Over the past few weeks regular readers have heard me gush praise over Anderson Silva's phenomenal stand up game over three volumes in anticipation of his rematch with the middleweight division's resident braggart, Chael Sonnen. In part 1 of my Analyzing Anderson series, I dissected Silva's wonderful counter jab versus Yushin Okami, in part 2 I laid out his counter right hook against Forrest Griffin, and in part 3 I divulged some of Anderson's entrances to the Thai Plumm against Rich Franklin. In this part of our series, with the Silva - Sonnen rematch just days away, I'm going to do something very dangerous and difficult - point out the weaknesses of Anderson's stand up game. There is no denying that Anderson Silva is perhaps the finest striker in MMA, and to find exploitable loopholes in his overall game is a hard thing to do, but he is human, and they are there.
Some of Silva's suspected weaknesses are discussed much more than others - the debate over Silva's submission defense, for instance, has been rehashed a thousand times. This is due to his two most notable losses coming by submission to Japanese journeymen. More recently, however, Silva has proven by submitting Travis Lutter that he can hang with Jiu Jitsu black belts on the ground, and while the idea of submitting Silva should not be ruled out, he is certainly not going to be submitted by a low quality submission fighter such as Chael Sonnen or Yushin Okami.
If Silva has proven himself such a difficult man to submit, why has the submission defense question been so overplayed? Almost entirely because most in the media are afraid to analyze the holes in the man's stand up, and indeed many in the community would not know how to begin doing so. The two losses on Anderson's record which came inside the distance (and weren't caused by a DQ) are very easy to grab on to. He was finished both times by submission, therefore his submission defense must be the problem. This logic is not suitable for analyzing the areas in which Anderson can be exploited. To really understand and pinpoint the loopholes in Silva's remarkable game it is necessary to actually analyze his fights and the evoluton of his style, instead of focusing attention on the numbers on his record.
Anderson Silva is an amazing fighter, one of the greatest of all time, and the fact that in so many bouts in the UFC we have only seen flashes of vulnerability only makes the task of analyzing his game objectively even harder. To understand Anderson's vulnerabilities we must go back to the beginnings of his career, when he was taken down often, and analyze how he changed this. We will discuss through this article how it was Anderson's change in tactics, not developments in his wrestling ability, that enabled Silva to keep fights standing against elite grapplers where before he was being taken down by journeymen. Silva's game has changed significantly over the years to be based off of a few strategic choices and moves.
We will not dwell on the submission defense argument in any great depth but rather on Anderson Silva's:
- Refusal to Lead
- Open Guard Takedown Defense
- Expectancy of a Timid Opponent
Refusal to Lead
Something which should have become apparent in Anderson Silva's fights with Demian Maia, Patrick Cote and Thales Leites is that Silva is almost completely averse to leading. Leading, in striking terms, is to attack first, and it is something which Anderson Silva very rarely does with the actual intention of hurting his opponent. Most of Anderson's leads are simply intended to draw an attack from the opponent which he can counter without worrying about being taken down.
The reasons for this are two-fold: Silva does his best work on the counter, and Silva's early career was plagued by being taken down off of his offense. Daiju Takase took Silva down as Silva lunged at him with a jab, as did Tetsuji Kato. In fact much of Anderson Silva's earlier career was spent on the offensive, backing opponents into corners and winging punches at them, attempting to physically stuff their shots as they dived under his punches. It was a very hit and miss game, and is completely alien when watched next to the Anderson Silva of today.
Notice here, against Tetsuji Kato, Anderson is trying to implement a traditional sprawl and brawl strategy, rather than his modern, movement based one. In the octagon, Anderson has been able to develop a style in which he can simply move backward and try to draw his opponent's strikes. In the ring and during his pre-UFC career, the traditional mindset was that strikers should go foward, cut off the ring, attack, and try to sprawl on the opponent. Wanderlei Silva and Cro Cop were enormously strong and able to pummel for underhooks on anyone. Anderson, a much less stocky fighter, struggled with this. Notice how he throws a body kick from far too close, which Kato simply smothers and takes him down off of.
