This is part one of a two part series. Part two will be released tomorrow, January 30th, 2015.
In the Amazon there is a genus of spider--considered the most dangerous of its kind. Brazilians call it armadeiras, or "armed spider," but in English we call it the Wandering Spider. Unlike most arachnids, the Wandering Spider does not construct a web to ensnare its prey. Rather, it wanders the forest floor by night, ambushing and killing anything foolish enough to wander into its path.
It is a fearsome hunter, striking its prey when least expected. Its bite is among the deadliest on earth. Even those lucky enough to receive immediate treatment have been known to stay bedridden for a week or more.
Travel a thousand miles to the southeast and you'll discover a different breed of spider--larger and less reclusive, this creature is no less dangerous when provoked. Like his Amazonian cousin, the Curitiban Spider uses no web to ensnare his prey, preferring to stalk, and wander, and wait for the opportunity to strike. The opportunity always presents itself sooner or later, and the Spider is beyond patient. He has been known to play with his food, but never after it has been wounded. Then, he is a methodical and calculated killer.
His sting is among the deadliest on earth.
Anderson Silva has been a professional fighter for over fourteen years, and a martial artist for nearly twice as long. From Tae Kwon Do to Capoeira, from Muay Thai to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, from boxing to MMA, Silva has left no combative crevice unexplored in his tireless search for the perfect style. As a young fighter, Silva began his career in Curitba, Brazil at Rafael Cordeiro's Chute Boxe Academy.
Here he developed an aggressive Muay Thai style complemented by an aggressive guard game should he end up on his back, a funhouse-mirror image of his stablemates Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
It wasn't for him. Despite considerable success, the unbridled aggression essential to Cordeiro's style didn't mesh with Silva's complex personality. He tried his best to replicate the success of his peers, but the tall Brazilian kept coming up short. Make no mistake, Silva found great success, and beat some excellent fighters. In 2001 he handed Hayato "Mach" Sakurai his first ever loss. Three years later he bested the great Jeremy Horn, a veteran of over 80 professional fights. And his greatest highlight came against former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton, whom Silva knocked out with a perfectly timed counter knee.
Still, it seemed that every time Silva beat someone great, he lost to someone considerably . . . LESS THAN. The journeyman Daiju Takase humiliated Silva with a triangle submission in the first round at Pride 26. Anderson's next appearance in the Japanese promotion saw him narrowly beating 7-4 Ryo Chonan on the feet before a surprise scissor takedown had him trapped in a heel hook that left him grimacing and clutching at his knee. Anderson's potential was apparent, but it was somehow, even at Brazil's finest gym, being wasted on a style that simply didn't suit him.
Sensing that something wasn't right, Silva left Chute Boxe in 2003. It would take him another three years to finally discover the fighting style that best represented his personality. And like his personality, it was a style unlike any other on earth.
So much of what Anderson Silva does to his opponents is predicated on the concept of distance. While most fighters tend to measure distance, Silva prefers to play with it, expanding the space between himself and his opponent to land devastating long-range strikes, or closing the gap quickly to wrap his adversary up in a suffocating Muay Thai clinch. Silva is dangerous at every range, all because he so well understands the importance of space.
Though right-handed, Silva fights out of a southpaw stance, preferring the pot-shot jab and counter right hook to the conventional lead left. Despite this inclination toward the anti-orthodox, Anderson will happily switch his stance if the circumstances call for it, as they did against the heavy-pressuring Yushin Okami in 2011.
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1. Okami, a southpaw like Silva, walks the champion back into the fence.
2. Anderson shuffles to his right, using his footwork to disguise a stance-switch.
3. Now Anderson stands in orthodox, his lead foot well positioned to stop Okami's advance.
4. To reinforce the virtual threat of his left foot, Anderson immediately begins firing his left hand into Okami's right palm.
5. Anderson circles to his left, and Okami side-steps along with him.
6. Okami flashes his southpaw jab, but he's too far away to connect without a big forward step.
7. As he takes that step, Silva is ready, and he slides back and to his right, easily avoiding the punch.
8. An extended left hand helps the lunging Okami along. He stumbles headlong into the fence as Anderson pivots back toward center cage.
Anderson, like his stylistic heir apparent Anthony Pettis, tends to prefer an open stance encounter when he can have it--in other words, the Spider will often mirror his opponent's stance. This is a very simple way of creating a few extra inches of space and moments of time between the two combatants, and for a reactive fighter like Silva every fraction of a second counts. When Okami demonstrated early on that he was looking to pressure Silva and close off the cage, the champion wisely elected to make the switch.
