LAS VEGAS — Maybe Anderson Silva wasn’t quite the Spider again. After 13 months off with a broken leg, a comfortable victory over a taunting opponent was enough to make him collapse in tears.
Silva won a unanimous decision in his comeback fight Saturday night, trouncing Nick Diaz at UFC 183.
Silva (34-6) landed most of the big blows against the trash-talking Diaz, controlling a strange fight in the same MGM Grand Garden octagon where he shattered his lower leg with a kick to middleweight champion Chris Weidman’s knee in December 2013.
After months of rehabilitation and training, the 39-year-old Silva didn’t yet resemble the dominant champion who held the 185-pound belt for seven years and earned his nickname with his inimitable athleticism. Yet he never faced much trouble from Diaz (27-10-1), who couldn’t back up his goading with consistent offence.
"Thank you God for giving me one more chance," Silva said. "This is a very important moment for me. I went through a lot of suffering in the past year. At the beginning, I didn’t think I would be able to come back."
Silva wept with relief when the decision was announced, crashing to the canvas. Diaz stepped in with a hand and kind words, encouraging and supporting the opponent he had taunted for five rounds.
In a fight that resembled performance art at times, Diaz tormented Silva with increasingly elaborate gestures while daring him to brawl. Diaz stretched out flat on the canvas, backed up to the fence and even stood still with his chin exposed, daring Silva to engage.
"I felt like I was ahead most of the time," Diaz said. "I don’t know how he wins, on damage or what. I probably won every round … but these judges, they don’t like my attitude out here sometimes."
Silva, himself a world-class clown at times in his career, kept it serious and pounded out a decision, winning 50-45 on two scorecards and 49-46 on the third. The Associated Press scored it 49-46 for Silva.
"I’ll go back to my family, to my home, talk to my kids," Silva said when asked about his future.
Tyron Woodley also won a split decision over previously unbeaten Kelvin Gastelum, who badly missed weight on Friday, and lightweight Al Iaquinta stopped veteran Joe Lauzon in the second round during the UFC’s annual Super Bowl weekend show in its hometown.
Silva had won 10 straight title defences over seven years as the UFC’s most dominant champion until Weidman shockingly stopped him in their first bout in July 2013.
Their rematch ended with Silva’s grotesquely broken leg, which required surgery before he could even walk again. Yet he never publicly wavered in his determination to return to fighting, even though it was against the wishes of his wife and five children.
He returned to MMA training last fall after accepting this fight with Diaz, the former Strikeforce welterweight champion and a fellow fan favourite.
Diaz had been away even longer, sitting out since March 2013 after back-to-back losses. The mercurial Diaz moved up 15 pounds for this fight, ending his semi-retirement for the big-money fight he craved.
Although both fighters are known for entertaining antics in addition to their skills, few would have predicted the wacky first round. Diaz waited 20 seconds to gesture at Silva to hit him. He then stretched out on the canvas, stood stock-still, and even backed all the way to the fence with a shrug.
Silva got into the action with a series of big shots late in the first round, while Diaz gradually got more serious. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones stood up in the crowd when Silva returned to his stool, urging the former champ to breathe deeply.
Diaz kept up the clowning in the second round, even scratching his behind at one point. Silva showed increasing confidence in his kicks, throwing enough to raise cherry-red welts on Diaz’s ribs.
Silva kept up his steady offence and Diaz kept up his taunts in the final three rounds. Diaz opened the fifth by crouching, sticking out his chin and saying, "Come on, one shot," to Silva, who kept circling.
Gastelum (11-1) came in 9 pounds over the welterweight limit Friday, but Woodley (15-3) agreed to fight anyway. After outpointing Gastelum on two judges’ scorecards in a deliberate, low-action fight, Woodley said he would refuse the 30 per cent of Gastelum’s purse — about $9,000 — that he is due under Nevada Athletic Commission rules.
"Whatever the commission was going to take from this kid, I don’t want it," Woodley said. "The kid learned his lesson. I know what it’s like. Training camps cost too much."
Earlier, Iaquinta (11-3-1) finished off the game Lauzon (24-11) with a big shot behind the right ear.
Hundreds of Silva’s Brazilian fans packed into Las Vegas for a show studded with their homeland’s fighters, raising Portuguese chants throughout the night.