fighter, and his style and success depends equally on both.