Throughout a nearly 22-year career, former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva has built his legacy as quite possibly the greatest fighter in MMA history upon a series of indelible moments. 

The dynamic Brazilian striker — who was part magician, abstract artist and virtuoso entertainer inside the cage — so often tiptoed the line between good sense and reckless danger in order to deliver the kind of highlight-reel memories that have helped him build such an incredible bond with his fans. 

Consider current 185-pound sensation Israel Adesanya (15-0, 13 KOs), who has been tabbed as nothing short of the UFC’s next big thing, as a lifetime member of the fan club. The self-described Silva “stan” not only projects an exciting style that is surely influenced by “The Spider,” Adesanya will have an opportunity to defeat his idol in Saturday’s co-main event at UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia.

Silva (34-8, 1 NC) made it a habit so often during his prime of doing the impossible that it often became routine to expect it. That has included snatching victory from the mouth of defeat in spectacular fashion and finishing opponents with an almost supernatural control of time and space that resembles more of a video game character than anything human. 

Most critics, however, have declared the idea of coming back from a two-year layoff at the age of 43, seven years removed from his last victory of major consequence, and fighting a younger and more dangerous version of himself as a bridge too far. 

Yet Silva has exuded an almost intoxicating level of joy in recent months, after the redemption of a reduced drug suspension due to a tainted supplement, that suggests he knows he has been gifted with borrowed time and the kind of opportunity that doesn’t historically come to a fighter his age. He has spoken about the fight with a level of confidence that makes you wonder whether he’s crazy or he knows something — as in, crazy like a fox. 

Can the wily veteran cook up one more impossible moment in the twilight of his legendary career? How many magic tricks does he have left?

“Ahhhh, I have a lot!” Silva told CBS Sports on Wednesday. “Let’s go see. Let’s go see when we go inside the cage.” 

Adesanya, 29, a former kickboxing star and native of Nigeria who moved to New Zealand as a teen, considers this fight more important to him than competing for a title. But even though he has respect and love for Silva, “The Last Stylebender” has no plans to take it easy on him. 

“This is not my first rodeo,” Adesanya told CBS Sports. “They’ll tell you how you should never overlook anyone but they don’t tell you how you should never put anyone on a pedestal. He is just another human being at the end of the day. He is just another guy who bleeds if you cut him and cries if you hurt him. I’m not looking past him, I’m not looking over him, I’m looking through him. 

“100 percent I am [a Silva fan]. I still love UFC 200 and don’t really care that he was fighting [Daniel] Cormier on like three days’ notice. I have always been a stan for the ‘Spiderman.’ But look, I have fought guys who are close to me and knocked them out. So to fight this guy who I have never met before, just because I looked up to him, doesn’t mean like I’m not going to give him these hands.”

Should Silva defeat Adesanya and will himself back to a first title fight in over five years, it would surely be in contention among the most emotional and enduring moments of his career. In light of the opportunity at hand, Silva provided insight into five of the biggest memories that have defined his legacy and revealing elements to his game that could make Silva a live underdog entering Saturday. 

5. KO1 Chris Leben, UFC Fight Night 5, June 28, 2006

Silva’s much anticipated UFC debut came with plenty of hype due to the hypnotic highlight reel he acquired around the globe, but plenty of skepticism given the level of competition he faced. Leben, the battle-tested “Ultimate Fighter” veteran seemed to be the perfect foil, on paper, to drag the 31-year-old Silva into deep waters and find out what he’s made of. 

Instead, the fight lasted just 49 seconds as Silva went virtually untouched in dismantling “The Crippler” with a whirlwind strikes from all angles that ignited the Las Vegas crowd and announced quite violently that a force the likes UFC had never seen had arrived. 

“Wow, it was a great moment in my life,” Silva said. “I never thought about how much the people would love this fight. Wow, I’m so happy because this was my first fight in UFC and my first good performance. I’m so, so happy when I remember this fight. When people talk about this fight I’m so happy because that supports to continue my legacy.”

Silva admitted he wasn’t fearful entering the fight despite the elevated stage of joining the UFC and it’s a pre-fight demeanor he plans to replicate against Adesanya on Saturday.

“No, I’m not nervous, I was excited,” Silva said. “I wasn’t nervous [then] and at this point in my career, you don’t think about that. You stay relaxed in training and do your best for your fans. It’s not about nerves or something, it’s just about being relaxed and happy.”

4. KO1 Rich Franklin, UFC 64, Oct. 14, 2006

Silva’s one-round destruction of Franklin, in the first of their two title bouts, saw him capture his first UFC title to begin an incredible run of 10 title defenses over seven years. But it was the savage way Silva broke Franklin’s will (not to mention his face) by trapping him a Muay Thai clinch and unleashing a hellacious string of knees to the face that sent an unmistakable message to the rest of the division.  

