By Josh Stein on Feb 14, 2008
A Look at the UFC’s 185 Pound Champion
Leading up to the fight with Dan Henderson, I think it’s appropriate that we take a look at what makes the fighters great. I’ll definitely spend a little time talking about the numbers, but I’m going to try and focus on the technical aspect, give you some things to watch about the all-around game and the specifics of the way they fight.
I’ll definitely look at Henderson as we approach fight time, but I think that it’s only appropriate to start with the reigning champion of the UFC’s middleweight division, not just because of his status as champion, but also because of how he has been regarded by professional analysts (most notably the ones that the UFC has had do their “analysis.” (I put it in quotes, because it’s not really analysis as much as it’s hyping the fight)
Anderson Silva is not infallible. He is great, and certainly one of the most devastating fighters of his generation, and it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that he’s one of the greatest users of the traditional vale tudo combination: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai.
There’s alot to be said for the length of Silva’s limbs, because, let’s face it, they’re freakishly disproportionate. His reach has always been his greatest physical weapon, but, just like with a thick, stocky fighter, it’s all about how you use it, and Anderson is certainly among the elite in using his natural weapons to their fullest potential.
Saying Anderson controls distance is like saying Peyton Manning throws the football.
When Anderson Silva decides he wants to stand at range, he uses every strike in his arsenal at full distance. He tends to stick to straight punches, but they are so crisp and so quick that people rarely have the opportunity to get around them, despite the fact that they stay at a very traditional, direct angle.
One of the other things that many of his opponents seem to forget, perhaps not in training for the fight, but certainly when they are in the heat of battle, is that Anderson’s legs are also very long and very quick, and he tosses out kicks with the front and back leg with the same ease most fighters throw out punches. That, above all, is one of the reasons why he is able to control distance so effectively without moving backwards. He uses his hands to make his opponents aware of his attack, and uses his kicks to intimidate them, and control their pace, further once he has kept them from being too close.
Anderson Silva’s distance control is something that we see so rarely in the sport, especially at that level, that the only thing I can think of to relate it to is Tim Sylvia’s standup during his early fights. It’s not just a matter of height and the psychological factor of being taller than your opponent, because Anderson is really not that much taller than his opponents, it’s making your opponent stay on his heels, because as soon as he comes on his toes and starts to move forward, he starts eating those straight punches.
It allows a fighter like Silva to be aggressive and really attack his opponent, knowing that his opponent will have to do alot of work to get around the straight strikes, but there are other reasons why Anderson’s distance control is so effective, and that’s because of his clinch game.
If you get caught in the clinch with Silva, you will get hit in the face, that’s just a given. It has alot to do with the technical control that Silva has over his opponents, his ability to keep his hands inside and use the leverage from his long forearms, but it also has alot to do with the length of his legs. Anderson Silva can knee an opponent in the face without really moving his body backwards to counterbalance the weight or pulling his opponent down, something that traditional thai boxers almost always have to do to get their opponent’s heads in range.
The fact is, Anderson has the balance and the length in his legs to smash his opponents face without compromising his center of gravity, and without exerting way to much force, like we’ve seen fighters do in order to control distance. It’s the kind of quality that I’ve never really seen in a fighter, with the exception of Sylvia, because even the legends of the clinch like Wanderlei, have to use those traditional transitions of balance (like forcing your opponent down or moving your upper body back). Anderson’s abilities in the clinch allow him not just to utilize those knees, but also to transition seamlessly between the clinch and his traditional stance, with minimal recovery time, and not lose any of the attack power in his open range striking.
As we saw in his fight with Travis Lutter, Anderson Silva’s skills are not strictly based in his standup, as many fighters have thought. Rich Franklin and coach George Gurgel (Gurgel is Franklin’s BJJ instructor, a blackbelt in the style, and competes in the UFC’s lightweight division) thought that they might be in good shape if they could take the fight to the ground. Franklin’s wrestling wasn’t sufficient to deal with the Anderson’s balance or clinch game, but even if it was, he probably wouldn’t have done much damage on the ground.
If Franklin almost got caught by Yushin Okami in that fight, there’s a serious possibility that Anderson would have caught him with a submission, especially of the back.
When I say Anderson Silva has a blackbelt, it’s something that is taken for granted, because there is such an abundance of submission fighters in the UFC with blackbelts. Make no mistake, Anderson’s submission game is even more formidable than we saw in his fight with Travis Lutter, or his fight with Nate Marquardt.
Anderson’s reach isn’t just exploited on the feet, but also on the ground, especially in his guard game.
