Since the Travis Lutter fight, the chorus of MMA fans waiting to see UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva fall from grace is that all a fighter needs to do is take Silva down to the mat to claim victory. To strike with the Brazilian is metaphorical suicide as he has coldly dispatched anyone who has dared to exchange strikes with him. But the oft-cited prophecy that all a fighter has to do is take Silva down to win has yet to come to pass in the UFC. Many have tried; from Nate Marquardt, to Dan Henderson, to Thales Leites, to Demian Maia, to Chael Sonnen it has been consistently displayed that Anderson Silva is difficult to actually score a takedown on.
While not an elite wrestler by any means, Silva has developed a very functional and effective MMA wrestling game that has stalemated much more credentialed wrestlers. His game is based around a few key concepts:
- Distance Control
- Use of Angles
- Wide Base
Distance Control to Minimize the Penetration Stop
Distance control and footwork is the really the centerpiece of Silva's takedown prevention and is something of an invisible kind of defense as it is not obvious. To call it prevention is appropriate because much of Silva's game is to use his movement, outside striking, and Octagon generalship to stop takedown attempts before they happen. It is the reason why so often fans are left asking why fighters like Demian Maia stay on the outside and are not attempting takedowns - it is not because he is inept at wrestling, judo, or otherwise getting a fight to the mat, it is because he is unable to close to the distance to be in a position to actually succeed.
When fighters are unable to close the distance and shoot from the outside, the effectiveness of their takedowns is greatly reduced because they do not get a deep penetrating step. The penetrating step is the step of the forward foot of a wrestler and to explain its importance here BE's own wrestling guru Coach Mike Riordan:
A penetration step, one of the 7 basic skills of wrestling constitutes an indispensable element of any successful blast double. A penetration step performs two functions. First it propels the attacking wrestler forward, from point A to point B, closing any distance. Secondly, a penetration step, properly executed, maneuvers the attacker's hips under his opponent's, and drives the target wrestler backward, shifting his weight from his toes to his heels. Wrestling coaches always teach the maxim, "shoot through your opponent, not to him". Penetration steps should put the attacker in position, while placing his opponent in a position to be scored upon.
Coach Mike hits on a very important detail of takedowns - to get a successful shot takedown a fighter needs to both get his hips close and under his opponent's hips. The explosive penetration step is a crucial to getting into the proper position and Silva often defeats takedowns before they begin.
For an example of this basic idea we'll look at a failed takedown by Chael Sonnen at UFC 117. While the fight is remembered as a one-sided affair until Silva locked up a dramatic triangle, the wrestling was actually fairly even. Silva gave up three takedowns in the first Sonnen fight, one coming off a caught kick, but Silva put Sonnen on his back twice and fought off a fair number of takedowns.
Here is Sonnen, very early in the fight, changing levels and shooting for a double leg takedown on Silva. Notice his highlighted right foot, which has moved forward for the penetrating step which ideally should fall between Silva's feet., but as you can see it falls well short of its target because how far outside he is shooting from and this takedown is doomed from the start.
Sonnen's knee now drops to the canvas, and in an ideal double leg situation his hips would now be under Silva's hips, his posture would be upright and spine straight, and would be in control of both Silva's legs. But Silva is already displacing both his legs and hips. Looking at the Bud Light logo for reference you can see how much Silva has slide away from Sonnen, totally taking away any chance of a takedown. (Gif)
Use of Angles
Striking and grappling share certain commonalities, and one of them is that a fighter can use angles on the feet to both create offense and make defense more effective. Just as a boxer creates an angle off a punch,a grappler can angle off of a takedown attempt.
In some cases this can result in a fighter outright missing their takedown attempt. One case comes in Silva's match with Demian Maia. On this takedown everything goes wrong for Maia, his first step is poor and while he is moving from 12-to-6, Silva is moving 2-to-8 and the result is a clean miss on Maia's part. (Gif)
While not picture perfect it shows how cutting an angle can be used to avoid a takedown all together. But later in the fight Silva uses an angle to smash another Maia takedown attempt.
Here we see Maia changing levels and shooting for a takedown. Again notice that Maia's penetrating step is not very deep and he is shooting from fairly far away. Also take note where Silva is in reference to the camera.
