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UFC 234 - Spider vs Stylebender: comparing Anderson Silva and Israel Adesanya

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch compares and contrasts Israel Adesanya with Anderson Silva, his supposed predecessor, and UFC 234 opponent.

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This Saturday, Anderson Silva will return to the Octagon. Now 43, The Spider is still regarded as one of the greatest technicians in the brief history of MMA, renowned for his defense, his counter punching, and his genuine weirdo swagger.

At UFC 234, the aging Silva will take on Israel Adesanya. Like a fair few fighters before him—erhem, Uriah Hall cough, Michael Page. cough cough, Phillipe Nover—Adesanya has been repeatedly hailed as “the next Anderson Silva.” As such, the UFC likely views this matchup as an opportunity to pass the torch, and the Adesanya win most of us are expecting would absolutely serve that narrative.

Do not pretend, however, that this fight is a fair test to determine whether Adesanya’s brand of gangly, eye-catching kickboxing is in any way superior to Silva’s. The Spider is well past his best, at this point, which is saying something for a fighter who was still defending his throne 15 years after the start of his career, long after what should have been his prime.

Whether or not Adesanya is “the next Silva” is an awfully loaded question to begin with, but to make any kind of fair comparison between the two, we have to compare Adesanya now to Anderson at his best.

Crazy Kicks

Though it was his defense and counter punching that garnered the most overall acclaim, Anderson was always a quick and subtle kicker. The Spider was throwing side kicks and oblique kicks to the knee before Jon Jones ever set foot in the cage. The low calf kicks that are now a staple technique were a part of Silva’s arsenal when absolutely no one else was throwing them. Fighters nowadays spin, but do they throw spinning crescent kicks? No, because they’re actually kind of useless—but so are weird, behind-the-back calf kicks, and Anderson has thrown at least one of those. All part of the gimmick.

Of course, the middleweight GOAT is best known for the incredible front kick with which he finished Vitor Belfort, a technique so staggering in 2011 (literally, for poor VItor) that it spawned a wave of imitations throughout the sport. For years everyone and his cutman was trying to land this damn kick, because Anderson made it look that good.

You’ve seen it many times before, but let’s go ahead and break it down once more.

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1. Silva gets the counter-punching Belfort to square up with him, and looks down at his legs.

2. The front kick begins like a knee, with the lower leg tucked up under the thigh. Belfort is still looking down.

3. Vitor tries to check the low kick implied by Silva’s eyes. As his leg unfolds, Silva thrusts his hip forward, putting the ball of his foot straight through the unsuspecting Belfort’s jaw.

With fighters like Adesanya and Silva, we ought never to look at any particular strike in a vacuum. Virtually everything is set up somehow. In this instance, Silva employs some of his trademark trickery. After engaging the infamously tense Vitor Belfort into something of a staring contest, Anderson takes two or three seconds to stare hungrily at Belfort’s legs. It’s not exactly a subtle cue, but that’s the point. When Silva explodes into his strike, Belfort has every reason to expect a leg attack. And, indeed, he does, lifting his right leg to protect his thigh just as Silva’s foot is suddenly introduced to his mouth.

The technique behind the front kick, itself, is a marvel of its own. There is a tight chamber, making it that little bit harder to determine where the kick is going, and ensuring a powerful snap as the leg unfurls. Silva pulls his toes back as the strike extends, ensuring that the hard ball of his foot is what makes contact with the target. It does, because his distance is perfect. When it happens, he thrusts his hips forward, even getting up on the ball of his right foot to drive the shot both up and through Belfort’s chin. Many in the MMA sphere once regarded a “snap kick” as a weak and ineffectual technique. That powerful hip thrust is the ingredient they were missing. The way Silva does it, the front kick is like an uppercut harder than any middleweight could throw.

It’s one of the greatest single strikes in MMA history.

Adesanya is no stranger to the front kick, though he rarely throws it to the head. His killing blow of choice is the Brazilian kick, so called for the Brazilian karateka, like Glaube Feitosa and Francisco Filho. It’s also known as a question mark kick, for reasons you will soon understand if you don’t already. In his last fight before signing with the UFC, Adesanya summoned this technique to send Stuart Dare into the shadow realm at Hex Fighting Series 12.

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1. Adesanya corners Dare near the fence.