As became very clear against Lutter, Anderson’s lanky physique gives him the opportunity to really work one submission in particular: the triangle choke. It’s not just that he can put it on and lock it in quickly (he can do that, but that’s not his entire game), it’s that he can set that triangle up and keep it on from pretty much anywhere, because of the length of his legs. Even if an opponent is posturing up to escape the triangle, as we saw Lutter doing a few times, his legs give him the opportunity to pull his opponent back down when they can’t pull themselves loose.
The length of his arms also comes into effect, as was clear when he started using them to smash Travis Lutter’s head in. The fact is, no one can really defend the strikes and the submission at the same time, but Anderson’s body allows him to put himself in a position to win matches that way, and he has no problem using it.
As far as a way to beat Anderson Silva’s guard game, it’s not a good idea to play low, and it’s not a good idea to stand up (as he’s very well versed with the upkick, one of the moves that led to his defeat of Lutter). It seems almost necessary to pass the guard as soon as you get the takedown, or revert to very technical BJJ and maintain posture while opening the guard and pinning one of the legs, a feat which will not be easy against a fighter as well versed in jiu-jitsu as Silva is.
There are a few flaws I’ve noticed in Silva’s game, but it’s important to remember that these are only tiny nuances, compared to the laundry list of things that he does better than anybody else.
The first is that he leaves himself very open to footlocks. He likes to throw his legs up after his opponent when he is fighting off of his back, but most opponents are so preoccupied with the up-kick that they rarely try and think about taking one of his feet. Silva’s ability to defend the leglock has never been tested (I will not discredit Ryo Chonan, but I think that if he had landed that any more perfectly on anyone else, it would have gone exactly the same), so it is uncharted waters, but the uncharted waters seem much safer than the charted ones, given that everyone Silva has faced in the Octagon has been, for lack of a better term, completely destroyed.
The other hole in his game is not the one that everyone seems to think it is. It is not that he can be taken down. Obviously, Anderson Silva does not mind fighting off of his back. Obviously, he can take punishment. When I hear Dana White and Joe Rogan talk about a potential chink in Silva’s armor, I cringe, because I know that anyone who winds up on top of the Spider is going to have to deal with a very sophisticated, very well practiced guard game that you can’t deal any serious damage in, because you might overextend one of your arms and get submitted.
The problem is much simpler, but it’s not something that anyone approaches because it’s not the way the modern MMA fighter thinks. Every MMA fighter today, with the exception of Shinya Aoki, believes that in order to get the fight to the ground, you have to use a takedown, which means that if a fighter doesn’t want to be on top, he never has to be. And the problem with this mindset, when one goes in to fight an opponent like Silva or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, is that you overlook a serious possibility, which is making your opponent fight from the top.
There is a stigma on the bottom, because everyone thinks that the guy on the bottom will lose on the judges scorecards, and that’s true alot of the time, but the possibility of Anderson Silva being on top is not as frightening as being caught in one of his triangles as he elbows your brain down into your spinal column.
Making Anderson sit in guard is something that gives an opponent a serious opportunity to exploit what is otherwise Anderson’s greatest attribute. In case my going off on a brief rant has led you to forget what that is, that would be his long limbs.
Anderson Silva’s arms make him a prime target for armbars. The length of his neck makes him a prime target for guillotines from the bottom. His relatively lanky build make him much easier to de-base once one has locked up a triangle. Yet we haven’t seen anyone really try to make him fight from the top since Silva’s fight with Daiju Takase. Takase, for those who don’t know (and since the fight occurred a long time ago in relative obscurity in Japan, I understand if you don’t) won with a triangle choke.
Still, giving Anderson the top position is, like throwing footlocks, uncharted waters. But who wants to go throught the water charted by Leben, Franklin, Marquardt and Lutter anyway?
Anderson can be a victim of his own advantages, I really don’t have any doubt of that. The question is whether or not there is an opponent willing to risk getting punched in the face when they put themselves on their back. Such a fighter has yet to come along, but if they do, it will be interesting to see the reaction they draw, not just from fans, but from other fighters.
Until someone does beat Silva, whether by using the guard or by being more of a wrecking ball than Silva has been proven to be, he will be a force in the UFC middleweight division. While it seems like Dan Henderson has an excellent shot at doing that, Anderson’s skills are still very much a real issue, and his confidence can only be growing as he destroys opponent after opponent in the middleweight division.
About the Author: Joshua Stein is a writer and editor for MMA Opinion. He has worked as a photographer and journalist and has a number of print journalism credits. He also works as a moderator for MMAForum.com and a grappling columnist (covering judo, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling) for profighting-fans.com.