It's not often that UFC president Dana White admits he didn't know what he had.
But White concedes that when his company signed middleweight Anderson Silva in late April 2006, it never occurred to him that he had just signed the man who would go on to become the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in history.
Silva was just past his 29th birthday when he signed with the UFC. He was 17-4 overall and was the Cage Rage middleweight champion.
"I knew he was a good fighter," White said. "What I didn't know was that he would become this monster that he's become."
Since joining the UFC, Silva has gone 16-0 overall and 11-0 in title fights. He's amassed a mind-boggling number of records including most consecutive wins (16), most title fight wins (11), most successful title defenses (10), most knockdowns (16) and highest strike accuracy (67.6 percent).
As he's blown through the opposition, he's become almost a mythical figure in the sport.
This is the story of four men who fought him at very different times of Silva's career.
Anderson Silva TKO1 Chris Leben, 0:49, Ultimate Fight Night 5, June 28, 2006, Las Vegas:
Leben wasn't totally stunned by what he was up against in Silva's UFC debut. He was coached at the time by Matt Hume, who had known Silva from their days together in the PRIDE Fighting Championship.
As a result, Leben knew he'd face a very good opponent with high-level Muay Thai.
"We knew it would be a very tough fight for sure, but let's be honest," Leben said, "we didn't know, and really, nobody knew, that Anderson would have the kind of run he's had."
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Leben was one of the stars of the first season of the UFC's reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter." White said his recollection is that though Leben had respect for Silva's game, he expected to win and move on to a title shot.
And White couldn't disagree with him very much.
"We didn't give him an easy fight for his UFC debut," White said. "Leben had an iron chin and very heavy hands. People were saying he might be too much for Anderson."
Leben predicted a knockout, but Silva was brilliant. He landed 100 percent of his strikes and ended the fight with a perfectly placed knee.
The win was so impressive, he earned a title shot in his next outing. He went on to destroy champion Rich Franklin in the first round, embarking upon a title reign that is still rolling.
And most remarkably to Leben, Silva's better today at 37 years old than he was in 2006 when he joined the UFC.
"I've watched him over the years and I've developed a great deal of admiration for the guy," Leben said. "He's been on this upward plane, fight after fight. He's always adding something to his game. He's never just staying the same. Each time he comes out, he has something more to his game than he did the previous time."
Anderson Silva SUB2 Dan Henderson, 4:52, UFC 82, March 1, 2008, Columbus, Ohio:
Henderson was coming off a narrow loss in a light heavyweight title fight to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, but he was expected to perhaps be the man who could finally knock off Silva.
By this point, Silva was on his way toward legendary status. He'd gone 5-0 in the UFC, winning three bouts by knockout and two by submission. He had set himself apart from most of the rest of the field.
Henderson, though, would be a different story. Silva wasn't known for his wrestling, and Henderson was an Olympic wrestler.
Silva wouldn't have the element of surprise with his size, nor would he be able to intimidate Henderson. He'd been in with the likes of Jackson, Wanderlei Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, at that point.
"That's one fight where I just wasn't me," Henderson said of his fight with Silva. "If I had been at my best and I lost, I could accept it and move on. But that day, for whatever reason, I wasn't really the same as I usually am."
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Henderson took Silva down in the first round and pinned him to the mat. It was the first round Silva had lost in UFC competition.
Henderson was in for a surprise, though, at the start of Round 2.
"Anderson's not a wrestler and Dan is one of the best wrestlers out there," White said. "After that first round, I think Dan was thinking he could just take him down whenever he wanted and hold him there."
He couldn't, though, and the second was vastly different from the first. Silva finished it at 4:52 after hitting Henderson with a knee.
Henderson later would go on to defeat heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, becoming the only man to face both Silva and Emelianenko. They are the two men most often mentioned in the greatest MMA fighter of all-time conversation.
Henderson said it was hard to pick.
"Anderson was more skilled and more technically sound," Henderson said. "Fedor, he just came at you all business like he was trying to get it over with right away. Anderson is the more accurate puncher, but Fedor definitely hit harder."
Anderson Silva TKO3 Patrick Cote, 0:39, UFC 90, Oct. 25, 2008, Rosemont, Ill.:
Cote was a massive underdog entering the bout, and he knew what he was up against. But he said nerves were never a part of the equation.
Despite knowing how good Silva was, Cote insists he believed he could win.
"I knew I was going against the best fighter of all-time, but the way this sport is, no one wins all the time," Cote said. "I knew I had a chance. I had to fight smart and be my best, but I wasn't nervous because once all of the interviews and the [promotional build-up] was over, all it was, was a fight."
Silva was coming off a first-round destruction of James Irvin at light heavyweight and there was little it seemed he couldn't do. His style was confusing to those who had seen him quickly, and efficiently, wipe out men like Leben, Franklin and Nate Marquardt, among others.
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Silva moved a lot around the cage and seemed to want to avoid contact.
Cote injured a knee in the third and forced referee Herb Dean to stop it. It was the first time in his UFC career that fans were unhappy with a Silva fight.
Cote, though, said he knows why Silva is so highly regarded.
"It's insane what he's done, staying champion for so long," Cote said. "That's why he's the best fighter ever in the UFC. It's why he's the best of all-time. Nobody is close to him, really. He's a one of a kind fighter. … He looks unbeatable right now? Who is going to beat him?"
Anderson Silva W5 Demian Maia, UFC 112, April 10, 2010, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates:
Maia got the fight after Vitor Belfort was injured and had to pull out of the bout. He immediately knew he'd need to fight the match of his life to even have a chance.
"Going into the fight with me, look, it was no secret what kind of a fighter Anderson was," Maia said. "He beat so many tough guys, so many great, great fighters. I knew I would have to be at the very top of my game to beat him."
Silva seemed to clown in the fight, though, showing disrespect for Maia. He so angered White that White handed the belt to Silva's manager Ed Soares after the fourth round, saying he refused to put it on him.
Maia wasn't happy, either, but he said he got a dose of why Silva had become so highly regarded.
"He is so good in the standup and his Muay Thai is excellent," Maia said. "The thing about him to me that I don't hear people talk about is his accuracy. He is a very accurate puncher and he punches from different [angles]. I know he's a fully skilled, all-around fighter, but I had to take him down. The problem is, he's a hard guy to take down."
Silva has reeled off four more title defenses since beating Maia. He beat Chael Sonnen twice, once by submission at UFC 117 and then by strikes at UFC 148.
In between, he beat Belfort at UFC 126 with a perfect front kick and then defeated Yushin Okami with strikes at UFC 134.
Sonnen said he put a $200 bet on Belfort to beat Silva at UFC 126, but crumpled the ticket up and threw it away at the weigh-in. Sonnen said when he saw Belfort urging fans to cheer for Silva, he knew at that moment Belfort had no chance.
Silva now moves on to fight Stephan Bonnar on Saturday in a three-round non-title fight in the main event of UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro.
Bonnar opened as a 14-1 underdog and knows that, should he win, it could be regarded as the greatest upset in UFC history.
The UFC itself, knowing how few people give Bonnar a chance, made a commercial playing off that. In it, Forrest Griffin and Bonnar are sitting at a table and Bonnar asks Griffin for advice on how to fight Silva.
Griffin gives a list of what not to do and as he does, video clips show Silva exploiting those points.
Bonnar is playing along with the gag, but he insists he won't be swallowed by the moment.
"As a fighter, this is what you live for, to face a great guy like Anderson in a major event," he said. "I couldn't be more excited for it. [Saturday] can't get here soon enough."
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