Maia is able to dive in and get loose control of both of Silva's legs, but now Maia needs to get his hips close to Silva and get upright. But Silva has pivoted, going from 12-o-clock to 9-o-clock and then sprawls, shooting his legs back and dropping his hips. This doesn't leave Maia a lot of options as re-shooting on the takedown isn't really possible as Silva has changed positions, and Maia has basically lost control of Silva's left leg. Really all that is left to Maia is to give up his back, try to grab a single leg and likely be hit with a switch, or pull guard. Maia elects to pull guard and Silva is easily able to escape. Watch the gif and notice that Silva travels a full 180 degrees defending the takedown. (Gif)
Also similar to boxing, using angles can create offense off of defense. For a look at that lets travel to Silva's fight with Dan Henderson in Columbus, Ohio.
So again you can see Silva angling off of a Dan Henderson double leg, and in the second picture you can see Silva's right arm sliding in for an overhook. Silva first uses this over hook to push Henderson further along trying to Whizzer off the takedown.
As Henderson resists, Silva is able to slide in an underhook and bears down on Henderson, bending him over backwards and taking the internationally decorated wrestler down. (Gif)
Keeping a Wide Base
So how do fighters take Silva down? It can be done, but even fighters who we remember for getting Silva to the floor struggled mightily at first to do it and both Henderson and Sonnen actually got taken down by Silva.
Another aspect of Silva's takedown defense is his wide base. Rather than point this out in new examples you can go back and look at the other examples as see how wide Silva's stance is at the start of the takedown attempts and how well he is able to sprawl. Rather I'm going to look when Silva gets taken down and point out how he failed to keep his base wide.
So how does a fighter take Anderson Silva down? As you have found out, it is much more complicated that simply having a good double leg shot. The answer is a fighter needs to be very good at mixing together and switching between striking and takedowns. The greatest failures to take Silva down, such as the Maia fight, were not the result of poor takedowns, but poor setting up of takedowns.
To take Silva down effectively one must first strike with Silva. It is possible to get Silva to set his careful and tactical striking aside and to get him to just swing away. Dan Henderson managed to get Silva locked in on striking and used it to take Silva down.
Henderson got Silva swinging and managed to duck a shot and get in close. This time Henderson's foot and hips are very close to Silva. Unlike other takedowns featured here, Silva is legitimate danger here and goes into immediate damage control mode.
Silva attempts to cut an angle on Henderson, but the American has the underhook already, so Anderson is not able to move off to the proper angle we looked at above. Notice that Silva's base is still fairly wide and his balance is still good.
But Henderson uses his underhook to get on Silva's side, and now you can see Silva, while attempting to turn to keep Henderson in front of him, has lost his wide base. His feet close together, Silva now has no chance and down he goes. (Gif)
In the case of the first Sonnen fight, the real fight-changing moment was a straight left hand that rocked Silva. It was not, as I incorrectly remembered, set up by a fake takedown. Rather Sonnen paired a rather lazy jab by Silva and threw a laser straight cross in answer that connected cleanly. Sonnen had taken Silva's game and thrown it back in his face, and for the rest of the that fight it clearly threw Silva off his game.
So late in the first round Sonnen was dealing with a more cautious, and likely still somewhat dazed champion.
Sonnen shoots on Silva, and while the champion did have his wits around him enough to maintain the distance to result in a rather shallow penetration step by Sonnen (in blue), Silva's footwork had gotten sloppy. Sonnen's shot had been well-timed and he caught Silva with a narrow base (in red).
While Sonnen has prevented a Silva from getting his base and sprawling, he is not in the proper position to finish the takedown. Sonnen had already seen Silva's takedown defense once and this time added an extra step in his shot and drives Silva all the way into the cage. Then is a great example of MMA-specific wrestling; Sonnen uses the spring off the cage to then finish the takedown, clearly demonstrating it takes great MMA skills, not just wrestling, to actually get Silva down. (Gif)
Well that completes our look at Silva's takedown defense and I hope it has helped break some preconceptions about the champion's wrestling. I know it did for me.