2. Finding the range he wants, Adesanya begins his kick.

3. Adesanya keeps his leg in a low chamber, suggesting a low attack. Dare sees it coming, and moves to protect his body.

4. As Dare drops his hands, Adesanya pivots on his right foot, turning the left hip over at the last second.

5. The kick whips over Dare’s lowered guard and catches him across the base of the jaw.

6. Adesanya calmly watches him collapse.

Like Silva’s front kick, the Brazilian works because Adesanya’s opponent thinks he’s targeting something else, whether it be a leg or the body. This deception is baked right into the Brazilian kick. Up to the point that the kick extends, it is mechanically identical to Silva’s front kick. The knee comes up while the hips stay loaded, the foot tightly chambered behind the thigh.

Then Adesanya pivots. He gets up on the ball of his planted foot and twists it, like putting out a cigarette. The hips open up as the right leg turns, and the raised leg suddenly goes horizontal, just as the chambered shin shoots out to strike. What looked like a front kick transforms into a high round kick in the blink of an eye, landing hard across the neck as the opponent’s hands come down to protect the body.

Counter Knees

Silva’s dazzling complement of kicks was an anomaly in the world of MMA, and still is in comparison to the vast majority of fighters operating today. Being a fully-rounded striker, however, he had plenty of other tricks up his trunks. For example: brutal counter knees. The flying body shot with which Anderson ended Stephan Bonnar was something to behold--and likely one of the last great highlights of a career chock full of them.

Perhaps most well known, however, is Silva’s knockout of Carlos Newton at Pride 25. After ending up underneath the powerful grappler for several minutes, during which he employed his trademark technique of Meditating-and-not-Much-Else™ Silva returned to his feet with a yellow card for stalling, yet he could do little else to protect himself on the ground. Just 23 at the time, Silva was already a clever and perceptive fighter. He wisely reasoned that Newton was going to try taking him down again as soon as possible, and put on some striking pressure to draw out the shot.

When it came, Silva met Newton’s chin on the way down with a pinpoint flying knee. It landed like some Zatoichi killing blow, with Newton crumpling to the ground as Silva sailed past him. After alighting, Anderson spun around to see a dazed Newton sitting defenselessly on his knees, and succinctly finished him off with a few painfully accurate punches.

A similar knee was instrumental to Adesanya’s most recent win, a four-and-a-half minute dismantling of Derek Brunson. Unlike Silva versus Newton, Adesanya had little trouble with the wrestling and grappling of his opponent. Brunson attempted seven takedowns--none of them set up particularly well--and Adesanya shut them all down with ease.

Knowing he could stop Brunson’s takedowns did not, however, cause Adesanya to lose interest in countering them. After sprawling and scrambling his way free of shot number seven late in the first round, Adesanya found himself backed into the fence with an uncontrollably anxious maniac charging straight for him.

He stayed calm, and landed this.

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1. Adesanya sprawls to kill a Brunson shot.

2. Climbing to his feet, Israel boldly decides to take the back.

3. Brunson spins before he can get there, however.

4. So Adesanya disengages, controlling Brunson’s head with one hand as he slips out to the side.

5. Loath to let up the pressure, Brunson keeps coming for Adesanya, who’s back has hit the fence.

6. Israel waits for Brunson’s penetration step. Once the wrestler commits his weight to the shot, the knee is thrown.

7. Adesanya brings the point of his knee up at an angle. Brunson bulls right into it.

Derek Brunson is hardly the most subtle wrestler in the middleweight division—especially once he starts getting hit—but there is still something magical about how accurately Adesanya anticipates and times his takedown attempt. Adesanya has an exceptional sense of distance. Like Silva before him, he has a tendency of watching his opponent’s entire body, focusing on no part in particular. Thus, it is easy for him to read Brunson’s forward movement for what it is: a penetration step, a wrestler’s attempt to close distance and score a takedown. Adesanya throws his knee at this moment, because it is at this moment that Brunson has little hope of avoiding the strike. He is fully committed, and his chin crashes into Israel’s knee with all 200-odd pounds of his body behind it.

As for stuffing takedowns, Adesanya’s wrestling game is something to behold. His clinch wrestling calls to mind Max Holloway, with all the overhooks, frames, and side-to-side movement, plus just a dash of the Spider--namely in the way that he likes to grab people by the head in order to knee them to death. It must be said, however, that just six years into his MMA career, Israel’s wrestling and grappling are progressing more quickly than Anderson’s did in his early days, despite the fact that Silva had a grappling background, and Adesanya doesn’t.

