Anderson Silva is 38 years old. Muhammad Ali was also 38 when his illustrious career was decisively ended by a strapping Larry Holmes, who was fighting with youth as his ally. The Wheel of Fortune came full circle when, also at the age of 38, Larry Holmes himself suffered a career-altering knockout at the hands of the youthful Mike Tyson. Three days before Silva does combat against Chris Weidman- who is 9 years younger- the biggest unanswered question is, is this the fight in which age finally defeats The Spider?
Silva is the betting favorite to win, due to the consensus that he is the more skilled fighter. But career stats mean nothing when all those fights were in the distant past. The real question is, on fight night, will the Anderson Silva that steps in the cage be the same clinical assassin of yore, or an ageing shadow of his former self?
Just as the ancient Romans used to study the entrails of goats to divine the future, I love to study fighters' pre-fight open workouts, to make an educated guess on their physical and mental state, and possible fight strategy. Weidman's own workout offered few surprises. He looked fit and relaxed, dangerously calm. He showcased a lot of wrestling and submissions, supporting his claim that he will attempt to take down and submit Silva. He did some fluid boxing, but no kicks.
Silva's own workout is of course more interesting. Here it is embedded below. What does it tell us about the man we will see on Saturday?
Reflexes: One of the first things an ageing fighter loses is his reflexes. Silva relies heavily on his. Are they gone? At 10:30 (and especially from 13:08) in the video, he does some light striking sparring. Every time his opponent throws a kick or punch, Silva blocks (and sometimes counters) it with perfect reflexive reaction. At 18:30, he does defensive drills. His reflexes are flawless, with perfect blocking, weaving and counterstriking.
Speed: During the light sparring at 10:30, we see that Silva's hands and feet are as lightning-fast as ever. At 15:25 as he hits pads, this is again confirmed.
Kicks: High kicks against Weidman could be dangerous, as he will be looking to counter them with a takedown. Silva would be wise to limit his kicks to low leg kicks. He throws a few high kicks during sparring, and again during padwork from 19:32. At 29:13, he does a flying side kick along with a perfect stepping side kick attack at 29:24. His knees from the clinch are as clinical and brutal as ever.
Footwork: Older fighters lose their legs. As their knees age, they become more flat-footed. Silva doesn't do much bouncing during sparring. His footwork is flatter, more 'walking' than 'floating' or bouncing. The moves are still there, but the preternatural agility seems to be missing.
Sprawling: Weidman will try to take Silva down. Can Silva still sprawl as fast as he did against Damien Maia? During the 13:08 sparring session, he circles away from some light leg grabs. The defensive footwork is there, but the almost magical lightness of foot he showed against Maia is not. This may of course be due to the light nature of the sparring. At 25:35, he does some evasive footwork to avoid leg grab attempts.
Offensive Grappling: Conventional wisdom is that Weidman will attempt takedowns, and Silva will try to keep the fight standing. However, just as I suggested that Jon Jones surprise Chael Sonnen by stealing his playbook, I wonder if Anderson will confound expectations by trying to take down Weidman. At 23:13, Anderson starts the first of THREE grappling sessions. He takes down his first partner with a double. He grapples offensively on the ground, attempting 3 leglocks and striking from dominant positions (especially from 24:58).
Stamina: Older men lose cardiovascular capacity. Against the youthful Weidman, Silva must be at peak cardio, or will suffer in the later rounds of a long fight. At 14:50, he pauses wearily to rest. 3 minutes later at 17:50, he tiredly takes a drink of water. At 18:03, he has his hands on his hips in the universal signal of fatigue. During the pad session at 19:32, his strikes are lethargic. At 20:30, he sticks his tongue out in playful exaggeration of being gassed, then pauses to rest. At 25:57 and 28:18, he has his hands on his knees in the unmistakable body language of the exhausted.
In Summary: Anderson Silva's defensive reflexes are still perfect. His strikes are as quick, fluid, technically pure and precise as ever. His kicks are still fantastic, though using high kicks might be a tactical error. He will almost certainly win any striking exchanges and will be very hard to KO. He can still win by KO/TKO, particularly in the earlier rounds. If this is a long kickboxing match, he will outpoint Weidman. His flat footwork suggests he may be more of a sitting target than usual and may get tagged, but his excellent reflexes will be an effective shield.
Silva is also ready for a grappling match, and may even initiate the ground phase. Once there, he may focus on attaining control and striking for the finish. He may not be agile enough to dance away from every takedown, but he will be aggressive if taken down, and when on the ground will fight to win with strikes. He will be very hard to submit, but fatigue will increase the chances of this happening later in the fight.
His frequent rests suggests his conditioning is fading with age. He was exhausted after a light training session that was shorter than a championship fight. He may drop off significantly in energy in a long fight, or lose a bout of attrition. The longer the fight, the more old and fatigued he will look against the youthful energy of Weidman. In the later rounds, he will be vulnerable to being outworked en route to a decision loss.
My body is ready. Let the games begin.