Some men hunt vampires. Others chase storms. I like to ambush and derail bandwagons. And when I saw that oddsmakers and MMA pundits had set ridiculous odds against Stephan Bonnar defeating Anderson Silva at UFC 153, my bandwagon alert sensors buzzed with indignant vigor. Surely the only possible explanation for Bonnar's ludicrous 14:1 chance of victory is that people are running with the herd?
The surface facts seemed to support my view:
- In 22 MMA fights, Bonnar has never been finished once, with his only 2 TKO losses being due to cut-related stoppages.
- He is 2 inches taller, 16 pounds heavier, and 2 years younger than Anderson Silva.
- The man is a well-rounded fighter with black belts in Taekwondo and Ju-Jitsu.
- He is a tough, courageous scrapper who according to Jon Jones himself, gave the latter his toughest fight ever (at least until Vitor Belfort tried to take Jones' arm home to Brazil).
In light of these facts, Bonnar on paper doesn't seem like the hopeless sacrificial lamb everyone seems to assume he is. The story of Bonnar's career is not that he has been easy to beat. It is that when it mattered most, he fell just short of what it took to eke out the victory. If you are sympathetic, you might call him not mediocre, but unlucky. So with those aforementioned assets combined with the valiant fighting attitude of a man with nothing to lose, could he eke out an upset against the Spider?
It would take a brave man to predict that Bonnar will prevail. However, we saw Buster Douglas and Matt Serra knock out Mike Tyson and Georges St-Pierre respectively. We saw Ryo Chonan submit Anderson Silva. Upsets do happen. The question is, what do we know about the weaknesses in Silva's game that Bonnar is uniquely positioned to exploit? If Bonnar is showing up with the intent to shock the MMA world rather than just to bank a fat cheque, what is his most viable fight strategy?
Before I delve into Anderson's weaknesses, I shall preemptively parry an objection I know will be raised. Whenever a fight analyst wades back through the mists of time to find weaknesses in a great fighter's game, people always raise the inevitable protest that "that was a long time ago." I disagree with this line of logic, because in my observation, fighters form their fighting style very early in their careers and rarely change.
They may learn a few new tricks and exhibit modest improvements, but their basic fight pattern is as immutable as a fingerprint. This is particularly true for Anderson, who was already a well-rounded fighter very early in his career. I will show in my analysis that his fighting style (and weaknesses) have remained largely the same throughout his MMA career. Take my hand, dear reader, and let us scramble down the rabbit hole...
Anderson Silva vs. Luiz Azeredo
This was Anderson's first MMA loss. And no, it wasn't because he was a less-skilled fighter at the time. If anything, this Anderson was younger, stronger and more agile than the 37 year-old veteran we know today. But more relevantly, he fought much the same way. See for yourself:
- On the feet, Anderson completely dominates his smaller foe with the uncanny reflexes and clinical striking he would become famous for.
- At 04:00 however, Anderson loses his balance after a high kick and falls on his back. Azeredo seizes the opportunity and lays down upon him like a groom on his wedding night.
- Anderson demonstrates the impregnable ground defence we would later see against Chael Sonnen (proof that his game was formed early and stayed largely unchanged). Azeredo is unable to do any damage with strikes from the top, or make any serious submission attempt. He is completely locked down. However, according to the rules, he won the round by maintaining top control.
- Round 2. Anderson again punishes Azeredo with devastating strikes, clowning him in a manner fans know too well (again proof that Anderson hasn't changed much over the years). However at 13:55, the desperate Azeredo shoots for a single and gets it, putting Anderson on his back. The rest of the round is exactly the same as the first: Azeredo is on top, unable to score with strikes or submissions, but wins the round based on top control.
- Conclusion: Despite being the inferior fighter, Azeredo gets the decision by taking Anderson down and basically laying n' praying on him for most of the fight. This route to victory would of course turn out to be prophetic many years later.
Anderson Silva vs. Daiju Takase
10 fights and 3 years later, Anderson suffers his second career loss. Again, the way he lost was very instructive. Voila:
- Anderson predictably dominates on the feet. Takase is a wily strategist and knows his only chance of winning is to go to the ground. At 2:28, after a few failed attempts, he finally scores a single and puts Anderson on his back. Deja vu all over again.
- Takase is a much better submission grappler than Azeredo, but again Anderson shuts him down. He is unable to do damage with strikes, and his multiple submission attempts are thwarted. However, he is in top control, which clearly worries Anderson. Silva is thus uncharacteristically aggressive with strikes from the bottom, but the basic character of the fight is unchanged.
