Sunday, June 30, 2013

To be loved; win, lose or draw

When a professional athlete embarks on a career at the highest level, they do so in hopes of some day being recognized as a champion. To be known simply as the best and at the top of their game, regardless of what it is. For a gladiator sport like mixed martial arts this is especially true.

However, in every sport there is an even greater title; one that only a certain few are ever able to attain. That is to be loved by fans of that sport unconditionally, win, lose or draw. In MMA, I'd argue there is no fighter more beloved in the sport than the legendary Wanderlei Silva.

With a nickname like 'The Axe Murderer' you would think it would just be the opposite; however, nothing can be further from the truth. I've followed Wanderlei Silva's career since I first saw him step into the cage for his seventh pro fight at UFC 17.5 in October, 1998 as a 21 year old against another future legend, the then 20 year old Vitor Belfort. We all know the outcome, a 44 second demolishing loss; his second in his first seven fights.

Yet, over the succeeding six years he would only lose only once in 25 fights before succumbing to heavyweight Mark Hunt in an open weight tournament in the now defunct Pride Fighting Championships from Japan; a split decision loss to a man who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds. Nonetheless, it was during this time in Japan at Pride that he would attain his legendary status as a champion and a warrior in the cage that would go on to fight some of the all-time greats in the sport.

Regardless of his record, which currently stands at (35-12-1, 25 KO's, 3 subs), it has been his fighting style in the cage and his demeanor outside of it that has made Silva such a popular figure in MMA. However it goes beyond popularity, this man is genuinely beloved by fans; and not just his fans, I'm talking about all MMA fans. So much so that everyone refers to him by just by one name Wanderlei; almost as though he were a personal friend of yours.

The strange thing is that is how you feel about him. When you're a Wanderlei fan, it's more than just a fight, it's personal. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was literally moved to tears when I saw him get knocked out cold nearly two years ago to the date at UFC 132 by Chris Leben. That is because not only am I a fan, at that point I was lucky enough to have met the man in person. The year before while visiting Las Vegas, my friend Brian 'Goze' Garcia of MMA Junkie Radio was kind enough to take me to his gym to meet this living legend.

When I met him, I was in awe, yet he made me feel at ease. He had just finished working out, yet he was kind enough to take a photo with me (this one below):

He also jokingly took a jab at me about my gut; but that is Wanderlei, never demeaning and always endearing. It is what makes him loved beyond his accolades as a pro fighter. He is extremely personable with his fans.

Last month while visiting Vegas, I was once again lucky enough to cross paths with this icon; this time after he conducted a radio interview at the MMA Junkie Radio studio in Mandalay Bay. After the show was over, even though there were hoards of Junkie Radio fans waiting outside the studio to take photos, he gladly took time to oblige everyone, including myself (which is the photo at the top).

It was also after that show that he openly invited all the MMA Junkies in attendance, me included, as guests to his gym next year during our annual Junkie Radio Gathering. We all roared in joy and applauded our beloved champion. You can tell he was openly moved by our genuine affection for him. It is something that not every fighter attains, but only a chosen few; to be loved by your fans, win, lose or draw.

A couple of other fighters have reached this level such as Randy Couture and BJ Penn, but for many fans, it is more mythical. I mean unless you're lucky to catch them at a UFC event, how many of us are going to cross paths with them. BJ Penn stays in Hawaii and Couture is busy with his many business ventures, including being a movie star. For the record, Couture was in the studio with Wanderlei last month, but unlike Wandy, he graciously told us fans he could not stop to take pictures. This is no slight at all towards Randy, but rather it's just another example of why I say Wanderlei is the most beloved fighter in MMA history; 'nuff said!

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