Wanderlei Silva (34-11-1-1) does not want to talk about retirement. Given that he's just weeks away from a main-event homecoming bout for the UFC in his native Brazil, you can't blame him. Fighters need to focus on doing what they have to do to win during training camps and mental energy spent on anything else can be a dangerous distraction.
But, as I speak with him over the telephone days after he's arrived in Brazil to complete the last month of training before his June 23rd UFC 147 fight, the issue has to be addressed. Wanderlei's legendary championship career has spanned decades, during which his mind and body have sustained a great deal of damage. He's also lost a lot more than he's won over the past six years and often by brutal knockout.
During the first half decade of this century, Wanderlei put together perhaps the most dominant and fearsome championship reign in MMA history as the Pride middleweight titlist. His skills have not diminished - a common mischaracterization of aging fighters - but, as is the case with every fighter over time, his reflexes, speed and ability to withstand heavy shots to the head have.
During our conversation, the specter of Silva retiring is brought up delicately. At UFC 147 Wanderlei will be competing in his home country for the first time in over a decade. He was originally scheduled to do so against his nemesis Vitor Belfort but now will rematch Rich Franklin since Belfort broke his hand in training.
Wouldn't a win as a returning and conquering hero in Brazil, in front of an audience of adoring fans filling the country's largest indoor stadium, be the perfect note to go out on? If he could get a win, wouldn't that be a great retirement fight for Silva?
Wanderlei brushes the idea aside. "I see how I do in each fight and decide," he says.
Silva isn't delusional, and it is hard to deny the logic of his approach or an opportunity to follow up on his last fight - a second round TKO win over Cung Le last November. He is taking his career fight-by-fight, but admits that he has begun to think about what he will do when his fighting career is over. Being back home in Brazil has already appeared to do much for Wanderlei's spirits. He talks of enjoying training with old coaches and teammates from his Chute Boxe days, of eating authentic Brazilian food. He sounds refreshed.
But he's also been reminded of things that sadden him about Brazil, namely the plight of poor children and young people who are facing violence in the street and a crack epidemic. Silva says that poor children often have few constructive activities available to them as alternatives to drugs and crime. "I have started to look for my next step in the sport, though. A lot of guys are good [in Brazil], but they don't have the money to pay for training," Wand says.
"We can find a lot of talent and potential in poor areas. I came from that type of area. I didn't have money to train and the guys gave me this and that, and membership to the gym was free for me. That is the reason that Wanderlei Silva can fight today and make millions of people happy around the world. And I can find other Wanderlei Silvas. I know that I can find them. These guys don't have money to pay but I want to bring them to the gym… I want a gym for the guys that can pay as well as the guys that can't pay, to both train together. I want to have a charity for the guys that don't have money but who want to train."
Silva is a father himself and his passion for helping kids is well-known in the fight world. He and his gym staff back in Las Vegas have already begun offering special martial arts training to children in foster care. Wanderlei says that the need in Brazil is even greater.
"It is different here," he says. "In America I have a charity for foster kids in the gym and its great but those kids look good. Their parents take care of them. I'm so happy for those kids. But here in Brazil, nobody takes care of these guys. Here in Brazil guys don't have shoes, they don't have food, man. Some guys don't know what to do. We have a lot of crack in Brazil right now. We've lost a lot of lives to it. The guys do it because they don't have anything to do. This sport is so expensive to do and the guys have nothing. If you open a small place in a community like that, it is very cheap to do and it can save a lot of lives."
The fact that Wanderlei sees need and his mind immediately sets to thinking of ways meet it is a testament to the type of man he is and goes a long way in explaining his dedicated global fan base. Wanderlei sees an MMA world in constant need of excitement and he's eager to offer himself to provide it. Fans love him for that and one can only imagine that it makes it extra difficult for the fighter to give up his profession. "I fight because I love to make people happy," he says.
There's little doubt that Wanderlei will fight with his trademark fury and make them happy once more when he fights Franklin at UFC 147. After twenty years of sacrificing his body for our entertainment, however, it is reassuring that Silva may have found yet another way to make people happy.
Coaching and charity work could very well be a great path for Silva to take once he does decide to hang his gloves up. As long as the UFC is smart enough to employ him as an ambassador the way it has done with retired fighters like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei should have the resources and stage to live well and do that work.
He's owed that but it would also be a smart move for the organization considering his popularity and the resurgence that MMA is experiencing in Brazil. It may already be the second most popular sport in the country behind soccer if recent television ratings and ticket sales are any indication. Silva says that he is far more well-known in Brazil now he was when he was Pride champion.
"It is finally popular here, thanks to Dana White," Silva says. "He changed the sport. He put it on another level. You say you are an MA fighter these days and people are like, 'Oh, wow!' We have more respect." He also makes a good living, but it isn't why Silva says he's stuck around so long. "Everybody needs money, but my focus was never on the money," Wanderlei says.
"My focus was on the people. This is the reason that I fight with all of my heart."
Elias Cepeda has been covering boxing and MMA since 2005 and is a voting member of the Yahoo! Sports MMA Pound for Pound Rankings panel. Follow Elias on twitter @EliasCepeda