Neil "The Ground Marshall" Melanson is the head grappling coach of Xtreme Couture, and one of the most sought after and highly respected grappling coaches in all of MMA. He has trained Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen and Gray Maynard. Currently, he works with Bellator lightweight champion Mike Chandler and Ryan Couture, among others.
Melanson spoke with Bleacher Report on Friday about UFC 162’s main event between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman.
Here is the full transcript of the interview.
Bleacher Report: Do you think Weidman is the toughest test for Anderson Silva thus far in his career?
Neil Melanson: I think matchup-wise, yeah. I think Weidman has the full package to possibly beat Anderson. I think he is the better wrestler, and he’s going to be better on the ground. Obviously, his striking is going to be nowhere near Anderson’s. I’m favoring Chris. I like his coaches. I think he’s the guy to beat him, but Anderson has made a nice career of beating people that have better matchups against him. Anderson can definitely knock him out, no doubt.
B/R: Would you agree that the combination Weidman has—a good wrestling base combined with high level jiu-jitsu—is a bad combination for Silva? Especially when you look at how Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson could take Silva down, but they couldn’t attack with submissions the way Weidman can and has shown already.
NM: Weidman is definitely better on the ground than those guys. He should be able to hold him down, put good shots on him, land some good damage and he should also be able to have an opportunity to submit him. I think Chris is going to take it.
The thing about it too is he seems very confident. I talked to Matt Serra the other day, and he said, ‘man, he is so dialed in mentally.’ He raved about him as a person. He’s a guy you want to cheer for. He’s kind of like an everyday American that works hard. He’s a beast, and I want him to win.
B/R: How much does having confidence help and prepare you for a guy like Silva? You see so many guys that end up like a deer in headlights. To me, it’s half the battle. If you’re not confident, it’s like the fight is already lost.
NM: Confidence is definitely a big factor. I think most fighters I know pray upon that, having that good confidence. But, unfortunately what I’ve noticed with most fighters is they’re so dependent on protecting their ego that they don’t push. They don’t bring in enough hard partners in training camp.
They have to be winning all the time. Some guys, they can’t lose in training—otherwise they fall apart. That’s a bad thing. You want to build your confidence up by having a hard training camp and bringing in tough guys. You shouldn’t feel confident by just beating up on scrubs.
I know athletes out there, and I won’t say their names. That’s exactly where their confidence comes from. They just want to beat up on nobodies and they go out there and they don’t want to be pushed.
B/R: Weidman was a grappling prodigy who went to the ADCC in less than a year of training. You are someone with a high pedigree in grappling. How advanced does someone’s skill have to be to take to the sport and advance that fast, that soon?
NM: Sometimes with these guys too, they get invites. It’s not like he doesn’t know people. He trains with Matt Serra and Renzo Gracie. Those guys have some pull with that department. If they wanted to get him in when he was junior, they could easily make that happen. It’s not too hard for them. So he could’ve been getting there because of skill, or because of who he knows. I know some guys that went to Abu Dhabi simply because a buddy made a phone call.
I know guys like Chris Weidman that come from that wrestling base…They are already great athletes, and then on top of it they have something that not everybody has. They’re just like this type of competitor. They have this breed about them. It’s in all sports: football, basketball, whatever, hockey. They just have this overwhelming desire to compete and win at all costs.
When guys have that drive, that’s what makes them champions. That desire to compete…When things aren’t perfect, and they still find a way to win. When you have athletes like that, those are the real guys, those are the grinders.
I think Weidman has those characteristics, and I think his history of his wrestling pedigree and the things he has done on short notice and short time have proven his willingness to compete—even when things aren’t perfect. That shows his mental strength. I think he is going to do well.
He got thrown into this because Munoz was the guy that possibly could beat Anderson. Munoz was a tank, was a great wrestler, heavy handed…Chris took him out so effortlessly, and it brought all that attention to him and I’m excited for him.