Improvements in wrestling skill did not alleviate this problem, improvements in strategy did. Silva very rarely leads with commited strikes today. Anderson's sprawl looks excellent when he is defending a wild shot, but he is not a great sprawler while on offense. You will notice that when Silva's opponents do not lead, he tends to stick to long, showy strikes that cause little physical damage but win him points with the hope that this will force the opponent to come forward later in the fight. He will very rarely step in with power strikes against an opponent who has not acted first. Some of Anderson's signature leads are the long jab, the thrust kick to the knee and the spinning back kick. All very long techniques which are hard for the opponent to score the takedown off of.
The top two frames show Anderson's modern kicking game against competent grapplers - focusing on the calf. A kick on the thigh can be caught or forced to ride up the leg into the hand of the opponent, Anderson does this himself (most notably against James Irvin), but a kick on the calf is almost impossible to catch. Also the distance between the two fighters is much greater - giving Silva time to sprawl without committing too much to the attack. The middle left frame shows Silva's spinning back kick - a powerful strike which forces the opponent to stay at a distance. It is very hard to smother a spinning back kick and clinch - the kick is simply too powerful and long.
The middle right frame shows another low, low kick - this time to the shin of Maia. This kick is rather counter-intuitive because it is a shin on shin collision - something that is to be avoided at all costs in Muay Thai - but it scored points. The bottom left frame shows Anderson's jab - notice how far back his hips are as he leans forward at the waist. This is not a powerful jab, or one that is correct by traditional standards - but if Maia attempts to duck under and shoot (as most grapplers would) Anderson is already half way to a sprawl. All he needs to do is move his front leg back, level with his rear leg and Maia will have an impossible task in finishing his shot. This is an important development in Andersons game - Daiju Takase took Anderson down as Anderson attempted to land a powerful jab. Anderson sprawled on Takase, but was unsuccessful and was taken down and submitted. His modern jab, which is not a committed power punch, makes it much easier for Anderson to sprawl effectively by keeping his hips away from his opponent. The final frame is Anderson's side kick to the knee - Bruce lee was a major proponent of this technique because it is the longest technique against the closest target. It is also almost impossible to catch.
While there is no denying that Silva's wrestling has improved, the vast majority of improvement have come from his counter-striking style against grapplers. They cannot shoot from out in the open because Anderson can simply run backwards, they cannot corner him because there are no sharp corners in the octagon (unlike in Anderson's early career), and so they are forced to strike their way towards him. Often they do this by timidly jabbing which normally results in Silva mugging and avoiding all their blows. After Silva had dropped a round to Chael Sonnen, he came out for the second round with a visible urgency; immediately throwing power punches at Sonnen. As soon as he threw a hard kick, Sonnen took him down with ease. This wasn't Sonnen's elite wresting, this was Anderson's tactical error. As Silva was flustered and needed to make up for a dismal first round, he abandoned the safe tactics which have made him such a force against most grapplers.
Notice how Anderson is clearly too close to kick safely, yet does so because he is flustered and wants to hurt Sonnen. The kick connects before it reaches it's ideal velocity and rotation, and is therefore muffled and easy for Sonnen to catch.
Anderson Silva's refusal to strike first is an integral part of his style, and when he does lead it is almost always with techniques designed to keep his weight away from the opponent and encourage them to strike back at him. This reluctance to lead does not hurt Silva in most fights because nobody is going to outpoint Silva, and point deductions for inactivity are very rare. Patrick Cote attempted to force Silva to lead, but ultimately accomplished little.
Is there any way this reluctance to lead can be exploited? Not really. But if Anderson can be flustered, by dropping a round convincingly, he will be forced to lead - and that will expose him to the takedowns that he avoids so well when he is patient.
Open Guard Takedown Defense
It is important to note that Anderson Silva is right handed. He signs autographs and contracts with his right hand, and his power punches tend to come from that side. He likely switched to southpaw because of the advantages being a southpaw brings. One of the many advantages being a southpaw brings in MMA is the change in distance between the opponent and oneself. Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida are not strong wrestlers, yet they avoid the brunt of their divisions wrestling ability by fighting from "Open Guard". Open guard, on the feet, is a scenario where the fighters are in opposite stances (orthodox vs southpaw), rather than the same stance or "Closed Guard" (orthodox vs orthodox, southpaw vs southpaw).