Although Silva repeated the feat one year later in their rematch, finishing Franklin in exactly the same manner, it’s his first UFC title win that may have been his most devastating singular performance in the Octagon. From the moment he had Franklin hurt, he was merciless in the manner that he finished. 

“Rich is an amazing guy. I’m very lucky for him to give me an opportunity to fight for the belt,” Silva said. “But [is it my best performance]? In my mind, my first fight in Japan for the title belt in Shooto [against Hayato Sakurai in 2001] is the best fight in my life because it’s the first I fought for the belt and the first fight I fought for my country.”

3. KO1 Vitor Belfort, UFC 126, Feb. 5, 2011

If there’s one moment that best describes how equally creative and dangerous Silva is as a striker, it’s likely this standing front kick to the face that knocked Belfort out cold and instantly went viral just as the new dawn of social media and the digital age took full bloom. 

Silva pulled the move out of thin air, with very little setup or tell to anyone, let alone Belfort, that it was coming. He also landed with such precision and devastation that it’s a reminder, along with the kick to the body he used to hurt Cormier in the final round of their UFC 200 bout, that Silva is never truly out of a fight with a brain that creative. 

“I trained a lot for this kick,” Silva said. “I trained this kick for four months and it was a special moment in my life.” 

2. KO1 Forrest Griffin, UFC 101, Aug. 8, 2009

Moving up to light heavyweight to take on the former champion Griffin in this special attraction, Silva looked like a phenomenon from another planet. The ease in which he slipped punches from close range to counter with frightening speed looked more like a choreographed dance sequence or fight scene from “The Matrix.” 

Not only did Silva electrify the Philadelphia crowd, he bamboozled Griffin into submission in a way no elite fighter has ever been clowned, before or after, in UFC history. Silva was in the zone and operating at such an insane level on this night, that he could only chalk up to how pure and joyful his mental state was entering the fight. 

“I believe that when you are training hard and you stay happy in your mind and you stay strong, you can do anything inside the cage,” Silva said. “There are moments of magic you have in your life and in your body inside the cage. I just thought about how much Forrest Griffin is the best fight at that particular moment and how he has always fought the best available. I tried to use it in my mind to help me plan the perfect attack and finish the fight best.”

1. SUB5 Chael Sonnen, UFC 117, Aug. 7, 2010

The UFC’s equivalent to Michael Jordan’s “flu game” in the 1997 NBA Finals, this is the moment when Silva reached immortality as a fighter. After losing every second of the first four-plus rounds and getting battered in a manner fans had never previously seen, Silva rallied to tap out Sonnen via arm-triangle choke with just under two minutes remaining in Round 5. 

It was an impossible victory made even more remarkable when Silva revealed after the fight that he fought through multiple broken ribs. If that wasn’t enough, he overcame a relentless performance from Sonnen that was fueled by elevated levels of testosterone that was revealed in a post-fight drug test. 

On a night where Silva didn’t have it and likely shouldn’t have competed, he showed through his mental toughness why he’s deserving of G.O.A.T. status. 

“You need to stay in complete focus and completely connected to your mind to believe in yourself because when you go inside the cage, it doesn’t matter how much you trained or how much your coach can help you,” Silva said. “When you go inside the cage, it’s just you and you. You need to take care about your mind and to take care about your body to stay healthy and strong.”

Ed Soares, Silva’s longtime manager, remembered doctors pleading with Silva just six days before the fight not to compete. 

“They told him he couldn’t fight because he had three to four ribs where all the cartilage between the ribs was fractured and broke,” Soares said. “He had trouble breathing so that week when we got back from the hospital, he didn’t even move around at all. He laid in bed until we left to go to Oakland. So he pretty much laid in bed from Saturday all the way to Tuesday until we got up to go to Oakland. It definitely was something that was pretty intense as far as the pain goes.” 

Almost nine years later, despite the dramatic result, Silva admits he made the wrong decision. 

“It was very tough because I remember that I can’t breathe when I move and try to push,” Silva said. “I can’t breathe. I know it was the stupidest decision in my life but that’s me. I’m a fighter and was working hard and use all my energy when I go inside the cage.”

The moment had a huge impact on Adesanya, too. He remembers watching the fight alone and began to get the chills even talking about it all these years later. 

“I had faith in him until the last second. I had faith all the way until the last, last, last round,” Adesanya said. “I didn’t lose faith even while he was getting his ass whooped. I was always like, ‘Come on Anderson, come on Anderson.’ I watched him waiting like he was going to do something crazy and he did, and I dropped to my knees yelling. I was so emotional.

“I was just stanning him for so long and no one believed me [but] it is what it is.”

Adesanya, who decimated Derek Brunson via TKO in November far easily than Silva did when winning a disputed decision in 2017, knows Silva’s career too well to fall prey to any of his legendary magic. 

“Anderson is Anderson. He is still sharp and you can’t sleep on him,” Adesanya said. “I stay ready, I stay woke. 

“Silva is just a guy who has been bored his last two fights and I want to excite him again in this fight.”

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