The Killing the King series is my attempt to shed light on some of the technical flaws and exploitable habits of the consensus best fighters in the world—the champions in each division of the UFC.
So far, I have looked at Jon Jones, Junior dos Santos, Benson Henderson, Jose Aldo and Georges St-Pierre in good detail (see hyperlinks), but now I am pushing myself by looking at Anderson Silva with an eye for weaknesses.
Silva has accumulated the longest winning streak in UFC history and has made the most successful title defences as well. He is well-tested and proven. There is no magic fighter type whom he hasn't fought and will just waltz through him.
When he does eventually lose, there won't be a Brock Lesnar moment when we reflect, "Oh yeah...I guess he had never fought any passable strikers."
"The Spider" has faced it all: wrestlers, ground-and-pounders, top controllers and guard pullers. He's faced blitzers and counterpunchers and southpaws and orthodox fighters. He has gone up against the best opposition in the middleweight division.
If Silva loses as a middleweight, it won't be because of his adversary's skill set but because of his game plan.
He has fought plenty of men who could beat him, but none of them have for one reason: The champ threw them off their plans or drew them into his.
Silva's Counter Game
One thing about Silva is repeated ad nauseum during broadcasts: He is a counter-fighter. This means that he lands meaningful strikes by drawing his opponents out of their guard. Written like that, it seems simple, but counterpunching takes a lot of practice and experience under fire.
While dozens of different striking techniques exist, most fighters only use a few confidently. Silva rarely has to react to diverse strikes from different angles—instead, he faces the same attacks over and over again.
Consider his bout with Stephan Bonnar. Every time "The American Psycho" came in against the cage, he threw a jab, straight right or left hook. Left, right, left—that was easy for Silva to roll with or counter.
At UFC 126, Vitor Belfort just pumped his hands alternately at the target, which was simple for Silva to exploit.
Silva, like any good counterstriker, is also able to draw the punch that he most wants to counter.
Yushin Okami is known for his southpaw jab. At UFC 134, Silva circled toward Okami's lead side to draw that jab, and when it came, The Spider slipped and countered with his own. It is a basic boxing counter, but if one catches an opponent stepping in, it is easy to hurt him, especially with small gloves.
Another example of Silva tailoring his movement to his opponent was the way he drew rushes out of Forrest Griffin.
Griffin's hands were probably among the worst in the light heavyweight division ordinarily, and despite lacking power, he would often lunge in and over-reach to touch his foe. Silva moved straight backward—which is a traditional no-no, but like all things in boxing, it was applicable at the time—drew Griffin into over-reaching and then countered when Griffin's punch ended with his jaw forward and vulnerable.
Silva and Rolling with Punches
When fighting Silva, opponents struggle to hit him, and when they connect, he takes the power away by rolling with strikes. Rolling with a punch means to move in the same direction in order to reduce its impact.
In MMA, this should be easier than in boxing because almost all MMA fighters attack by alternating their hands—left-right-left or vice versa.
Boxers often double or even triple up the same hand mid-combination, which makes it difficult for the defender to turn side to side as Silva does.
Very few opponents have doubled up punches from one hand against Silva. I am not saying that doubling up would allow a fighter to knock Silva out—there isn't a simple answer to an iron chin. However, there is a reason why elite boxers rarely roll with every punch as effectively as Silva does; boxers are not as predictable and one-note in their offence.
One of the only times I have seen anyone double up against Silva was in this sparring session at the Wild Card Gym. While some readers will rage at me for using sparring footage, it shows how doubling and tripling up makes the art of rolling punches more difficult.
This wasn't a particularly skilled boxer, and Silva had been circling around him up to this point, but it is clear that the triple right hand threw The Spider off.
Movement is an integral part of Silva's game; he rarely meets his opponents head to head but rather circles them and waits for lunges. His success in the Octagon and relative ineffectiveness in the ring reflect this strategy.
The Octagon is almost circular, and the corners are so slight that Silva can backpedal and sidestep for days without ending up against the fence.
Any opponent who wants to beat Silva has to push him up against the fence and prevent him from skipping around the edge of the Octagon.
That's easier said than done, of course. I looked at the differences between cutting off a cage and a ring in an article about Anthony Pettis and George Foreman, and few UFC fighters have been able to cut off the almost circular cage.
Here's the rub: When a fighter does succeed in backing up Silva, The Spider fights effectively from the fence too. With his back to the cage, Silva stifled everything that Okami attempted and humiliated Bonnar.
Getting caught up in a clinch battle with Silva isn't worth it, even along the fence. He is superb from there from a Muay Thai perspective, off-balancing his opponents and landing knees and elbows.