- Perhaps sensing correctly that he is heading towards another decision loss by remaining on the bottom, where he has been stuck for a full 8 minutes, Anderson makes a desperate bridge for freedom. As he escapes from bottom with a vigorous sweep however, he is vulnerable for a split second, and Takase locks in the fight-ending triangle.
- Conclusion: the salient lesson here is not in the final triangle. It is in the fact that once again, a lesser fighter took Anderson down with a shot, and lay n' prayed upon him en route to victory. Even if Anderson had not been caught in the opportunistic triangle, he was still on his way to losing in the same way as with Azeredo: death by lay n' pray.
Yushin Okami 1 and Ryo Chonan
Against Okami, Anderson lost by disqualification despite dominating the fight until he broke the rules. So unless Bonnar's strategy is to bait or inveigle him into throwing an illegal upkick or Sonnenesque knee, there is no lesson to be drawn from this loss. Likewise, Chonan's win over Anderson was so spectacularly unlikely that it must be deemed unrepeatable.
The flying leg scissors/heel hook Hail Mary attack that Chonan won with was the sort of thing you only see in Jackie Chan movies and staged martial arts demonstrations. It isn't supposed to happen in real life. Yet Chonan executed it flawlessly against the best fighter in MMA, snatching a breathtaking victory from the jaws of impending defeat.
The only reason this fantastic upset is not more widely cited as possibly the greatest submission comeback win in MMA is because most people, being Anderson fans, would prefer to forget it ever happened. There is no tactical lesson for Bonnar to learn from this fluke loss (other than that nobody is invincible), but I include it anyway just because it is a huge helping of martial arts awesomeness:
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 1 and 2
Anderson of course won both fights against Sonnen. However, of the 7 rounds in total that they fought, Anderson lost 5. Those who would argue that Anderson's losses to Azeredo and Takase were too long ago to matter, have the burden of explaining how come Sonnen won those 5 rounds in exactly the same way that they did. Observe:
- At 04:54 after tagging Anderson with a surprising number of accurate punches, Sonnen shoots in for a double that puts Anderson on his back. The next 4 rounds of the fight are a veritable clone of the Azeredo and Takase fights: Sonnen takes Anderson down in every round and maintains top control. Because of Anderson's fantastic ground defense, Sonnen is unable to finish with strikes or lock in a submission. However by maintaining top control, he wins all 4 rounds until Anderson traps him in a desperate triangle in the 5th and snatches the victory.
- In their rematch at UFC 148, Sonnen reprised the now-familiar formula. He shot in and took Anderson down mere seconds into the first round, and staged an encore. Laying atop Anderson for the rest of the round, he was unable to do damage with strikes or threaten a submission due to the latter's formidable defense. However, he won the round by maintaining top control, before being finished in the 2nd round.
- Conclusion: 12 years after Azeredo defeated Anderson by lay n' pray, Chael Sonnen showed that the formula for defeating the legend remains the same: bum-rush him with a single or double, mount him firmly, and hold on for dear life until the buzzer sounds. It is not heroic, noble or pretty, but it most certainly works.
So now we know what the winning strategy should be. The next question is whether Bonnar is the man to execute it. Three relevant qualities define Bonnar:
- Aggression: Bum-rushing anybody into a takedown requires the kind of attitude that keeps advancing until victory or death is achieved. This perfectly describes Bonnar. Like The Terminator, he keeps on coming, absorbing all punishment, until he stops you or you stop him. This is exactly how Sonnen was able to latch his takedowns onto Anderson: by advancing relentlessly, and without fear or respect for the legend.
- Size and strength: As I mentioned earlier, Bonnar is the bigger, longer and heavier man. If Azeredo, Takase and Sonnen- who were all smaller than Anderson- could take him down, then so can Bonnar. Also, due to Bonnar's reach advantage, Anderson will have to be within grabbing distance to land his clinical strikes.
- Grappling nous: Bonnar may not be the best grappler in the UFC, but he is a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu black belt. You don't need to be a Vinny Magalhaes to shoot in for a single or double and hold a smaller man down, while keeping him on the defensive with short strikes and submission attempts.
In conclusion, as I said it is a brave man who would definitively predict an upset victory for Bonnar. However, I thought it would be useful to analyse how he could win, simply because nobody else is doing so. Bonnar has the superior size, aggressive fighting style and grappling ability to take Anderson down and eke out an ugly decision victory. It has been done before, and Anderson's recent fights show it can be done again. If Bonnar does the unlikely and snatches an upset therefore, it shouldn't be as big a surprise as it will inevitably be portrayed.