But it all makes sense, in context. Adesanya’s generation has learned from the trials and errors of Silva’s, and improved the way the game is played. The competitive atmosphere demands constant adaptation from one era to the next, just as Jack Johnson’s defense was better developed than Gentleman Jim Corbett’s, and George Benton’s was far, far better still. Anderson Silva might have ruled the middleweight division with spotty takedown defense and a passive guard, but Adesanya would never have won two consecutive fights in the UFC if he hadn’t quickly learned to stop a wrestler’s shot. Adesanya’s takedown defense is better because it has to be.

Evil Elbows

Finally, the really nasty stuff. By this point, you ought to understand at least one facet of the comparison between Silva and Adesanya. Both men are exceptionally diverse in their strike selection. Their kickboxing is not only organic, but inventive. To put it simply, both Adesanya and Silva give spectators a high chance of seeing something they have never seen before.

That was absolutely the case when Anderson finished Tony Fryklund. Don’t let the tasteful yellow canvas fool you: this happened all the way back in 2006, a full decade before UFC 200.

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1. Fryklund throws a straight right at Silva’s head. He easily swats the strike aside.

2. Next, Silva reaches out to grab Fryklund’s left wrist. In doing so, he gives Tony something to push against, and gauges the distance for himself.

3. Suddenly, Silva sinks into a crouch. With the posted hand removed, Fryklund falls in, reaching for Silva’s head as he chambers his right arm.

4. Silva brings the strike sweeping upward, catching Fryklund on the chin with the back of his elbow, and knocking him out.

In 2006, MMA striking consisted mostly of overcooked meat and mushy potatoes. Wide left hooks and overhand rights were the norm, with the occasional Dutch-style low kick bolted on at the end. The typical “Muay Thai” stance was both very upright and tremendously square, offering a wide open target to wrestlers and strikers alike.

Silva innovated by blending more boxing positions into his MMA kickboxing game, and utilizing crazy unpredictable strikes like the one we just saw. At the time, no one in the MMA sphere had ever seen anything like it, but Silva’s influence is monumental. Just last week, Charles Oliveira offed David Teymur with a near-exact replica of Silva’s famous elbow.

Israel Adesanya has been doing some innovating of his own. This elbow, which opened a gruesome gash on the eyelid of Brad Tavares, found a smooth transition between long range and the clinch.

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1. Comfortable with the distance in the fourth round, Adesanya reaches out to take hold of Tavares’ left wrist.

2. Turning his hand as if emptying a can of Coke, Adesanya forces an opening in Tavares’ guard.

3. He steps forward, keeping hold of Tavares’ forearm.

4. Just as Adesanya releases his grip, he folds his arm in two and slices Tavares open with the point of his elbow.

5. He pivots as he throws the strike, evading the counter from Tavares.

Adesanya’s tendency to reach out and play with his opponents’ guards is strongly reminiscent of the Spider. It speaks to his relaxation in the cage, but it serves a practical purpose as well. Not only does the constant pawing give Adesanya a keen understanding of the space between himself and his opponent, it allows him to cover that gap intuitively.

After removing Tavares’ guard, Adesanya continues to make use of his grip on the Hawaiian’s wrist. Not only does he step forward to close distance, but he actually pulls Tavares into him. The gap shrinks with unexpected speed. Suddenly, boxing range becomes elbow range, and Tavares is momentarily rooted in place. He badly mistimes his defense as he tries to counter a strike that, a fraction of a second ago, didn’t even seem like an option. The counter misses, because Adesanya is already defending before his strike has connected, smoothly pivoting to his left and out of harm’s way.

There is certainly some merit to the comparison between Adesanya and Silva. Both men are long, rangy kickboxers with a penchant for sudden knockouts. Both are potent strikers, who make use of every weapon available to them. Both possess perfect killer instinct, and carry themselves with a cool self-assurance that dares you to call it arrogance.

At the end of the day, however, there is no choosing one fighter over the other. Anderson was all but flawless in his time, yet time has passed him by. Even if he could magically regain ten years of youth, his methods would struggle against the current middleweight elite. Adesanya’s game is no copy of Silva’s. In many ways, he represents an improvement. Yet Adesanya is no less a product of his own time. In future, there may be skillful strikers who make even the Stylebender look like an ancient artifact.

If the torch must be passed, however, Israel Adesanya is perfectly capable of carrying it for now.