Two of the factors which make Anderson Silva's career and success so fascinating are that, firstly, he is an incredibly technical fighter—to the point where laymen think he is making it up as he goes along—and, secondly, that he was not always a very good fighter.
Anderson Silva did not begin turning heads with his first fight and simply build his record from there as Jose Aldo, Fedor Emelianenko and Jon Jones did. Silva is one of those few fighters to have truly looked very average with flashes of brilliance until relatively late into his career. Not only did he turn his career around, but he became one of the best to ever compete in mixed martial arts.
Unlike many of those young fighters who seemed to have it all from the moment they made their entrance into MMA, Silva is a man who has developed—and arguably continues to develop—along the way.
The Anderson Silva who took the centre of the ring in Shooto and the Anderson Silva who darts around the edge of the cage and fights on the counter could be two completely different people.
Let's look at some of the most significant fights in Anderson's storied career, including some of his lesser known, perhaps even forgotten, fights.
Anderson Silva came on to the MMA scene with a bare bones Brazilian Jiu Jitsu game, a decent striking pedigree and the standard Chute Boxe gameplan of 'go forward, sprawl hard and if you end up on your back, punch upwards.'
Anderson Silva, unlike his stocky stablemate, Wanderlei Silva, never excelled at this come forward and sprawl style—he was gangly and towered over many of his opponents in his early days. Often the stocky wrestlers he was fighting at 170lbs or lighter could change levels quicker and were stronger both technically and physically than him in the wrestling game.
Added to this, Silva was not a brawling swinger like Wanderlei Silva, who intimidated his opponents into poor shots or fear instilled paralysis on the feet. Silva punched too sparingly and kicked too often for this 'come forward and back up as soon as they shoot' gameplan to work, and it really showed against Tetsuji Kato.
Two fights after his generous decision win over Kato, however, Silva was in against Hayato Sakurai—considered one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world at the time, and one of the first truly rounded fighters in the game.
Sakurai, nicknamed 'Mach,' possessed a wicked grappling game, numbing low kicks, a cracking left hook (going forwards and on the retreat) and some of the slickest judo throws in the game. He also owned some nasty knees from the double collar tie (later to become an Anderson Silva trademark). Mach's career trailed off after PRIDE's lightweight grand prix, but he was still capable of surprises, notably getting the better of Nick Diaz on the feet in what was supposed to be a fairly easy fight for Diaz.
Sakurai did decently on the feet against Silva, but Silva surprised by besting the Japanese legend-in-the-making on the ground. Off of Sakurai's attempted judo trips (which are beautiful when they work) Silva was able to take Mach's back, lock in a body triangle and pound away with strikes for much of the bout.
Silva picked up a decision win over the reigning Shooto champion, one of the best welterweights in the game and an Abu Dabi Combat Club runner up in the absolute weight division. Silva up to that point had looked a reasonable grappler at best, but surviving with Sakurai in his prime was no small feat, and this bout confirmed to many The Spider's great potential.
If you have visited YouTube and looked for an Anderson Silva highlight at any point in the last four years, you have probably been greeted by one of many "Anderson Silva loses!" videos. His bout with Daiju Takase is perhaps the worst Silva ever looked, and it stemmed from the same issues as all of Silva's issues with wrestlers did.
Silva is not suited to coming forward with strikes and then trying to react to shots. Silva came forward and sprawled on Takase's first few takedown attempts, but in trying to stay ready for Takase's shots, Silva could not throw any strikes. Eventually, Silva reacted a little too late and was dragged to the ground, lain on for a while and then submitted with a rare triangle choke from top position.
Silva's guard had always been decent, but he more often than not used it for striking from the bottom. Following his loss to Takase there are two noticeable trends in Silva's game. First, his guard becomes a good deal more active and, second, he begins to move along the outside of the ring rather than come forward and take the centre of it.
In Silva's bout with Jeremy Horn he begins moving a little more, but is instantly taken down and pushed to the ropes with shots often, but he opens his guard and pushes Horn away or forces Horn to stand and then attempts a trip before scrambling up again. These two trends were hugely important to Silva's career and, had it not been for the failure of his usual stalling on the bottom and coming forward on the feet methods against Takase, we might not have seen Silva develop into the cerebral fighter he is today.
It was against Chris Leben that many fans in America were introduced to Anderson Silva, as he knocked out a man who was famed for his granite jaw. This bout is significant because, after a brief period in Cage Rage against dangerous bangers such as Lee Murray and Jorge Rivera, Silva seemed to have adapted his style to the cage and learned to move as he never had before.
Watching Silva's time with Chute Boxe as he came forward in that long deep stance with his hands by his chest, ready to try to sprawl, and knowing how integral movement is to Silva's game now, it is like watching a man be pressured out of his potential and creativity by his coaches.
Silva's movement in this fight was sublime—he let Leben come to him and he met Leben with hard punches while on the retreat. Back-stepping punches are something I have examined in many articles before, but they are the heart of becoming a rounded striker. Silva says in his book on striking (definitely worth a read), that anyone can strike coming forward, it is on the retreat that most fighters cannot do anything.
Something which the truly dangerous strikers of MMA will always have over the decent bangers is ability to hit while on the retreat. Igor Vovchanchyn, Fedor Emelianenko, Chuck Liddell and Anderson Silva all hit even harder when their opponents came at them.
It is worth remembering that at the time of Silva's bout with Chris Leben there were just not that many elite strikers in MMA. Chris Leben was considered a dangerous striker rather than a sloppy brawler at the time and that reflects this shortness of striking talent. Silva's surgical precision with his punches, pinpoint high kicks (always a hit with fans) and brutal clinch knee to end the bout were enough to propel him to his title shot in just his second bout with the UFC.
Stay tuned for the concluding part of this two-part piece tomorrow.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.