He hadn't quite mastered his quiver-inducing stare yet, the look he would give an opponent that would make religious men pray and everyone else have to fight hard to hold back an audible gulp. Already present, however, were the trademark tattoos on his head, the first visual clue that the Brazilian fighter was, perhaps, a little unhinged. But when the bell rang starting Wanderlei Silva's bout with Artur Mariano in the finals of the second International Vale Tudo Championship, the future PRIDE star was unmistakable. As my writing partner on The MMA Encyclopedia Kendall Shields noted, there's just something about Wanderlei Silva that makes you shiver:
Wanderlei Silva is terrifying. With his tattooed head shaved bare, his dead-eyed stare, and his mouth hanging ever so slightly agape, his presence in the corner before a fight is so threatening that even the most routine movement - his trademark wrist-roll warm-up, for instance - takes on an air of menace. And that's before the bell rings, before the wild-man rush across the ring, the thunderous looping punches, the head kicks, the knees, the soccer kicks, the stomps. Before any of that has even started, Wanderlei Silva is the scariest man in a scary, scary sport.
Nothing was substantively different in 1997. With his head held slightly back, Silva comes in with both guns blazing, throwing power punches with bad intentions. It was a more brutal time, when mixed martial arts was still saddled with the name "no holds barred" - and the term was fairly accurate. The two men stood toe-to-toe in a ring, but only fans who have never seen the early fights from Brazil would mistake that for a sign that this was a contest somehow more "civilized" than those held in a steel cage.
The fights were outrageously violent, including kicks, stomps, elbows, head butts, all taking place in a ring surrounded at the bottom by a hard canvas netting designed to keep bodies from flying to the floor - whether those bodies were conscious or unconscious was immaterial. It would be nice to say that this Wanderlei Silva was just a prototype of the champion who would go on to dominate the light heavyweight division in PRIDE for years. But the truth is, Wanderlei Silva is still raw, even 14 years into a professional fighting career. If you took the Wanderlei Silva from last weekend's UFC 132 fight with Chris Leben into the IVC ring, he would likely approach the bout exactly the same way. It's what he knows, in many ways is who he is.
In the first round against Mariano, Silva lands a brutal standing head butt. Startlingly violent as it was, the headbutt wasn't the story. The cut that opened up over Wanderlei's eye was. It was obvious immediately that it was a bad one. Bad enough to bring in a doctor to look at it, not bad enough that what can only be described as gobs of Vaseline weren't enough to send Silva back out into the trenches. In itself, that's not remarkable. Late last year a Canadian doctor allowed Josh Koscheck to continue fighting against Georges St. Pierre when it looked like his eyeball was actively trying to escape its socket.
What is remarkable is what followed - after a momentary bout of sanity Silva went right back on the attack. With a headbutt. Not just one - several. It was a clear display of his mission statement in life: I don't care about the consequences - I'm coming after you with everything I have. Eventually the doctor stepped in and stopped the fight. It was the first loss of Silva's young career - but sometimes it's not the result that matters. It was a bout that showed the future Axe Murderer, and fans everywhere, just what lengths Wanderlei Silva would go to in order to win a fight. And it was one of the 52 Things I love about MMA.