Open guard is so called because the distance between the two combatants hips is greater - the lead legs acting as a barrier, and hand fighting preventing either man from using his head movement to get inside. It is very much Anderson's preference to fight southpaw against orthodox fighters because of this distance. Take a look at these two stills from the opening seconds of his bouts with Chael Sonnen (a fellow southpaw) and Nate Marquadt (orthodox).
Notice the greater distance between Silva and Marquardt (right still) - maintained by their hand fighting. Of course, it is necessary to close the distance further to strike, but the majority of any match in open guard will be spent probing and hand fighting at this distance. You will notice that Anderson is again leaning forward at the waist, ready to withdraw his lead leg from Marquadt at any sign of a shot. Against an orthodox fighter, Anderson is not threatened by the double leg, simply because it is almost impossible to shoot deep enough to control his hips from this sort of distance.
Notice that in one level change and shot, Sonnen could easily be in control of Silva's hips from the Closed Guard position, where Marquadt would be lucky to grab a hold of a single leg without Silva retreating. Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva are technical fighters without the physicality to stuff power doubles throughout a 15 or 25 minute fight, so they use their wide stance from open guard to feed the single leg should they be too slow to move away. Some elite orthodox fighters now "feed the hip" routinely in mma, turning their lead hip in as they are shot upon to force the opponent to take a single leg rather than a double leg. BJ Penn and Jose Aldo are excellent examples of fighters who feed single legs, hop towards the fence, then attempt to counter with a switch until the opponent ends up underneath them or lets go.
Here, Marquadt has grabbed a single leg takedown (this time on Anderson Silva's left leg during a scramble), and Anderson shows some brilliant technical counter wrestling, demonstrating why defending the single leg is so much more favorable to a striker with no wrestling pedigree than attempting to stuff a powerful double leg shot.
The first still simply shows another example of the open guard distance, and the difficulty which Marquadt would have in shooting a double leg takedown through the enormous space between the two men. The second still show's Marquadt attempting to finish his single leg takedown after scrambling his way to Silva's leg after being struck. The bottom left still shows Anderson threading his left arm behind Marquadt's left and inside of Marquadt's thigh, then falling to his side and driving Marquadt past him. The final still shows the completion of Anderson's "switch", as Anderson picks up control of Marquadt's left leg. This technique allowed Silva to take top position and finish Marquadt with strikes and is an excellent example of the technical counter wrestling Anderson can exhibit when he forces the opponent to settle for single leg shots.
Learn more about Anderson's Open Guard Takedown Defense in my ebook: Advanced Striking.
How can this open guard takedown defense be exploited? Again, it would be hard to exploit - Silva is a master of distancing. What will give Silva trouble, however, is fighting a fellow southpaw with a strong double leg. Against Maia, Silva was really forced to mind his Ps and Qs, rarely being in range of Maia who was intent on shooting and pulling guard. Against Sonnen, Silva found himself constantly being crowded, something which wouldn't happen against an orthodox fighter. To make it worse, when Anderson switched stances to try to re-establish distance and fight more scientifically, Sonnen simply waded towards the champion in either stance (seemingly without preference), switching mid attack and forcing Silva to play catch up.
Expectancy of a Timid Opponent and Different Stances
A final visible weakness in the incredible game of Anderson Silva is his expectancy of a timid opponent. This psychological complacency really cost Silva against Chael Sonnen, as he expected Sonnen to respect his striking and take time to work out a way to shoot. Instead Chael Sonnen came straight out of his corner, shot a weak takedown to make Silva's hands come down, then clouted Silva with violent left hands. While Anderson's chin has always been rock solid, the shock of having an opponent willing to jump all over him from the opening bell clearly discombobulated the champion. Demian Maia also surprised the champion in the final round of their fight when he began swinging.
Anderson Silva is often in the unusual state of mind that certain, peerless fighters get into; expecting opponents to be timid about attacking them. With good reason too; Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia all came out hoping to force the champion to lead, but he simply used his outpointing strategy to stay ahead of them. The two notable fighters who ran at Silva were Chris Leben and Forrest Griffin - while one is a dangerous puncher, and the other has done well with his stand up, neither man was really a threat - they both punch slowly and in a wooden manner, they were the kind of fighters that an excellent counter striker prays to meet. Furthermore, against Leben and Griffin, both known as stand up fighters, Anderson was in very much a striking mindset - he was willing to come forward against both men knowing that they were unlikely to shoot a takedown or trouble him if they got him on to his back.