Suddenly Okami found his path to Silva's chin obstructed--should he choose to step forward, he would face the natural obstruction of Anderson's left foot, and the threat suggested by it--namely, his jab. The fact that Anderson immediately began jabbing Okami's palm after switching stance indicates how accutely aware of these threats he is, and how aware he wanted Okami to be. Anderson knows how easily a wary opponent turns into a frightened opponent, and how quickly a frightened opponent becomes a desperate one. More space to cover means fewer options and more difficulty in executing them, turning every one of the opponent's attacks into a juicy opportunity.
Silva has an uncanny way of limiting his opponent's options, paring down their offensive choices until they are left only with the predictable. It took him only three and a half minutes to turn the famously aggressive Vitor Belfort into nothing more than a tentative target.
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1. The Spider stands with his hands lowered and his head inclined over his lead foot, waiting for Vitor Belfort to act first.
2. Belfort initiates, but Silva is ready for him.
3. Leaning back to create space, Silva picks off Belfort's right hook . . .
4. . . . and sways just out of the way of a big overhand left t hat comes next.
5. Anderson attempts a Mayweather-esque check hook as Belfort stumbles by, but misses.
6. Not easily dissuaded, Belfort looks back at Anderson, out of position but determined to connect nonetheless.
7. Vitor throws another lunging left hand, but Anderson, always wary, leans out of the way.
If you read my analysis of Conor McGregor two weeks ago, you may recall that I referenced Emanuel Steward's fundamental rule of boxing--that the head should never pass the vertical line of the lead knee. The reason for this is simple: the closer one's head comes to the opponent, the easier it is to hit. This is something that every fighter understands.
Of course, a clever fighter can use this universal understanding against his opponents. If there is one thing that Anderson Silva understands, it is manipulation of the opponent's perceptions. Against overly aggressive challengers, he is wont to attack in violent bursts--rarely very effective in these brief explosions of offense, he nonetheless convinces his opponent that he is no sitting duck. Against tentative or wary opponents, however, he is more likely to give them a target. Leaning forward at the hips, Anderson will present his head to his opponent, enhancing the bait by dropping his hands, an opening that few fighters can resist.
In creating this opportunity, Silva cleverly cuts down his opponent's options. He knows that the next attack will be aimed at his head--it takes a supremely disciplined fighter to attack the body or legs when his enemy is deliberately revealing his chin--and he knows that it will most likely be a punch. The expected strike is vastly easier to avoid, which is why the seemingly vulnerable Spider is so difficult to hit in the head.
What's more, leaning the head forward grants Silva a sort of buffer zone in which to move. From an upright stance, a fighter can only lean back so far, but the farther forward the head's starting position, the more space he has to use in defense. In the sequence above, Anderson manages to avoid the left hand of Vitor Belfort simply by pulling his head back, no sophisticated evasive technique. Fans who watched Belfort effortlessly traverse the range against the much taller Luke Rockhold will realize just how impressive this was.
Once the opponent realizes that he cannot find Silva's head, one of two things happens: he either gets desperate, as Rich Franklin and James Irvin did, and gets knocked out with a counter; or he freezes, and leaves himself open to Silva's creative pot-shots.
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1. As before, Anderson lets his head hang over his right foot, and leaves his hands down low.
2. Whipping his upper body back, he throws his hips forward.
3. A tightly chambered leg comes along with them, and Belfort becomes aware that a kick is head his way--too late.
4. While the challenger follows his best guess and tries to check, the unseen front kick unfolds under his chin, snapping his head back and rendering him all but unconscious.
Looking at Belfort's eyes in the sequence above, one word comes to mind: mezmerized. Eyes locked with those of the champion, Belfort's aggressive nature was completely undermined. As Silva once again offered his chin as a target, Belfort no longer felt capable of capitalizing. At this moment, just over two minutes into a slow-paced and tentative fight, Vitor Belfort was broken and, even if he didn't realize it, simply waiting for Anderson to knock him out.
As in 14 other UFC bouts, the champion was only too willing to oblige him.
Unbeknownst to the challenger, he had already been conditioned to think of Silva's head-forward posture as "out of range." Having swung and missed, he naturally assumed that he too was too far away to be hit, at least without set-up. Thus, he failed utterly to correctly read the movement of Silva's upper body as that of an incoming kick. Make no mistake--Silva did not actually disguise this strike. In fact, Belfort reacted the moment Anderson began to move. Said reaction, however, was nothing more than a flinch, an impotent twitch that did nothing to impede Silva's kick. By the time that Vitor sensed some attack from Anderson's lower body, it was too late. He raised his leg to check a low kick that never came, and received the most spectacular knockout in UFC history, eyes locked with Anderson's till the end.
Tomorrow we will explore that little-discussed aspect of Silva's game: his finishing skills. Obviously accomplished as a striker, Silva possesses some of the finest ground striking in the sport, which has allowed him to finish every man he has ever knocked down in the UFC.
For more analysis, be sure to check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode features an in-depth, hour-long discussion of the fascinating style matchup that is Anderson Silva vs Nick Diaz.