How Anderson Silva's gruesome injury changed his life for the better

Anderson Silva's road to recovery (4:55)

Anderson Silva sits down with Stephania Bell to discuss his comeback from a devastating leg injury to face Israel Adesanya at UFC 234 in Melbourne. (4:55)

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in February ahead of Anderson Silva's fight against Israel Adesanya.

LOS ANGELES -- On a sunny, fall morning in Southern California, UFC legend Anderson Silva greets visitors to his recently opened training facility with a beaming smile.

"Welcome to my home."

The fighter once known for being the longest reigning middleweight champion in UFC history appears relaxed in his signature Spider Kick fitness gear, a clothing line he is currently developing to reflect his embodiment of martial arts. There is a small but comfortable waiting area for guests on the left and an apparel rack with various prototypes awaiting his approval on the right. He calls attention to the check-in desk at the center -- or rather the signed gloves on the wall behind it -- noting the various athletes from other sports who have dropped in for training sessions.

As he leads his visitors around the corner, he points out the cryotherapy room ("for recovery"), the weight equipment (specially selected to complement mixed martial arts training) and a small locker room. He then steps outside, traversing a Zen-like rock garden where Silva says he goes to clear his mind, to arrive at the martial arts studio where everyone respectfully leaves their shoes at the door. He leads the group into a gym with white walls and black floor mats, completely devoid of color, with the exception of a few framed prints on the wall, including photos of two of his idols: Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali.

This studio has been Silva's passion project for the past year. He is dedicating himself to sharing his love for martial arts and its ability to transform individuals into better human beings because, as he says, "in this world, people don't care about people." He knows he is building something that will occupy his energy when he retires from the Octagon.

But that time is not now. Not yet.

There is more on the horizon for the fighter, Anderson "Spider" Silva, beginning with his return to the cage on Saturday at UFC 237 against Jared Cannonier. To understand what is yet to come, one first has to appreciate how he got here.

There are numerous moments within every athlete's chosen sport that, when strung together, combine to define his or her career. Perhaps they are more punctuated in mixed martial arts, a sport of extremes when it comes to the highs and lows experienced by its competitors. A knockout, a decision, a fight-card announcement, a suspension. Any of those events can tell the tale of a fighter, a case that could certainly be made when it comes to Silva, who has at some point been a part of every one of them.

But there is one particular point in time that everyone who follows his career can remember.

The injury.

Considered by many as one of the most gruesome injuries to ever occur in MMA, the instant Silva's left leg snapped seemingly in half, just over five years ago, might be the defining moment of his professional life. When the 38-year-old Silva stepped inside the Octagon to face Chris Weidman on that fateful night in December 2013, his focus was on recapturing the UFC middleweight title, the title Weidman had snatched from him months before in what was his first loss in more than seven years.

That focus pivoted sharply just one minute into the second round as Weidman checked Silva's left leg kick, the force of the impact immediately fracturing Silva's lower leg, both the tibia and fibula. In the flicker of time it took for the neural impulses to reach his brain signaling something had gone radically wrong, anyone viewing the fight could see Silva's distorted limb swinging in the air, bending in a way the laws of physics do not permit when the bones are intact.

Those watching were in shock. According to UFC commentator Jon Anik, it was a seminal moment in the sport.

"Silva's profile was at perhaps its highest ever at that time, even though he was coming off a hugely publicized loss," Anik said. "In 2013, most considered him to be the greatest pound-for-pound UFC athlete they had ever seen, certainly the most accomplished. It would be as if Michael Jordan had snapped his leg at the height of his career."

As recognition of his injury registered, Silva's reaction was instinctive and swift. He reached for his lower leg as if to protect it, trying to secure it in some way as he collapsed to the canvas in anguish. As medical personnel rushed to attend to him, the noise in the arena faded inside his mind. In the minutes that followed -- an eternity for Silva -- he wondered what he had done to deserve this fate. As he was carried out on a stretcher, he asked his coach: Why did this happen to me? Why didn't God protect me?

He remembers his coach saying simply, "Relax, don't talk now."

Hours later, Silva would undergo surgery to insert a titanium rod in his leg to stabilize the fracture. As devastating as the injury seemed, it could have been worse. There could have been an open fracture, which would have increased his risk for infection. There could have been extensive damage to blood vessels or soft tissue in the area, potentially compromising the future health of his leg. In the end, Silva was fortunate to have escaped serious collateral damage.

But this was a fighter who was known for his signature delivery of leg kicks. The silver lining to the injury was not visible to him, at least not yet.

His initial shock at having suffered the injury was quickly replaced by fear and anxiety. He could not bear to look at his leg in the hours immediately after surgery, afraid he would see something so unrecognizable that he would not be able to stand it. He acknowledged having wild thoughts that he might lose his leg or that he might not be able to walk. It was just easier not to look.

"I was afraid," said the Brazilian. "I don't look at my leg. I don't see my leg. I just take the medicine and just sleep for two days."

Continued reassurance from his doctor and those close to him finally gave Silva the courage to look down. His face lit up. There was no deformity. No metal cable, as his imagination had suggested.

Just a leg. His leg.

It was intact and oddly familiar, despite feeling as if it had been separated from the rest of his body just days before.

At that moment, Silva made a promise to himself.

"Now it's time to respect more my life, respect more how much I'm lucky in this world," he said.

The fear Silva experienced early on began to diminish as he started to trust his leg enough to bear weight on it, ever so slightly at first, increasingly as it began to feel more familiar underneath him. But those early emotions were replaced by something else: Pain. So ... much ... pain.