B/R: What surprised a lot of people was not necessarily that he beat Munoz, but the way he beat him. He was just all over him, attacking with submissions, never giving him any quarter and then hitting that wicked elbow. He took him down whenever he wanted to and immediately passed his guard, showcasing his level of skill. It surprised a lot of people. Were you surprised at his performance when he defeated Munoz?
NM: It surprised the heck out of me. I thought it was going to be more back and forth. I never trained with Mark Munoz. I really hope to wrestle around and grapple with him, but I know guys that have wrestled with him. They have told me how strong he is and how great of a wrestler he is.
To see Weidman dump him with that outside single, and some of the stuff he was doing and it was like butter. I was just shocked after that fight. I was hoping that Weidman was going to have it, and I think he’s got the full package.
If not, there are some good guys coming over from Strikeforce in the division, like Jacare—he’s sick. I mean he’s fast, he’s strong and he’s probably the best jiu-jitsu guy in MMA. I mean he is unbelievable. He’s a guy that could be a potential candidate for a title shot in the future.
Then you have Tim Kennedy,. If he has good luck against Roger Gracie, he could spring board into that. There are other athletes out there that could pose that package to beat Anderson, but it’s been a while. I think Chris is that first guy that we think that can blueprint him and beat him. I’m excited to see it.
B/R: We know Weidman obviously has to get it to the ground. He isn’t on the same level of striking as Silva. We’ve seen Henderson get him down. We’ve seen Sonnen get him down. Technique-wise, how does he use his boxing to close distance and get Silva on the ground?
NM: Well, I’m not going to give any advice on how to strike with Anderson Silva, that’s for sure. The one thing that I think is going to be important is pressure. You were talking about confidence earlier.
If you watch Anderson when he fights, he kind of feels things out. He’s very confident in his chin. There’s a certain point where you can visibly notice he gets loose. It’s like a few minutes in, maybe it’s the second round or it’s halfway through the first, where all the sudden his shoulders just kind of change, and he just gets loose. You can see his confidence in his eyes and his poise.
When he’s in that mode, he’s going to be creative. When you have confidence like that, you are going to be creative, you are going to be able to improvise very easily. The stress is off you; you have that full belief in yourself.
I think what Chris needs to do is put pressure and hammer into Anderson, so he doesn’t get into that comfort zone and he starts to have a little doubt. And feel the pressure to have to be perfect or he can’t miss…When he is relaxed like that, he’s just got it.
Like when he knocked out Vitor. I trained Vitor for that whole camp. Vitor was waiting and waiting and then, all the sudden, you see Anderson get a little loose, and then that kick comes out of nowhere—perfect target, perfect execution, it was impressive. I don’t think he can hang out on the outside. I think if he does that, Silva will be able to finish him.
B/R: Do you think it is going to have to be a consistent thing for Weidman? An example being: If Anderson avoids a takedown, he can’t lose confidence. He has to keep going and keep at it until he gets him down.
NM: He has to chain wrestle for sure. He can’t come just straight in. If he misses on the shot, he can’t come in like a zombie. Anderson is too good on countering, and he’s too explosive. You can’t get caught in a sparring match.
I’ve had other boxing coaches break down Anderson for me to help me understand him. One of the things that Anderson does that a lot of the other fighters you see in the top ranks do, is just hit hard. When Anderson has his hands down, his style is loose, but a lot of it is guys jab at him. He’s got a good chin. If they can touch his chin, he knows that he can hit them. As soon as they start to touch him, he just throws hard. Other guys are pawing at him.
I think it’s very important that Chris doesn’t go out there and try to paw at him and spend too much time trying to find range or any of that stuff. If he does, Anderson is going to drill him. I think he’s got to be out there like a wrestler, and he’s got to chain and try to get in on him and when he gets him down he’s got to stay busy.
