Somewhere around the time of Glover Teixeira’s hard fought loss to Corey Anderson, it seemed like the light heavyweight division had found a certain amount of sense. It was 2018, Glover was 39, Anderson was 29, and the younger man could simply keep a pace the Brazilian couldn’t match, while also stuffing takedowns. The old guard was falling away. The young lions were taking their place.
But MMA and, by proxy, the UFC has a funny way of working out. Two years later, Anderson is gone; released from his contract under mutual agreement and off to his new home in Bellator, where his chances of being an instant title contender are that much higher. And Teixeira is riding a 4-fight win streak, largely off the back of what he couldn’t find a way to do against Anderson: controlling the ground battle.
While a stifling top game has always been an ace up the former Chuck Liddell training partner’s sleeve, in later years, getting to it has become somewhat more incidental and much more necessary. Go back through Glover’s first 5-fight win streak in the UFC and the picture of a confident, well organized fighter quickly emerges. Teixeira’s game in the past was predicated on his decisive power punching, coupled by a single leg takedown attack.
Even in fights against the likes of Rampage Jackson, Teixeira rarely seemed to need to get the fight down (Jackson even tried to take him down at one point after an especially brutal exchange standing). Instead, there was an air of understanding: fights are won at all levels and getting them to the ground will make them easier when the option arises. Being confident and competent everywhere was a bigger part of Teixeira’s game than any singular mastery of grappling battles.
Jump ahead six years and, at a glance, it’s not too easy to tell what exactly has changed for the man who now lives and fights out of Danbury Connecticut. He still comes out throwing power, he still looks for his single legs. The essence of what the process is supposed to be hasn’t really diverted all that much. But time has a way of forcing adaptation on athletes. Now in his 40s, Teixeira is unquestionably a slower boxer; he’s less able to surprise opponents with hand speed and power. And, having never been an incredibly deft striking technician, he’s not setting up a lot of shots opponents won’t see coming.
That shift has given Teixeira’s early minutes in recent bouts a dramatically different tone. No longer the man who leads the dance with confident offense (even dropping Fabio Maldonado right out of the gate), he’s now the one getting hurt and being forced to adjust. Whether it’s advancement in the LHW meta or a lack of initiative, or just slowing foot speed, the single leg that made up the bread and butter of his wrestling game has been much less effective. Fighters are sprawling him out, getting to the cage, and (in the case of Roberson) landing some brutal elbows too.
Instead, Teixeira’s savvy has filled in the gaps. Along with an increasing eye for the value of opportunity. Bodylock takedowns when aggressive opponents close him down have changed the course of several bad exchanges. In the case of his war with the Moldovan ‘Hulk’, a simple moment’s clash in the pocket sent Cutelaba off balance and reeling to the mat, where Teixeira quickly pounced and sank in a choke.
The often-unstructured Nikita Krylov even found some success out-wrestling Teixeira in brief bursts. But settled so heavily for leaning on poor shots against the fence that he allowed Teixeira to entirely steal the momentum of delivered damage in later rounds. Against Anthony Smith, it’s hard not to look at Smith’s 174 thrown strikes in two rounds as a core reason why ‘Lionheart’ essentially faded out of the fight entirely. Still, it’s a testament to Teixeira that when younger opponents have lost a step he’s been right there to take control.
On Saturday, Teixeira faces Thiago Santos in what will undoubtedly be his most difficult recent test. Even among a group like Roberson, Cutelaba, Krylov, and Smith, Santos is an unprecedented fight finisher. In thirteen UFC victories, Santos has eleven knockout wins. And, more so than anyone in Teixeira’s recent run of victories, he tends to be a calm, focused performer, and capable scrambler. Give ‘Marretta’ enough time at range, and sooner or later he’ll put most people away.
And yet, when Santos has lost in the past, those losses have come - at least in part - due to mistakes made in unstructured grappling exchanges and scrambles. Even in what was largely a kickboxing bout against Uriah Hall, two of Hall’s biggest, momentum-maintaining moments came off caught kicks where he dumped Santos to the mat and followed up with brief flurries of strikes. Against Nikita Krylov, a caught body kick in round 1 gave Teixeira immediate top control for a large portion of the round.
In Santos’ fight with Gegard Mousasi, after getting hurt and dropped Santos scrambled up only to get wrapped up in almost exactly the kind of body lock trip that Teixeira hit on Misha Cirkunov. From there, the finish was academic. Only David Branch (wildly) has ever KO’d him clean standing inside the Octagon.
The ground battle hints at paths to victory for the crafty quadragenarian. However, most likely, if Teixeira is going to have a chance to take this, he’s going to have to find at least some success standing first. The real common theme in most of Santos’ losses has been him getting dinged up standing in order to force other mistakes. Without that it seems unlikely that an increasingly unreliable shot takedown game is going to get Santos down all on its own.
But given that Teixeira still has a chin and can still land his punches when opportunity strikes, the well rounded arsenal that used to allow him to pick whatever path he wanted to a win has still left him as a dangerous, experienced fighter that can’t be overlooked by anyone, even the current crop of top contenders. And with a win at UFC Vegas 13 on Saturday night, Teixeira would stake a real solid claim to being the true light heavyweight top contender, more than six years after he first fought for the title. That would really be a hell of an achievement.