Silva from a Boxing Perspective
What might be worth it, however, is moving Silva to the fence, breaking away with a salvo of strikes and then re-clinching.
Even if that works and the champ has nowhere to run, he can still roll with punches effectively. Bonnar coming in with a one-two-three every time and then attempting a painfully telegraphed back kick was hard to watch.
When Silva isn't facing comically overmatched opponents, he simply outfights them by counterstriking. When he gets close, he uses a clinch to stall and win points with clinch strikes, and when the bout hits the floor, he locks down his foe in guard and attempts to stall the action there as well.
When you consider Silva as an outside counterpuncher, he appears a little less superhuman. My advice to middleweight contenders: Get the champ to the fence, free one or both hands and work his body and head.
Stopping the Movement
To have any success with Silva trapped against the fence, it is necessary to vary strikes. Doubling up as mentioned would turn him into strikes rather than away from them.
In addition, body work is a far better idea than hunting for his head.
Body work in MMA is overlooked, but a few fighters are excellent at striking the body, particularly against the fence and even while giving away a Silva old favourite: the double-collar tie.
Nick Diaz, for instance, has always used his forehead wonderfully to pin an opponent and unload with body shots. Fabio Maldonado is a limited fighter but is sublime in this one position.
Body shots against Silva make a lot of sense. He relies on movement, drops his hands to draw head strikes to counter them and rolls with most punches that graze his head.
It is much harder to take power off body strikes and can be difficult to counter them, which would be almost impossible when pressed against the fence. Consistent harassment of Silva's body would slow him down and limit his footwork.
The Importance of the Takedown
While the game plan of getting Silva to the fence, breaking from clinches to unload on the body and re-clinching is strategically sound, it is unlikely to be done by any of the strikers in the middleweight division.
Every 185-pound striker seems to fall short when his fighting IQ is tested, which separates The Spider from the pack.
Chael Sonnen was able to catch Silva with strikes in their first bout because the champion squared up to stifle expected takedown attempts.
When Silva is avoiding punches, he tends to stand far more bladed and narrow—as he did against Griffin, presenting less of a target. The threat of the takedown against Sonnen and the guard pull against Demian Maia made him square up and also more hittable.
Unfortunately, Sonnen tends to flail with inside low kicks and loose punches before attempting to clinch. In their rematch, he waded after Silva, leading with his face and eating a good counterpunch before attempting a terrible spinning backfist and being finished when he hit the ground.
The rematch may have been a disaster for Sonnen, but we can learn from the first bout. Threatening the shot can make Silva square up and lower his hands, which in turn makes him vulnerable to strikes.
An opponent can combine the right straight or overhand with the action of changing level for a shot, as Sonnen did to drop Silva. Or an adversary may mix the left hook with a return to upright stance after a feinted shot—a la Kevin Randleman against Mirko Filipovic.
These techniques can be far more dangerous against a good sprawl-and-brawler than combinations and spinning attacks.
Ultimately, the case with Silva is not dissimilar to the case of dos Santos when he was looking unbeatable as the heavyweight champion. Both men are strikers with perceived grappling weaknesses. As with dos Santos, even an elite wrestler isn't going to take down Silva at will.
What a wrestler can do, however, is to use unsuccessful shots to drain Silva's endurance and then connect with strikes, as Cain Velasquez did to dos Santos. Dirty boxing along the fence in the style of Randy Couture, Velasquez or Daniel Cormier would also wear on The Spider.
The problem is that so many of Silva's opponents think they have to take the fight to the floor, and when they fail in their first attempt, they look lost. They regroup for half a round while getting shown up and then attempt a wild shot or charge in swinging.
The result? A Silva highlight-reel knockout.
Allowing the champ to move is to allow him to dictate where the fight takes place. Against a quality opponent, he will always choose to fight in the middle of the cage, where he has acres of room to roam.
Pressuring Silva against the fence—by footwork or by clinch work—is the only way to take away his movement early on. Furthermore, testing Silva's cardio with body work and clinches seems to be the best way to slow his movement later on.
This, of course, involves not getting beaten up in the clinch; The Spider understands the importance of bodywork from the clinch better than anyone in his weight class.
At this point in his career, any losses will have more to do with time catching up to him than opponents figuring him out, but the two methods which are guaranteed to end badly are shooting wildly or lunging in swinging.
I have no idea what kind of threat Chris Weidman can offer with just nine fights and a year layoff, but he has looked decent at following game plans and adapting mid-bout. These traits distinguish him from most of Silva's other challengers, but he faces an enormous step-up in competition at UFC 162.
Stay tuned for my favourite Silva techniques and moments.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.