So. Let's talk about bullshit. Again.
(Warning: potentially offensive language ahead.)
At UFC 208, Anderson Silva earned his first official victory since October of 2012, defeating Derek Brunson via unanimous decision. In this case, the word "unanimous" is a bit misleading. All three judges agreed that The Spider had done enough to garner the nod, but swathes of fans and media members disagreed. Of 24 journalists polled by MMADecisions, only four saw the fight in favor of the former champ. Doubtless Derek Brunson agreed with their assessment from the moment Silva's hand was raised. He considers the decision a robbery; many in the MMA community agree.
But I am not so sure. To call the outcome a robbery is to imply that Anderson did nothing to warrant a win. And while FightMetric has Brunson outstriking and outwrestling Silva down the stretch, there is more to fighting than punches and takedowns. Though we rarely talk about it, sometimes it is bullshit which decides a fight.
Now, before we dive headlong into this rabbit hole, it would be wise to define my rather indelicate terminology. Ironically, to understand what I mean when I say the word "bullshit," we have to cast the bullshit aside, and exchange it for a handful of brass tacks.
Fighters are storytellers. You may not be used to thinking of them that way, but take a moment to consider. When Floyd Mayweather wins two of the last four rounds of a fight despite taking all of them off, it isn't because the judges just like him; it is because he looks like he is controlling the fight. Watching him operate, it almost always feels like he is winning. And when careful judges award him half of those lackadaisical rounds, fans scoring at home are liable to give him every single one. This is Mayweather doing his job; a fighter's goal is to convince his opponent, the judges, and the fans that he is comfortable, confident, and effective. On the surface, this story can be told through brute force and technical skill. He who slips the punches, takes the shots, lands the counters, wraps up the necks, and scores the takedowns tells a simple, obvious tale: "I am clearly better than this other guy."
But all of the best stories are comprised, at least in part, of bullshit. Unless you believe that Gilgamesh really slew a giant, or that Attila the Hun bore a sword sent down by the war god Mars, you should have little difficulty in agreeing with me. True stories are full of too many nasty bits of nuance to easily catch on, and so we tend to prefer the simple ones. Heroes become more heroic, villains more villainous. East versus West, black versus white, God versus the Devil. Whether you call it "bullshit" or "creative license," the little lies are what make the stories stick.
So what happens when a fighter, who needs to tell the story of his victory, struggles to do so through conventional means? What happens when his body begins to fail him, or his stamina starts to run out, or his chin finally cracks? For the smart fighter, bullshit is the answer. When Robbie Lawler grins after taking a punch on the jaw, that's bullshit. When Uriah Hall hides the limp caused by a broken toe and maintains his offense without a grimace, that's bullshit too. And when a 41 year-old Anderson Silva convinces one judge to give him all three rounds despite being outstruck in one and outwrestled in the other? Well, that is the finest bullshit of all.
Let's take a look at a few of the sequences from the first round of Silva versus Brunson. Rather than looking for the usual clever set-ups and clean strikes, however, today we will be watching for body language, pace, and psychological manipulation.
First, let's discuss pace. Take a look at the relative positions of Silva and Brunson in the first seconds of the first round.
Two things stand out about this image. First, note that Silva commands the center of the Octagon. Each of the three rounds began this way, with Anderson cleverly jogging his way to middle of the cage as soon as the frame began. Second, look at the huge gulf between the two fighters. Neither man can effectively strike or luck up with the other without taking two sizable steps forward. Silva set this distance deliberately. On the one hand, this space ensures that if Brunson does barrel forward as he has in the past, Silva's deteriorating reflexes will not prevent him from evading and landing a counter.
But because Brunson, having just been knocked out in his last fight, is cautious of the vaunted counter striker's timing and power, the open space also convinces him not to do much at all. He moves his hands and shuffles from side to side, and all the while Anderson keeps an eye on him, makes small adjustments to his position, and waits.
As Joe Rogan astutely pointed out during the bout, most fighters feel compelled to do something when Silva approaches the fight in this way. Patience is a rare and valuable commodity in the world of combat sports, and it usually takes a long time to develop. Silva has demonstrated unbelievable patience for well over a decade, whereas Brunson has yet to sniff his 7th year of his own professional career.
Midway through the bout, Daniel Cormier summarized the thought process behind Silva's wait-and-see approach:"Anderson will lull you into that slower type of fight . . . as you get older you gotta make these young, athletic guys fight the way you want them to fight. And Anderson is doing that right now."
Exactly. By refusing to attack first, Silva manipulated Brunson into leading. By giving him so much distance to cover with those leads, he was able to avoid many of the strikes and stuff all of the early takedowns. And those misses, along with a few sharp counters from The Spider, had the effect of convincing Brunson that maybe he shouldn't lead so much after all. As a result, he was left floating in an uncomfortable middle ground between too cautious and overly aggressive. Silva, meanwhile, looked fast, sharp, and, most importantly, in control.
