The American light heavyweight thought he was going to Brazil for a fair fight. In reality, Silva was using him as an unwitting victim in a new stage of his career. We didn't see Silva the fighter Saturday night. We saw Silva the entertainer.
Prior to the fight, Bonnar looked amped and simultaneously anxious; Silva was a blank slate, unreadable. His lack of emotion brought to mind a surgeon approaching the operating table or, worse, an executioner heading to the unspeakable.
Actually, this was Silva the trickster, and he duped Bonnar into what this fight was really about. For this fight was to be less a contest and more a spectacle. The middleweight champion, moving up to 205 pounds for the third time in his career, was taking on a fighter so far from relevance, everyone took it for what it was: just a show. And nobody was more aware of this than Silva.
The bigger, heavier Bonnar did his best to muscle Silva early, keeping him on the cage to negate the Brazilian's fast hands and pinpoint accuracy. Silva's poise and patience in the clinch were at once both masterful and maddening to Bonnar; as much as Bonnar pressed, Silva flowed.
At distance, Bonnar did his best to unload in his trademark energetic style. Silva barely flinched, except to allow punches to glide past his head. When they did connect, he didn't even shrug. By remaining on the fence when he had the opportunity to move away, Silva brought to mind Muhammad Ali's infamous rope-a-dope tactics, yet he didn't have to tolerate the damage the legendary boxer did during the "Rumble in the Jungle." Silva's sublime head movement and footwork always put him just out of danger. Even at Bonnar's preferred range, Silva had the advantage, slipping punches while picking his own. It was a public demonstration of what Silva is really capable of.
When Silva did move forward, it was with an uncharacteristic takedown. In the scramble that ensued, Silva hurt Bonnar with a vicious knee to the chest. The shot left Bonnar prone and in agony, unable to defend from the follow-up punches. He remained on the canvas for some minutes after referee Marc Goddard intervened.
Silva's time in the cage was quite literally a performance. He readily admitted after the bout that he took the fight only to save the event and, in his own words, "put on a show for everybody."
As Silva's career comes to an end, he is undergoing a metamorphosis. We've seen Silva the fighter, Silva the martial artist, Silva the champion ... on Saturday night, he was an entertainer. The reason is clear. At 37 years of age, he is keen to retire and evolve from an athlete into something new.
His growing media appearances in Brazil mark him out as a star with the potential to transition into the mainstream. In the fight with Bonnar, he demonstrated abilities as both a fighter and a showman. Whereas his past performances focused on results, Saturday night showed he was conscious of doing something people would enjoy.
One reason for Silva's performance: the desire to inspire a new generation of fighters in his home country.
"I think it's important for the UFC to become established in Brazil and I am a part of this," Silva said during the postfight news conference, going on to describe how his role is to help a new generation of fighters replace him as he moves away from the sport.
A visibly ecstatic Dana White, in a good mood after a night of excellent fights topped by a spectacular (if brief) main event, made no secret of his admiration for Silva's abilities and showmanship. "I don't even know how to put it into words when this guy performs," he said. "He's like an artist."
And it's Silva's creative streak that has made him grow into the entertainer he is.