Fading star Silva to be welcomed back in Japan vs. Stann
I got the style but not the grace
I got the clothes but not the face
I got the bread but not the butter
I got the window but not the shutter
So, who'll be the one to pull out the Tom Waits walkout music? It could be either main event fighter, Wanderlei Silva or Brian Stann. Or either co-main eventer, for that matter. Really, the song would fit at least one fighter from every main card bout during Saturday night's UFC event at the Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo.
But hey, I'm big In Japan
I'm big in Japan
But hey, I'm big in Japan
I'm big in Japan
Yes, several of those who'll step into the octagon this weekend can make that claim, from native sons Takanori Gomi, Yushin Okami and Mizuto Hirota to Dong Hyun Kim, a South Korean who fought the majority of his earliest pro bouts in Tokyo. The same can be said for co-main event combatant Mark Hunt, who has had nine of his 15 MMA fights in this very arena and also won K-1 kickboxing championships in Tokyo. His opponent, Stefan Struve, has never competed in Japan, but at 6-feet-11, he's big anywhere he goes.
How does Brian Stann fit? I mean, he's as American as the apple pie he can't eat while cutting weight. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he played middle linebacker in America's true pastime, he rose to the rank of Captain during five years in the US Marine Corps that featured stints in Iraq, including one that yielded him a Silver Star for bravery in combat. Long before any of that happened in his life, however, the fighter nicknamed "All-American" was born at Yokota Air Base, outside Tokyo.
But even Stann acknowledges that the fighter around whom this UFC event (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, Fuel TV) is built is his vaunted opponent. "I'm not going to be the more popular fighter," he said during a press conference in Saitama on Wednesday night. "But Wanderlei's earned that. He deserves that right. And I'm so happy that he gets the opportunity to return to Japan, where he had some of his greatest accomplishments."
One of the Brazilian's first fights in Japan was for the UFC, back in April 2000, when he lost a decision to Tito Ortiz in a bid for the light heavyweight belt. From there, "The Axe Murderer" went on an 18-fight unbeaten streak that stretched into 2004, with all but one of those bouts taking place in Japan for the Pride Fighting Championship. He won the Pride 205-pound belt in 2001 in Tokyo, and some of his most notable victories came at the Saitama Super Arena -- against Dan Henderson, against Kazushi Sakaruba, against Quinton Jackson. In all, Silva has fought in this building 13 times before, winning 10. He's 22-4-1 (one no contest) overall in Japan. In the Land of the Rising Sun, Wanderlei is a star.
Or was a star. Silva hasn't fought in Japan since 2006, and in case the fans over there have lost track, here's how Wanderlei's career has gone since he relocated to the United States: three wins, six losses. His most recent fight was his first in Brazil in a dozen years, and now his return engagement is in the place halfway around the world where he once chased his greatest glory. It's as if the 36-year-old is on a retirement tour.
Of course, Silva has appeared to be at the end of the road before, and here he is, still driving forward.
When Wanderlei returned to the UFC in 2007, he put up a good fight against Chuck Liddell but dropped a unanimous decision, his third straight loss. His next time out, though, he quieted any out-to-pasture talk by knocking out Keith Jardine in 36 seconds. After losing to Quinton Jackson and Rich Franklin, Silva again resuscitated his flagging career with a decision win over Michael Bisping. He then was KO'd by Chris Leben in 27 seconds and looked like easy pickings early on for the precise striking of Cung Le... until Silva turned the tide and scored a second-round TKO. Last June, in his return to Brazil, he lost another decision to Franklin.
The results haven't necessarily been pretty lately, but the fights have continued to be real lookers. Half of Silva's eight fights since returning to the UFC have ended via knockout, one earning him a Knockout of the Night bonus. He's pocketed Fight of the Night checks four other times. When Wanderlei is in the cage, fists fly.
That's not such a wise engagement strategy when in with Brian Stann (12-5). This is a guy with KOs in 75 percent of his victories, including each of his last three. Sure, Silva (34-12-1) has been in with big punchers his entire career -- from Henderson to Liddell, Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic to Vitor Belfort -- but reflexes dull over time while opponents' punches retain their sting.
Who's the one talking KO, though, in the leadup to this fight? Not Stann. It was Silva who sat at the press conference on Wednesday night and, after expressing his gratitude to the UFC for allowing him to return to the arena where "I've had the best moments of my career," issued his prediction -- no, his guarantee -- for the fight: "I promise I'll knock him out in the third round."
Stann, for his part, has been unwavering in his deference to someone he sees not merely as an opponent but as a legendary figure in mixed martial arts. "When I first thought about coming into this sport, my favorite fighter was Wanderlei Silva," he said at the press conference. "I would watch his fights in Pride and I would just marvel at the tenacity that he brought inside of the ring and how he fought. Not only that, but the way he treated other people and the way he conducted himself. I've always admired all of those qualities in him."
Don't expect that to translate into Stann bowing down on Saturday night, though. Both of these men understands that, under the fighters' code, the most profound way to show respect is to give a guy the fight of his life. And, really, Stann can afford to put out nothing less. The 32-year-old has lost two of his last three bouts, and even though his fists-flying style and American hero backstory would seem to make him immune to the UFC's chopping block during this time of severe roster trimming, no fighter in the prime of his career feels comfortable lingering on the fringes of relevancy.
So Silva vs. Stann might well rise above itself. You won't see a title belt in the cage, and the result won't cause even a ripple in the middleweight hierarchy (especially considering that the bout between longtime 185-pounders is being contested at light heavyweight). Seeing Wanderlei Silva back in Saitama Super Arena, the venue that so long ago made him big in Japan, will be a sweet dose of nostalgia. But reminiscence is fleeting. The moment these two punchers start throwing leather, we'll be drawn back into the here and now. Until the lights go out.