It's hard to imagine that anyone will ever match the title run of Anderson Silva. At this point, he is approaching the legendary status of long-time boxing champ Joe Louis--even though Louis' list of challengers has been called "the Bum of the Month club," his run was and is unparallelled in boxing. Such is Anderson Silva's reign over the UFC middleweight division. He has not always faced the strongest competition, but he has not failed to defend his title once since winning it in 2006. Of the fifteen men he has defeated since then he has knocked out ten, submitted three, and taken two to humiliating decisions. So powerful is the mystique surrounding Anderson that even his utterly boring decision wins become unforgettable affairs.
So before we begin, I'd like to say: it's Anderson Silva. I just want to get that out of the way now, because there are going to be some criticisms of the champ's technique in this article, and I will happily point out the things that Anderson does not do so well on the feet. Don't mistake these criticisms for anything other than honest analysis.
Now let's get into it.
Check out my Chris Weidman Judo Chop to compare, and see how the challenger stacks up against the Spider.
At times Anderson's defense can seem superhuman. His ability to avoid strikes has at different times been attributed to preternatural reflexes and a mastery of technique that other UFC fighters just can't seem to match. In truth, Anderson's defense comes down to his control of one very specific aspect of fighting: distance.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: distance is king. If you control the distance between you and your opponent you decide which strikes land and which strikes miss, whether you circle on the outside or clinch against the fence. Defense and offense are completely based on the control of range, and few fighters (at least in MMA) exhibit better control than the Spider.
1. Moments before the knockout Forrest tries a lead uppercut to the body. Anderson responds by covering with his elbow and sliding out of range.
2. Forrest decides not to complete his planned combo, abandoning his head kick when he sees that Anderson is already too far out of range.
3. Forrest tries again to strike Anderson, but after the last sequence (and a round full of others much like it) he has already been conditioned to think that he has to reach to land a punch on Anderson. He lunges at the Spider with a telegraphed right hand.
4. Forrest simply runs right into Anderson's retreating right hand and crumples. In his desperation to catch the champ, he let his head come into range well before his feet and hips. A fighter much less skilled than Anderson could have capitalized on such a brazen mistake, but few fighters could have set Forrest up for the fall in the same way that Anderson did. The footwork behind this knockout is hardly orthodox, but it's hard to argue with results, and Anderson is already taking an angle when his punch fells Forrest.
This is the real key behind so much of what Anderson does. He has made a career out of forcing others to chase him and then destroying them when they start to pursue him a little too zealously.
Most fighters who excel at controlling distance mainly utilize the jab, and Anderson is no exception. Despite the fact that fight commentators the world over are convinced that the left hand is the most effective punch for a southpaw, Anderson is proof that the right jab is not to be ignored. In fact, Anderson throws his jab with much better technique than he does his left hand.
TRICKERY AND THE MENTAL GAME
Much of what Anderson does in the Octagon is more mental than physical. Having let only four of his sixteen UFC opponents get past the second round, he's cultivated an aura of absolute dominance that is an obstacle in itself to any challenger to the middleweight throne. Even when an opponent has stepped into the cage with him, the mental games have only just begun.
"Hands up" is a phrase that really gets to me as a fan of technical striking. It's repeated constantly by ill-informed commentators, coaches, and critics who are convinced that holding the hands high constitutes good defense, and dropping them constitutes poor defense. How this phrase can continue to be uttered so frequently when there are fighters like Anderson Silva out there is beyond me, because the Spider is proof that a fighter can have strong defense without gluing his hands to his temples.
In fact, Anderson's lowered hands are part and parcel of his excellent defense and counter-striking. Let's take a different look at one widely-examined sequence from the champ's recent trouncing of Yushin Okami.
1. Anderson has his hands very low, while Okami keeps his at chin level like he's been trained.
2. Okami throws a hard jab at Anderson who, expecting that exact punch, fades it easily.
3. The hands are still down. A lazy jab/long left hook grazes Anderson's cheek as he slips to the inside of it.
4. And still the hands of Anderson are down by his waist. Sensing yet another jab, the Spider steps in hard with one of his own, Okami's own punch sailing over his shoulder as he stumbles to the ground.
