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Mixed-martial arts are becoming a bigger and bigger business with each bone-shattering, jaw-rattling tourney. But controversy still dogs the world’s fastest-growing sport, with detractors cringing at its admittedly high levels of violence. New York, for example, remains one of five states that have yet to sanction bouts organized by such established MMA organizations as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Amidst the hubbub, here’s one thing that’s undisputed: Anderson Silva is one of, if not the, finest MMA fighter out there right now.

Trained in muay thai, jiu-jitsu, taekwando, and judo among other disciplines, the 36-year-old Brazilian fighter is the reigning UFC Middleweight Champion and boasts the longest winning streak in the league’s history with 13 back-to-back victories. While preparing for his August 2010 title bout with Chael Sonnen, Silva was shadowed by a documentary crew led by director Pablo Croce. The resulting film, Like Water, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of one of MMA’s biggest names as he prepares for a bout that would leave Rocky Balboa weeping like a little girl. Life + Times recently caught up with Silva and Croce in a New York martial arts studio.

Life + Times: Pablo, you come from the music video world and don’t have much of a background in sports, let alone MMA. How’d you end up directing this film?
Pablo Croce
: I was approached by Jared Freedman, the movie’s producer and a personal friend; we had been trying to get something together for the past five years, but I was a little surprised and a little doubtful that I was the right guy to do this. And soon after I started working on it, I was ready to quit. I felt out of place—I didn’t know the names of any of these guys. I would be talking to [former UFC interim heavyweight champ] Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and I had no idea who he was. It was pretty embarrassing. But once I started seeing values I could relate to outside of the actual fighting, I slowly grew into the project. I could see that these guys were a real family and that was very inviting. And actually, Jared didn’t want a director that was a fan or knew too much about this world and I think that’s why the film works. You can see this world with unbiased virgin eyes and get a true assessment. This is a real sport and the guys take it very seriously. I’m not saying it’s a religion, but they respect what they do at a level that a religious person respects their values.

L+T: Did the film begin as a broader look at the MMA world or was it always a specific portrait of Anderson Silva?
: It was presented to me as a piece about an athlete who also happened to be the champ in his particular sport. My choice then was to find out more about that man—who he is and what he does. The first time I saw Anderson, there was a presence. He filled the room when he walked in. At first I was intimidated by what I was diving into, but his family and his team around him helped me feel comfortable. Before doing the film, I got invited to see Manny Pacquiao fight and I definitely see a connection between the two guys.

L+T: Anderson, going into the film, did you make it clear that there were parts of your life that were going to be off-limits?
Anderson Silva
: No, nothing was off-limits. Pablo and Jared should be congratulated on what they put together. Everything that we did, we did from the right place. We came at it with love and that’s why you were able to see what you saw. You got to see what my life is like leading up into a fight.

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