Remember, however, that this is an aging Anderson Silva we're talking about here. Despite setting himself up to make the most of his fading abilities, Brunson's athleticism and underrated striking still enabled him to outland The Spider to the tune of 12 significant strikes in the first round. Many of those strikes were leg kicks, and though a good portion of them landed clean, they were received by the commentators, the crowd, and evidently the judges with all the enthusiasm usually accorded to a wet fart.
Once again, we have Anderson Silva to thank for this phenomenon. Below is a short compilation of some of the kicks landed by Brunson, along with the reactions they prompted from Silva.
1. Brunson lands a well-placed inside low kick.
2. Silva does nothing other than to glance down at Brunson's legs as if just realizing that it was a kick he felt, and not an errant mosquito.
3. This kick lands solidly to the outer thigh, and upsets Silva's stance.
4. Silva bounces his feet back into position and takes a breath, seeming to shrug without really making a show of it.
5. Another inside low kick should score points for Derek Brunson, but . . .
6. Silva drops his hands and swaggers back into range. I call this pose "I have literally never felt less threatened in my entire life."
Did those leg kicks hurt? My guess would be that Anderson felt the impact, and certainly the connections were clean enough to count significantly in Brunson's favor. However, the problem, at least from Brunson's perspective, is that we cannot know for sure. When judging striking, we tend to look for indications of damage. A slight buckle of the knee, a wobble in the ankle, a jolting of the head, or even a change of stance or demeanor--reactions like these clue us in to the effectiveness of an attack. So while we can and should evaluate every blow based on how well it connects, the right body language can have a substantial impact on our perception.
In this case, Anderson's reactions are brilliantly subtle. Many fighters will shake their heads, or drop their hands, or break out into a rictus grin when their chins are touched. Educated fight fans tend to see through these behaviors. When Brunson's kicks land, Silva's face barely changes at all. Instantly, his non-response partially negates the impact of the strike in our minds. Whereas a nod or a smile can be perceived as a sort of acknowledgement, Silva's casual disinterest comes across as more condescending. Each blow is met with a small curl of the lip, or a twitch of the eyebrow, or even a quick downward glance, so that whenever Brunson lands Anderson almost looks . . . I don't know, disappointed? Without uttering a word, he seems to say, "Come on, Derek. I thought we were going to hit each other like grown men."
And because Brunson refuses to press forward or throw combinations, Silva's reactions have a chance to play out. Not only do we see him successfully take the strike, but we get to watch him forget about it entirely mere seconds later. This prompts us to do the same.
Pro wrestling has a word for this kind of thing. They call it "no-selling," and it is not until you study someone doing it that you realize how important body language is to our perception of whether or not a technique was effective. Silva created a similar effect by effortlessly stuffing Brunson's takedowns throughout the fight. In reality he was simply too far away for a clean shot, and too inactive to give Brunson an opening. The narrative created by his sprawls, however, was that Derek Brunson was a bad wrestler. At times, his repeated shots even seemed desperate, furthering the impression of Silva's grasp on the flow of the fight.
At 4:13 of the second round, Silva's antics were already taking effect on at least one member of the audience. Sitting cageside, Joe Rogan said, "In my eyes, Brunson looks very tentative. He looks timid. The way he's throwing these shots--noncomittal . . . and that could wind [sic] him in big trouble if Anderson gets his groove."
Of course, no-selling strikes and takedowns is just one small example of Anderson Silva's bullshit expertise. You can make the other guy look bad, but at some point you still have to make yourself look good if you want to win. With that in mind, I give you Anderson Silva's (bullshit) masterpiece:
1. Controlling the center of the Octagon, Silva presses forward.
2. As he reaches out to frame, Brunson drops his weight . . .
3. . . . and lands an overhand left. Silva rolls with the punch, but instantly knows that he needs to get back at Brunson.
4. He presses forward again, this time dropping hands for effect.
5. Before Brunson can set up another strike, Anderson forces him to block high with a long right hook.
6. Followed by a knee which glances off of Brunson's chest.
7. Knowing that this is not enough, Silva resumes the hunt. He jogs back to center cage . . .
8. . . . and snaps off a quick jab. Brunson deflects it.
9. In response, Derek changes levels for a takedown.
10. The Spider stuffs it without even having to sprawl. He frames against Brunson's head and pushes away.
11.Silva manages to shove Brunson away so that this right hook just barely scrapes his cheek.
12. Brunson tries to follow that up with a jab, but Silva slips it.
13. The next shot is a bigger one, and so when Silva rolls under Brunson's miss is a big one, too.
14. Back at range, Anderson once again recognizes that he needs to put a stamp on the drawn-out exchange. He moves toward Brunson . . .
