Wanderlei Silva and Brian Stann are men who are cut from a similar cloth—that of the traditional sprawl and brawler. We all know the type: The man with cinder block hands and gritted teeth who will walk forward throwing heavy strikes, hoping to land a big blow before he is forced to dig for underhooks and smash his hips down on top of his opponent as he attempts a takedown.
Silva's failures in recent years have largely been excused by his deteriorating physical attributes and continuing decline in technical variety. Stann's can be seen as something of an indication that this forward moving, punch and pummel style just doesn't work at the highest level anymore for men who lack a great wrestling pedigree.
Today we will look at why the method of sprawl and brawl, which Wanderlei Silva pioneered in PRIDE, just doesn’t work at the highest levels anymore.
The Evolution of Takedown Prevention
I don't want to get too bogged down in how takedown defence has become more about pre-emptive avoidance, but I will explain a little. In the early days of MMA, the foremost style of counter wrestling was that of backing the opponent up, running in with strikes—looking for a knockout with each—and then dropping the hips hard and pummelling for underhooks (or looking for the double-collar tie, which Silva used to land knees so famously). It was an exhausting and strength-based game.
In recent years, the majority of MMA organisations have moved to cages rather than a ring, and this opens so many more options for the striker or Brazilian jiu-jitsu exponent who lacks a wrestling pedigree.
First, men who lacked the ability to sprawl on opponents and often got cornered in a ring, now had the option of moving freely without the risk of ending up in a corner—fighters such as Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida experienced enormous benefits in their move from rings to cages.
Distancing and footwork are now the most important elements of takedown prevention, where even the enormous PRIDE ring made life claustrophobic for strikers, due to its tight corners.
Further to that, more and more fighters who lack a wrestling pedigree now feed their opponent a single-leg takedown by widening their stance, making it difficult to pick up both legs, then hop to the fence and use it to support them as they pummel for position.
Moreover, walking and bridging off of the fence are now commonplace. Just take a look at BJ Penn feeding Diego Sanchez one leg and hopping to the fence.
This tactic is now commonplace, particularly among members of the Nova Uniao and Black House camps. Feeding the lead hip is largely responsible for the successes of southpaws Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva simply because of the distance which a southpaw versus orthodox encounter creates—but that is a story for another day.
From here a striker can use a number of counter-offensive methods while using the cage to support himself. Looking for the Thai-style double-collar tie is becoming more popular—Michael Bisping stifled Chael Sonnen with it, and Anderson Silva troubled Yushin Okami in the same way.
The switch is also becoming more commonplace. Threading the arm between the opponent’s inside arm and leg can be used to place tremendous pressure on the opponent’s arm and can force a reversal of positions, open a path to the back or simply be used to break the opponent’s balance.
I’m sure you can all recall Jose Aldo using this method in many of his matches, and recently Carlos Condit hit one on Georges St-Pierre.
Silva and Stann—strikers without a great wrestling pedigree who walk forward with their strikes and attempt to react to takedown attempts, rather than those who stand at range and look to make the opponent engage—are fossils in MMA, and I doubt that we will see many fighters without a great wrestling pedigree make this style work at the highest level again.
Silva’s success in PRIDE, while legendary, was due to the circumstances under which he fought—most notably the level of striking ability among grapplers and their inexperience under fire, in addition to the tight corners of the ring into which he would rush his opponents and force a desperation shot right into his double-collar tie.
The Wanderlei Silva Method
Wanderlei Silva’s striking was based in aggression and unpredictability in terms of what he would throw in his flurries. Often Silva began with a jab, then would swing broadsides in from bizarre angles, mixing in the occasional high kick (onto which a couple of unfortunate opponents ducked) or a chopping low kick if he was feeling unusually patient.
It seemed like the entire goal of Silva’s striking, however, was to grab on to his opponent’s head and set to work with the knee strikes for which he is infamous. The swarming punches simply served to get his opponents covering or force them to duck toward his waist in desperation. At this moment, he would slide his forearms in front of their collar bones as he took a grip on the back of their skull.
Below, against the enormously entertaining, durable and under-appreciated Daijiro Matsui, Silva rushes Matsui into a corner and connects a couple of solid punches, forcing Matsui to duck at his waist. From here Silva manages to back up far enough to slide into his double-collar tie and begin landing knees.
You can see why this game was so energy consuming and why Silva developed the great conditioning he was known for in PRIDE. Silva has to go from a fully offensive charge into rapid backward movement while trying to fight off a takedown.
Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" were undoubtedly the best in the world at coming forward and rapidly switching to defending a takedown, and both benefited from their enormous strength and brilliant reactions more than any strategic finesse in their method.
This stands in stark contrast to today's best strikers in MMA—men such as Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and Jose Aldo—who avoid takedowns mainly through use of footwork and distancing.
Here is another example of Silva swarming on Matsui along the ropes and Matsui attempting a shot out of desperation.
