Rory MacDonald may definitely be gone and Georges St-Pierre may possibly be back, but the biggest piece of UFC news this week, the one that will resonate for years to come, doesn’t involve a fighter but the departure from the promotion of an executive even hardcore fans know mainly as “the small guy with the thick head of hair who magically appears in the Octagon after fights to shake winning fighters’ hands.” According to several sources Joe Silva, the UFC’s longtime matchmaker and vice president of relations, will be retiring this year after more than 20 years with the company.
The announcement comes just months after the $4 billion sale of the UFC to talent agency WME-IMG by longtime owners Zuffa, which purchased the struggling, much-loathed promotion back in 2001 for $2 million. According to all reports the sale was extremely profitable for members of the Zuffa executive wing, including Silva. Sources say he is retiring in light of this financial windfall to spend more time with his family.
Silva’s departure will mark the true end of an era for the UFC. The longtime martial artist has been with the promotion since before Zuffa bought it, one of the few employees left from that prehistoric era. Silva came on around the time of UFC 3 in 1994 after contacting the then owners of the promotion, SEG, (after finding their number in the back of Black Belt Magazine) to offer some friendly advice about what they could be doing better. He was an unofficial, unpaid advisor for a time, then a woefully underpaid employee, so underpaid that he was in debt for years as a result. When Zuffa bought the promotion in 2001 Silva stuck around. Fifteen years later he is one of the only ones left from that dark time, when the “sport” of MMA was a great national shame: a true secret artist, the soft-spoken magician about whom almost nothing is known but whose decisions have determined the direction the sport has gone in arguably as much as even President Dana White’s. He is truly the man behind the curtain.
Since claiming you’re retiring to spend more time with your family is the oldest trick in the fired or scandalized executive’s playbook, and since spreading rumors is the raison d’être for a large portion of the social media population, rumors are already swirling on social media that Silva has been pushed out by the new regime eager to make changes or upset at the current state of things. Which may be true, though it’s hard to imagine any promotion being upset with the matchmaker who came up with Shogun Rua vs. Dan Henderson or Mark Hunt vs. “Bigfoot” Silva or Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz. And Joe Silva is responsible for countless such masterpieces. Firing him would be like firing Matisse. Which, come to think of it, I’m sure happened many times.
But I would guess (and guessing may be all we have considering how notoriously press-shy Joe Silva is) that Silva is simply rich and tired. Tired of doing a job using the most nebulous criteria and relying on the inexactitude of rankings and the always-shifting availability of fighters (who have the terrible habit of dropping out of fights last minute). Tired of spending hours and days and weeks arranging fights that either don’t materialize or collapse due to injury or turn out to be total duds. Tired of searching, like an artist, for that most elusive and ethereal chemical attraction (proof, if any were needed, that fighting is like love in many ways) that can turn a good fight into a masterpiece that is never forgotten, like a romantic matchmaker building his name and reputation on creating something as enigmatic as a “spark.” Tired of getting no credit when a fight is legendary but taking blame when it’s awful, when, for whatever mysterious reason, no fire was started and two fighters merely coasted through together or one fighter flopped fantastically in the face of the other. Tired of being the master of one of those arts that everyone thinks they can do better than he can. UFC matchmaker seems like it could be a truly thankless job.
Thankless, that is, right up until that moment when the company you’ve been loyal to for 20 years sells for $4 billion and you, a former software company manager, are able to cash out for untold millions and walk away as a legend: a fearless pioneer, an artist, a living myth who just wants to spend more time with his kids.
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