For just one night, Pride was alive again.
The UFC made their return to Saitama Super Arena in Japan on Saturday night, home to many of Pride Fighting Championships’ biggest moments. It was fitting that Pride legend and former Middleweight champion Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva headlined the card, stepping into the octagon against decorated US Marine Brian Stann.
It seemed like everyone in the building and watching the telecast was willing to turn back the clock ten years for this one night. The Japanese fans who packed the arena gave Silva a conquering hero’s welcome despite coming into the fight with a 3-5 record in the UFC. Japanese fans are also infamous for being subdued during the fight itself, but were screaming their collective lungs out If there wasn’t a cage in the center of the arena instead of the old Pride ring, one could have been forgiven in thinking it was 2003 and Silva was plowing his way through the Middleweight Grand Prix tournament.
Most importantly, Silva himself turned back the clock and turned in a vintage “Axe Murderer” performance, going full tilt against Stann, throwing caution to the wind and constantly looking for the knockout finish, which he finally got at 4:08 into the second round.
The fight itself vaulted to the top of the “Fight of the year” conversation, as both combatants engaged in a slugfest that sent adrenaline levels peaking on-site and created an excitement so palpable that you could almost hear viewers screaming at their TV sets at home. Silva and Stann exchanged knockdowns, windmill hooks and threw defence out the window until Silva clipped Stann with a right hook and followed up with a crushing left to send Stann to the mat to earn the KO victory.
When it was all said and done, UFC President Dana White was so impressed by what he saw that he awarded Silva a $50,000 bonus for “Knockout of the Night” and matching $50K bonuses to Silva and Stann for “Fight of the Night”.
Silva’s feat was even more impressive when you consider that many fans and those in the MMA media were genuinely fearful for Silva’s well-being heading into the fight. Questions persisted about how the soon-to-be 37 year old’s chin would hold up against the powerful punches of Stann and there were those that seemed to have their “Wanderlei needs to retire” headlines at the ready, regardless of the result of the fight.
Where Silva goes from here is anyone’s guess. He seemed to be content to try and make a run at 185 pounds, but Stann obliged Silva’s wishes and moved up to 205 for the fight. While Stann will return to 185, Silva’s not so sure. He joked to the press ahead of the fight that staying at 205 “would be better for his marriage” and joked about how agitated he gets when trying to cut weight. But he also acknowledged after the fight how larger his opponents are at light heavyweight. There is no doubt that Silva is a small 205’er, but with his performance Saturday night and his Pride history at that weight class putting wind in his sails, he may choose to ride the momentum.
As important as the win was for Silva, it was equally as important for long-time MMA fans. The kind that rabidly followed Pride when it wasn’t easy to do so, often having to scour Japanese video stores in their area or trade with tape dealers on the internet in order to get the latest releases. It was a throwback to the era when Zuffa didn’t control the entire sport, and indeed the UFC wasn’t even the largest or premier organization. All that was missing Saturday night seemed to be the great commentary duo of Mauro Ranallo and Bas Rutten; and Pride’s famous “dragon lady” Lenne Hardt screeching the introductions. No matter how jaded a 2013 MMA fan they have become, for one night Silva was able to teleport us back through time. The message, whether spoken or unspoken, was clear: Pride never die.