In the end, Israel Adesanya won the fight at UFC 234 on Saturday. But it's safe to say that Anderson Silva easily won the night. Silva (34-9, 1 NC), the 43-year-old legendary former champion, survived three exciting rounds and held his own at times against one of the sport's most dangerous rising stars in a unanimous decision for Adesanya on judges' scores of 29-28 and 30-27 (twice). CBS Sports also scored it 29-28 for Adesanya (16-0).
The fight, elevated to the main event after middleweight championof his title defense against Kelvin Gastelum, clearly sent the fans home happy in Melbourne, Australia, who cheered for "The Spider" throughout. As far as losses go, it was Silva -- who embraced Adesanya at length after the bout and whispered advice in his ear -- who may have scored one of his most memorable wins simply for how game and unlikely his performance was.
Two years removed from his last fight following a reduced USADA suspension for what was eventually ruled a tainted supplement, Silva showed a tremendous chin and never found himself in trouble against a fighter who very much embodies the dynamic and creative striker he used to be (and found a way to channel once more in a nostalgic performance).
"Wow. I am very happy. I love my job," Silva said. "I know it's tough. This game is tough. This is my heart, this is my life. I go here to fight because this is my heart."
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The 29-year-old Adesanya, a self-proclaimed Silva "stan" throughout his career, fought through tears at Friday's weigh-in and declared that his love for Silva wouldn't stop the former champion "from getting these hands." However, despite swelling Silva's right eye with clean punches, Adesanya was never able to consistently land the type of flashy and destructive strikes he has become known for as a former kickboxing champion. Adesanya, who bowed from his knees in front of Silva after the decision was announced, appeared a bit disappointed by his performance as Silva was able to demand respect throughout and keep Adesanya honest with hard counter punches.
"This is crazy. This is like for a kid, if I'm playing basketball, to play against Michael Jordan," Adesanya said. "This is real for me and I do it against the best.
"It was just like fighting anyone else, but there were certain things that he was doing that I have seen so many times, that he has caught other people with, like with his hands down, the bounce, calling me onto the cage with his back against the fence -- but not me. The energy was cool, it was an honor to share the space with him, I can't describe it. As a kid, as a fan, it was cool, just cool. In the long-term, I am definitely getting the belt next."
Adesanya controlled the opening round due to activity as he landed a series of outside leg kicks and jabs to the body. But Silva's high guard and responsible defense prevented Adesanya from ever getting comfortable or landing anything of consequence.
But it was Round 2 that was nothing short of vintage Silva as his counterpunching appeared to briefly rock Adesanya and opened up room for him to pressure as the two fighters traded theatrical gestures of gamesmanship to taunt and one-up each other. Silva veered a bit too close to the side of danger, however, and regularly dropped his hands to welcome Adesanya forward. He ate a number of clean punches in return, yet unlike his first bout against Chris Weidman in his 2013 title loss, never paid for the gesture via knockout defeat.
Although Silva's incredible defensive effort continued into the final round, he was unable to land enough to have a shot at swaying the judges. Adesanya scored repeatedly from distance although both fighters missed on a series of wild kick attempts.
After the fight, Adesanya took a shot at Gastelum, who was standing cage side with the middleweight title draped across his shoulder just hours after. He also called out Whittaker for pulling out and was booed by the crowd.
"[It was a] crazy week. I showed up to work and a lot of other people didn't," Adesanya said. "Sometimes it's out of your hands and not in your control but Player 1 has the controller and I showed up.
"Anderson, I appreciate you. Rob heal up quick, and Kelvin, put that belt down. Seriously."
When asked about his future, Silva refused to mention retirement and offered his interest in fighting in his home city of Curitiba, Brazil. He also drew a big cheer from the crowd for spontaneously re-enacting a scene from the movie "Rocky" by yelling, "Adrian, I love you."
The cinematic reference in this case was apropos considering like the fictional Rocky Balboa in the Oscar-winning first movie of the legendary film series, Silva was victorious on Saturday in ways that don't show up on judges' scorecards. He defied the odds against a dangerous and younger opponent and won nothing but respect in the process.
CBS Sports was with you for every punch, kick and submission attempt from Melbourne with our live blog below. If you are having trouble viewing the blog,.
Israel Adesanya def. Anderson Silva via unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
Lando Vannata def. Marcos Mariano via first-round submission (kimura)
Ricky Simon def. Rani Yahya via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-25)
Montana De La Rosa def. Nadia Kassem via second-round submission (armbar)
Jimmy Crute def. Sam Alvey via first-round TKO (strikes)
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