15. . . . and forces him back into the fence with a front kick to the sternum.
16. Misjudging Brunson's body language, however, he steps too near his cornered opponent with both feet square.
17. Brunson gets off a hard right hook.
18. Silva is not dissuaded, however. If anything, Brunson's success only makes him more persistent. He needs to do something decisive. Something flashy.
19. Fortunately, Brunson is still willing to retreat. Silva obliges him, feinting a jab as Derek's back nears the fence.
20. Then a spinning backfist, which appears to just catch Brunson on the ear behind his raised glove.
21. Finally, Silva pirouettes into a powerful body kick. Brunson partially blocks, but the impact is enough to disrupt his balance as he struggles to escape Silva's range.
If we count the strikes landed in this (rather long) sequence, Silva lands four to Brunson's three. A slim margin which threatens to vanish altogether when the quality of those strikes is taken into account. Brunson's overhand left and clean right hook are undeniably more damaging than anything Silva manages to land. And yet, I defy you to watch the GIF of this back-and-forth and tell me that Derek Brunson looks like he's happy to be there. Or that he appears to be in control.
What Anderson Silva displays in this sequence is a keen understanding of timing and opportunity. Where once he might have drawn Brunson in and knocked him dead with a hard right hand, now his reflexes are no longer up to the task, his hands no longer quick enough to pull the trigger on his famous counters. Instead, he does what Cub Swanson did recently when he too was faced with a younger, faster fighter: he god damn gets after him.
This is something of a gambit. Silva banks on the fact that Brunson, anxious after his recent KO and perhaps awed by the aura of The Spider, will not just plant his feet and swing away as he chases after him. Luckily, he manages to take Brunson's best shots without much difficulty, and by responding each time with an uptick in aggression, dissuades him from attempting any more. It is a savvy move, and particularly remarkable because it looks nothing like the patient, calculated Silva we have come to expect--nor anything like the patient, calculated Silva that Brunson has seen up to this point in the fight. It is a series of surprises, with each new onslaught timed to punish Brunson for daring to throw hands with Anderson Silva.
That Brunson probably lands the better shots matters, but live, it does not seem to matter so much. What takes precedence is the impression that Anderson Silva is doing what he wants, and that Derek Brunson is literally running away from him.
In truth, Silva has been relying on these tricks for a very long time. At 41 years old, he has been slowing down and tiring more easily since about 2007. At that time, The Spider was already 32, and had been fighting professionally for a decade. For most fighters, those numbers suggest the end of the physical prime, and Silva was no different. His lackluster performances against Thales Leites and Demian Maia were not merely the product of a mercurial mind, but the natural outcome in a matchup between a clever fighter who cannot take the fight to his opponent, and a rudimentary one who will not lead. That some of Anderson's most memorable and stunning victories came well after he had started to decline is simply a testament to the tremendous depth of his intelligence and craft.
A final comment on my terminology in this piece. Yes, I know: "bullshit" is a bad word. To some, it might imply that I consider the tactics of men like Anderson Silva and Bernard Hopkins to be worthless, or requiring little skill. Although I hope the actual content of this article will have convinced you otherwise, let me reiterate: I have the utmost respect for this kind of fighting. I really do. I talk about it not due to any desire to "expose" wrongdoing, but because I admire the potent combination of intellect and instinct good bullshitting requires.
Consider this: it is a referee's job to prevent fighters from fouling. On the other hand, it is a fighter's job to do everything in his power to win. When Jose Aldo grabs the fence, I don't get upset. When Germaine de Randamie lands a stunner just after the bell, I don't lose respect for her. The truth is, smart fighters use all of the tools at their disposal, and sometimes a cheeky fence grab or a suggestive finger jab is more effective than even the strongest sprawl, or the hardest punch.
In the same way, judges should be trained to ignore bullshit. Did Anderson Silva really deserve the win over Derek Brunson? No, probably not. It is not wrong to be disappointed in the officials for failing to see through The Spider's web of lies. In the end, their duty is to wrestle with the bald truth, complete with all the nuances and complications we tend to avoid. But when you consider that Anderson Silva was able to beguile three professional fight-scorers with a few well-timed gestures and throwaway kicks, how can you not respect him? Bullshitting is a skill, and unlike haymakers and hammerfists, it is both more difficult to learn, and more difficult to understand. It is subtle, and beautiful in its way.
So was Anderson Silva's win at UFC 208 the product of bullshit? You know it. But folks, it was some of the best bullshit I've ever seen. Silva's performance was a symphony of swagger and grace. I, for one, was happy to see The Spider use his vast wealth of skill and experience to finally win another fight, even when he wasn't.
For a different perspective on Anderson Silva's controversial win, and an in-depth breakdown of the women's featherweight title fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.