Looking at this exchange, Anderson's ability to evade Okami's punches might seem pretty incredible. Okami's jab is actually pretty quick, and yet Anderson dodges it with ease. The fact that his hands are down only makes it more incredible. Or does it? Most fighters are taught that keeping the hands up is crucial to effective defense. Even if head movement fails, they can rely on their high hands to catch a poorly aimed punch. Defense is actually much more complicated than that, but the fact remains that very few fighters would dare to lower their hands the way Anderson does.
That's why, when Anderson drops his hands, an alarm goes off in Okami's head. He is immediately compelled to punch at Anderson's seemingly exposed head, even though that is exactly what Anderson is expecting. The way to defeat a fighter with excellent head movement is not to aim at the head, but at the chest, shoulders, and body. Most boxers with lowered hands want their opponents to aim at their heads, because it is relatively easy to move the head out of the way. The body, on the other hand, is a much easier target. But considering the fact that MMA is already full of head-hunters, it's not surprising that no one has figured out Anderson's tricks yet.
There is a whole cavalcade of GIFs in which Anderson's head is out of range, but his body and legs are wide open targets. No one. Takes. Advantage. The fact is that when Anderson Silva stands in front of you with his hands down he wants you to swing at his head. He's waiting for you to reach hard for his chin so he can have an easier time of finding yours.
Alright, you knew it was coming. It's not an Anderson Silva striking breakdown if I don't point out one of the man's weaknesses.
Much of Silva's success stems from his excellent gameplanning. Against Chael Sonnen, you could practically see the gears turning in the later rounds when Anderson realized that he was unable to stop the takedown and determined to walk Chael into a brilliant triangle. Misdirection was the key to dropping Vitor Belfort with the front kick heard (and imitated) round the world. But sometimes the gameplan falls apart, or it causes Anderson to handicap himself.
Before the realization that he was outmatched on the feet set in, Anderson was dead-set on stopping Chael Sonnen's powerful takedowns. I discussed how the threat of a takedown may help a fighter to land punches in yesterday's Chris Weidman Judo Chop, and now we'll look at the other side of that coin. There were actually two instances in which Chael dropped Anderson with a punch when Anderson was out of position to defend. Here are the screen caps (GIF and GIF).
1a. Anderson's position is just plain bad in this frame. His hips and torso are square to Chael, and his lead foot/hand aren't pointed anywhere near Chael's center line. He's wide open for a strike, basically.
2a. Silva flails at Sonnen with both hands as he eats a straight left. It's clear from his reaction that he was expecting a takedown, not a committed combination of punches.
1b. In the final round, Anderson is jumping around all over the place, trying to shake Chael, who is constantly stalking him. It's surprising that Chael actually has better footwork than almost any other opponent Anderson has faced: he cuts off the Octagon nicely while still advancing on Anderson.
2b. Once again, Anderson is out of position for the incoming strike. He bends at the waist and throws a jab to the body, and pivots right into a left hand from Chael that clips him behind the ear and makes him go all rubbery at the knees.
Not only was Anderson not expecting the strikes from his wrestler opponent, he wasn't in any position to defend them. Anderson showed better positioning against Dan Henderson and Yushin Okami, but they aren't half the wrestlers that Chael Sonnen is. Chris Weidman, on the other hand, just might be up to the task. When Anderson is truly worried about the takedown like he was against Sonnen it seems to be a 50-50 choice. He either stands square and gets cracked, or he tries his usual Anderson Silva boxing tricks and gets put on his back. I don't know that Chris Weidman will be able to pressure the champ the same way that Sonnen did--few fighters can match Chael Sonnen's tenacity--but this is far from a squash match on paper.
Weidman may not be as good as Maia on the ground, but he's close. And he may not be as slick as Sonnen with his takedowns, but he's close. But a submission specialist with strong takedowns is nothing to sneeze at. That's a dangerous combination for any man, even Anderson Silva.
Then again... he is Anderson Silva. All I know for sure is that I can't wait to see how it shakes out on Saturday.