B/R: What we’ve seen, at least in his last few fights, he isn’t a huge threat off his back. He did get the triangle on Chael, but he’s usually flat on his back. He’s been kind of content at times just avoiding damage as opposed to fighting to get back up to his feet or sweep. How do you see Weidman in this position? Do you think he will be able to hold him there? Also, Weidman is good in the front-headlock position, working the guillotine and D’arce combinations. Do you think he will be able to attack in that area?
NM: I think it depends on how Chris plays him when he’s on top. You can play your pressure on top a certain way and force a guy to turtle away or to come up towards you. Those kind of things will set up certain chains, like whether or not you want to get him into the front-headlock game, or whether or not you want to focus on keeping the back flat and just wail on him.
It’s going to be interesting to see what Chris did in his training camp and his approach. Whether or not he’s going to take him down and just try to wail on him and see what happens, or if he has a complete game plan, where he is going to put pressure a certain way and kind of bottleneck him into a certain finish or certain position.
Like with Mike Chandler's last fight with Rick Hawn. There was a reason why we played that top game the way he was low on the hips. The whole plan was to set up for that particular rear naked choke just the way we had it. It was to get Hawn to turtle out and not to go for the choke, but to stretch him out. And when he does that, he wasn’t going to be able to protect his neck, and then slide the choke in.
That was all set by the way Chandler was playing him the entire fight. We knew where he was going to go, forced him to go there, we were waiting on him and that’s how he was able to get the victory.
If Weidman does something like that and Serra and his coaches have worked on things like that, then he can guide Silva right to the finish he wants. If that’s not his style and he’s just going to try and tag on him, Anderson might be able to survive a little longer. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to grapple, he’s been around. I’m sure he has good training partners down in Brazil that are swift on the ground. I’m sure he’s going to be ok.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Anderson get cut. I always thought that would be an important thing if you fought Anderson, to try and cut him and see how he handles it. His face never got swollen, and Chael hit him how many times? Anderson’s face was fine. I don’t know if he has leather skin or what, but I think if someone cut him that may change the whole way…That might break him a little bit and mix him up.
That might be a way to approach Anderson, not try to knock him out but try to cut him first and then put pressure on him and see if that messes with his head and he looks for a way out.
B/R: Do you think we would ever see Silva tap if Weidman caught him in a submission, or he would just go to sleep or get an arm snapped or something along those lines?
NM: I don’t know. I think that would be foolish for him to let himself get hurt. He’s acting in soap operas down in Brazil. He’s big money now, he doesn’t need to get himself hurt. As far as I’m looking at Anderson, I don’t think he’s got anything to lose unless he’s really hanging on to his perfect record in the UFC, and that’s super important to him.
He’s going to rank as the greatest fighter of all time probably. He’s got a whole other life down in Brazil. He’s got money and big sponsors. If he loses this and he wants to retire, nobody is going to say anything.
He can go on and be a Hall of Famer and be the man. I’m sure he’s going to train hard and fight hard. Losing to Weidman, there’s no shame in that. The kid is tough. Getting choked out is no big deal, but letting him get his arm snapped would be foolish. No sense in doing that.
B/R: How do you think this fight is going to play out?
NM: I think I’ll be able to judge it based on how quickly Weidman closes the gap. If he closes the gap pretty quick and puts pressure on him…He’s got to watch out for Anderson’s knees to the middle. I think if he gets in on him, we’ll know in the first minute or so how it’s going to go. I’m going to predict Weidman. Anderson always has a way to prove me wrong, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it again.
B/R: What round do you think he wins it in?
NM: I don’t know. If it went five, I would imagine that Weidman would win the decision. I can’t see Silva winning a lot of rounds. I see Silva knocking him out or not. That’s pretty much how I see it.
B/R: You think if Weidman wins, it's by submission, not TKO?
NM: You would assume. You would assume, because we haven’t seen Anderson hurt. If Weidman can’t do the job, there’s other guys, but no one is better suited than Chris.
Michael Stets is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.