What we witnessed for a moment against Demian Maia, and for an entire fight against Chael Sonnen, was that Anderson does not expect to be punched at by grapplers who on paper have no chance on the feet. Both men were southpaws, and both had decent success throwing their left straight. An interesting point to note is that Anderson's go to defense against a left straight (from an orthodox or a southpaw fighter) is to turn away, dipping behind his lead shoulder. This technique, and the variations upon it that Anderson uses, is called a shoulder roll and is both a block (covering the jawline with the lead shoulder and the ribs with the arm), and an evasion (taking the temple away from the opponent and ducking it down behind the line of the shoulders). It is an incredibly effective method from which to launch a counter, because the opponent will almost always end up right on top of the defender.
Above are a few stills of Anderson using the shoulder roll, for those of you unsure what it looks like. Against Griffin (still 1) he has just rolled Griffins left punch off of his lead shoulder, and is about to duck under Griffin's right. In stills 2 - 4 you can see Anderson, against jab-and-clincher Yushin Okami, using a shoulder roll and dip against an attack that doesn't come after he has connected his own jab. This is Silva's go to defense for the southpaw left straight, and as you can see, it involves turning the hips away from the opponent and standing almost on a line.
The downside of this is that Anderson's hips need to be squared to sprawl on a powerful double leg takedown. Notice here, against Maia, Silva is constantly more squared up in his stance, with his lead hand low so that he is ready to sprawl and get at least one underhook on Maia.
Yushin Okami and Forrest Griffin did not provide the threat of a power double (indeed Okami's best offense was to dash into Silva's Thai Plumm), but Chael Sonnen did. As I'm sure many of you have worked out, it is very hard for Anderson to be in position to shoulder roll the left hand if he is prepared to sprawl. This, more than anything else, contributed to Sonnen stunning Anderson several times in their first meeting.
Notice in the top left still how Silva is postured - just as with Maia - feet shoulder width apart, hips square, lead hand low. This is nothing like the more side on striking stance he took against Griffin and Okami. Anderson shows exactly why this is as Sonnen shoots (top right frame) and Silva is able to simply step back, push off Sonnen and avoid the shot. This stance, however, made it incredibly difficult to stop Sonnen's left straight, which you can see connecting hard in the bottom left and bottom right stills. Anderson is at an enormous disadvantage as a counter striker against a wrestler because his sprawling stance and shoulder rolling counter stance are so different from each other that he cannot attempt to shoulder roll without risking being taken down easily by an elite grappler. Sonnen's double leg and left hand, however, were very close to the same motion as he walked down Silva and panicked the champion with the threat of the shot.
The reason that Chael Sonnen gave Silva a nightmare is that Sonnen has one of the best shots in the division, is a southpaw, and was willing to throw his left hand freely. Fear to commit against Silva has been what has cost grapplers the match in the past, but in truth he has never (at least in the UFC) knocked out a grappler. His knockouts come against men who offer him no threat on the ground or of the takedown, because he can open up his entire game and fight on the counter. Against strong takedown artists (or in Maia's case, men who are happy to play guard), Silva is deprived of his remarkable boxing game, because his stance is forced to square up. Constant switching between the takedown and punches seems to be the key to catching Anderson squared up and with his hands down instead of in the shoulder roll position in which excels. Landing punches on Silva while he is expecting the takedown has been proven to take him out of his cautious mindset, and this in turn opened up takedowns for Chael Sonnen.
Anderson Silva may win or lose at UFC 148, either way he has been the greatest UFC champion to date. What is important to remember, however is that Silva is just a man, who relies on elite level tactics. His stance and attitude are different against strong grapplers than they are against strikers, he is not capable of pulling off the same elite striking showcases that he did against Forrest Griffin if there is the threat of the takedown. The key to defeating the incredible Anderson Silva, it seems, may not be in his submission defense, or in the emergence of some ungodly striking prodigy who hasn't been born yet, but in grapplers who are willing to get in his face and exploit the caution he takes over defending takedowns. Whether that is the case or not will ultimately be confirmed by how he and Sonnen contest their rematch at UFC 148.
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Jack Slack blogs at Fights Gone By