The pain Silva encountered was partially due to his decision to stop taking pain medications within days of his surgery. He was concerned by the fact that with the medication, he was feeling no pain at all, and as nice as it was to be free of it, instinctively this made him uneasy. He told his wife that he would simply rely on ice going forward, but he quickly learned that it would come at a price.

The pain was so extreme, particularly at night, that he would beg his wife to take him out for long drives in the car so his children would not see him cry. The great UFC middleweight fighter, Anderson Silva, was dealing with more than a broken leg. His fractured spirit and diminished confidence would be much harder to repair.

Thus began the process of a slow and gradual recovery. It started with Silva learning to walk again: tentatively at first, gradually increasing the pressure through his foot until he could bear full weight, and eventually walking "normally" as his brain began to trust his leg.

But as Silva soon discovered, the body has an amazing ability to compensate, inventing workarounds for subtle motion, strength, balance or coordination deficiencies that, if not corrected, can lead to more significant physical breakdown over time. A slightly decreased stance time on the injured leg when walking, a slight shift toward the stronger leg when squatting, a hesitation when turning toward the injured side -- this reflected his body's resistance to trusting his recovering limb. It was his physical therapist who called Silva's attention to these compensations early on, then worked with him to conquer them.

He was far from done. The next hurdle involved using his left leg to kick. There was the obvious mental challenge of fear of reinjury (would that leg -- rod and bone -- really hold up to the force of impact?) but also the more subtle test of standing on the left leg to strike with the right (would he have enough strength and balance on the left side to deliver a punishing right leg kick?). He began to test it. Short-arc kicks at low speed and shallow power. Then more speed, more power and more arc. Eventually he was kicking again, with confidence.

After Silva resumed all the elements of training, there was only one test remaining: returning to the Octagon. That test came 13 months later, in January 2015, when he faced Nick Diaz in UFC 183. Silva took a step forward in passing that test, but months later took a step back. He won by unanimous decision, but it was later overturned after it was revealed that he tested positive for the steroid drostanolone.

Silva was suspended for a year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in August 2015. He was suspended a second time in 2017 for another failed test, but it was later overturned by the USADA, which determined the cause of the failed test was a contaminated legal dietary supplement. Silva says his failed test from the Diaz fight was also the result of a contaminated supplement.

"I'm very sad because ... I never lied to my fans," Silva said. "I just think about ... I remember I'm feeling very sad because my kids in school, everybody talked to my kids and say, 'Your dad's not the real champion.'

"It's very difficult because when you don't have the good team behind you and you buy the different supplements and you never know, you don't have control for that. Something contaminated, you use it, you fail, because you don't have control."

Considering the circumstances, the fight against Diaz may not be one Silva will look back on fondly, but it may well have been the most important of his career. He had shown the world -- and more importantly, himself -- that he could indeed fight again.

Silva credits physical therapy with bringing him back to the Octagon after his devastating injury. But he had already been exposed to physical therapy years earlier as he began his UFC career and he saw the benefits extend beyond simply helping him recover.

"Physical therapy help me a lot because [it] change all my body, change my balance, change my mind," Silva said. "Physical therapy help me to continue to win all my fights in UFC."

He knew it would be essential to integrate physical therapy into his regular training regimen going forward, but he might never have imagined just how integrated his rehab and his fight preparation would become. Several years ago, while training at Black House MMA in Los Angeles, he became acquainted with Jason Park, a young, earnest Muay Thai practitioner who was training some younger fighters Silva admired. As the two became more familiar with one another, Silva saw Park's coaching style as a good fit and ultimately hired him to join his team.

In addition to having an eye for the subtle nuances of Silva's movement and spotting where he might benefit from specific training, Park is also cognizant of how the training regimen for a fighter in his 40s should differ from that of someone 20 years younger.

"I try to see his training from a holistic perspective, how to balance work and training with recovery," said Park, noting any schedule is always subject to modifications as needed based on how Silva responds to a session.

While he maintains that an older fighter like Silva benefits from more efficiency in his training regimen (for instance, higher-intensity workouts complemented by more downtime), Park is quick to note that age doesn't equate to disadvantage.

"Anderson is a true martial artist in addition to being an amazing athlete," Park said. "His strong foundation, his experience and his creativity teach him how to adjust to his opponent. But most importantly he is always respectful, always listening to others, always asking the question as to how can he get better."

At 43, Silva remains just as passionate about fighting. He believes his question of "why?" on the night of the injury has since been answered.

"Oh my gosh. Thank you God. Thank you for give me an opportunity for come inside the cage again and doing something special, because this is me," Silva said. "I love the fight. I love it."

Silva is aware that his time in the Octagon is drawing to a close. His preparation for the next chapter is evident in his establishment of training facilities, one in Los Angeles where he resides and one in his native Brazil. In addition to the physical training, he aims to impart the philosophies and teachings of martial arts to help each person discover the "something special" inside their hearts and minds. Silva hopes to expand his Spider Kick Gym to other international locations over time so he can give back to the sport he believes has given him so much. He knows his path has not been a perfect one, but he says he is committed to helping others who might be looking to improve their own life journeys.

When asked what he hopes his legacy will be, Silva's response is simply, "When people think about Anderson Silva, think about: 'Oh, this guy help me. Doesn't matter what happen. ... Love your job, love your family, love your personal life and doing something better for people.'"