If the opponent didn’t concede to ducking at Silva’s hips, he would simply swarm—alternating between attempts to grab his opponent’s head and swinging brutal punches.
The most notable examples of Silva using his punches to force an opponent to cover, then progressing to the double-collar tie, are his pair of PRIDE bouts with Quinton Jackson. Notice how Silva initiated with a jab to rear hook (a favourite of the old Chute Boxe team, sadly Wanderlei’s jab has disappeared in favour of a straight arm lead swing).
Wanderlei staggers Rampage, follows him to the ropes and grabs around Rampage’s hands rather than inside of them. Not great technique but an example of how strong Silva was when he had his opponent’s head.
Alternatively, as against Yuki Kondo, Silva would use the threat of the clinch to land punches on an opponent who was trying to remain bolt upright. Silva reaches for Kondo’s head and fails to pull him down, but instead he hits him with a left hook on the jaw. This was Wanderlei’s brilliance—constant, flowing aggression that never became fixated on one thing.
Why Did It Stop Working?
So when did Silva’s game start falling apart?
The cracks were always there—even the overmatched Matsui eventually got Silva on his back off one of Silva’s charges, and Silva resorted to punching upward from his guard. Indeed, a great deal of criticism has been levelled at PRIDE’s officials for standing Silva’s fights up too soon when he was on his back, but then he was quite good at simply holding opponents until a stand-up was forced.
You will notice that I referred to Silva’s combinations as flurries. That is because they were not thought out to set up a specific punch or kick—they were simply a series of reactionary swings and grabs at a target. It worked a treat on grapplers and mediocre strikers, but it will not cut it in a sport where striking has improved so much in just the last four or five years.
Silva’s hands constantly being out of position—either reaching for his opponent or down by his chest as he swung—resulted in him being dropped a great many times, even by overmatched opponents. Even Kazushi Sakuraba, when he publicly claimed he did not practice any striking techniques, was able to drop Silva with a right hook as the latter ran in during their first bout.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out the wildness of Silva’s style—punching shoulder low, head high and non-punching hand down by his chest. Notice also that the wide stance, which Wanderlei often took to swing his weight from side to side with his windmill punches, also leaves him terribly off-balance when he is hit.
Similar to Dan Henderson, Wanderlei was dropped often in his career not due to his inability to take a punch, but rather for his habit for throwing himself off balance and then getting hit.
Similarly, those who would not get flustered under Wanderlei’s assault and could cover well could stifle his game remarkably well. Wanderlei is, like almost everyone else in MMA, a head hunter, throwing no body punches in almost all of his fights. This means rather than keeping the elbows low and hoping to use a traditional boxing guard to cover up—which just doesn’t work with four-ounce gloves on—Quinton Jackson was able to bring his elbows up to defend his head with a more solid guard.
Without Wanderlei sneaking in wild punches through Jackson’s guard, Jackson was able to take advantage of Wanderlei’s overaggression several times in their bouts.
Here, in their first bout, Jackson defends Wanderlei’s opening gambit, gets control of Wanderlei’s hips and forces him to jump for a guillotine. Rampage escaped his head, got the fight to Silva’s guard and convincingly won much of the first round up until Silva finished him with a flurry of knees.
The second bout was much of the same, with Jackson and Silva jockeying in the clinch but with Jackson looking much more confident on his feet than in their first meeting. Jackson eventually ducked onto a hard right hook and was kneed into unconsciousness by Silva.
Their final bout went much the same, but instead of looking for a takedown or clinch, Jackson was in full boxing mode. Catching Silva’s wild swings on his arms, Jackson was in perfect position to fire back with tighter, purer hooks.
Silva simply leaves himself so poorly defended as he comes forward that he is easy to hurt in exchanges if the opponent is competent enough to cover and swing back. And if a fighter shoots early in Wanderlei's assault, he can often get to Wanderlei's hips and stifle the attack.
Against Cung Le, Silva showed a much more sensible side of himself, staying out of range and coming back in when Cung missed kicks, but even when he did this he dropped his hands as he swung back. When Le missed a kick and Silva ran in after him, Le was able to drop Silva with a spinning backfist.
Similarly Silva's overaggression got him knocked out against the mediocre striker, Chris Leben.
Wanderlei is somewhat stuck because, when he loses a fight, he promises a return to his "old style," which is what caused him so much damage in the first place and simply won't work against elite fighters of today.
On the other hand, when Silva does fight intelligently, as against Cung Le and Michael Bisping, he often has to revert to his flailing windmilling to win, as it is the only method he really knows how to use.
Silva's recent wins have, it is also worth noting, come over notorious non-punchers Michael Bisping and Cung Le. Many will take issue with that statement and point to Le's recent knockout of Rich Franklin, but he had shown nothing near to that effectiveness with his hands before. The knockout was largely due to Franklin's own failings as a striker.
Whether or not Wanderlei can change up his style or still out brawl a big puncher at the middle of the division will be seen at UFC on Fuel 8 as he takes on Brian Stann.