Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the fighter who strives towards perfection who poses the most danger to his peers. Georges St-Pierre was the closest thing to perfection in MMA, yet his lack of finishes drew criticism for years. No, the real destructive force, in the ring or in the cage, is the man who casts aside the idea that he can achieve perfection and devotes himself to understanding everyone else's mistakes.
To my mind it has never been Anderson Silva's well-rounded game that has made him so captivating to watch or so effective. It is that he is forever waiting for an opponent to make a mistake--probing, digging, and taunting, trying to force their hand to get that sole ill-thought-out charge or overzealous swing out of them.
Not an adversary or antagonist but a cruel mirror, Silva finds the flaws in his opponents, shines a harsh light on them, and shows them to the world.
Drawing the Bum's Rush
Anyone can string some words together in coherent sentences, but it is the rhythm, the cadence, and the context that separate Shakespeare from that friend you have with the English literature degree. Sometimes you might be able to impress or intimidate your peers with your fancy-Dan language, but most of the time your meaning will be lost and you'll be left looking, and feeling, like a nitwit. The same is true for fighters. Great strike variety is not dissimilar to having an extensive vocabulary, but it's not punch variety that flusters elite opposition, but presence.
A fighter can use his presence to create pressure on his opponent--either the pressure to hit or the pressure to avoid getting hit. Mike Tyson is a brilliant example of the latter. Tyson didn't throw a whole lot of meaningless punches. He would move his head, feinting with his shoulders, and rush opponents into corners. But it was his implied punches that had his opponents running across the ring; the real blows were saved until he knew they had something to thud against.
Anderson Silva is an example of the other kind of pressure. Like Willie Pep, Naseem Hamed, Pernell Whitaker, and so many others, Silva pressures his opponents to hit him--to rush, to reach, to over-commit. As a counter striker there is simply no substitute for having an opponent who really can't wait to hit you.
Just look at the distance Silva keeps between himself and Nate Marquardt in this gif. Marquardt lunges in, throws himself off balance, and clips Silva. But Silva is still over his hips and feet, still in position to punch, and he catches Marquardt with a short left hook as he steps back.
Now, Anderson Silva can take a punch with the best of them, but Marquardt's long overhand was thrown wild and off-balance, and Silva was right on the far end of it. Silva's short hook, meanwhile, wasn't much to look at but Marquardt was so off balance and out of position that he ended up diving for a clinch, where he was hit with a short uppercut and sent stumbling back.
To create the pressure he needs in order to make opponents swing for him, Silva will stand just out of their reach. From there he will throw those long kicks that generally accomplish little, and he will dance, which accomplishes even less. But in the eyes of the judges and the fans he is the more active fighter. Every second a fighter isn't trying to engage Anderson Silva is a second he’s falling behind on the scorecards.
Very few fighters, particularly in MMA, chase well. Most of them let their head get in front of their hips and throw themselves into an unbalanced run towards the opponent. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Silva's fight against Forrest Griffin. Griffin, for all his heart and skill, couldn't break eggs with his punches. Yet he loved to get into brawls. Silva was free to disregard almost all of Griffin's offence, and every ounce of disdain he showed just made Griffin more determined to run in swinging.
Punching when backing up is considered a very hard thing to do. In boxing it is extremely rare to see a fighter do it well, but that may have as much to do with the skill of the opposition. A punch thrown moving backwards is only as strong as the opponent's desire to run in. Really all one need do to create a good punch against someone who is chasing wildly is to momentarily create a solid structure that the opponent can run his chin onto.
The number of fighters who are willing to chase wildly like this in MMA is incredible. Silva's first fight in the UFC, against Chris Leben, provided another beautiful example.
Watch Leben run in flailing. He does indeed catch Silva, but because Silva is moving away from the punch it doesn't achieve all that much. Every time Leben runs onto a punch, though, he is adding power to an already-substantial connection. Of course this kind of bum rushing is what Leben was famous for and why he was a matchmaker's favourite for so long, but good strategy or form it is not.
Chael Sonnen did almost exactly the same thing in his second bout with Silva:
Now there are a few fighters who are very good at bursting across the mat with strikes without providing huge holes for Silva to hit them through. One of them is Vitor Belfort. Belfort's strategy is pretty predictable for the most part: He explodes in on a straight line and either gets the knockout or doesn't.
In his fight with Silva, Belfort came in on a straight line, narrowly missing Silva with strikes, and found himself continuing past the champion. Silva performed a back step and pivoted on his rear (now lead) foot. This kind of twisting pivot while retracting the lead foot is something you will see appear in diagrams in older Russian boxing manuals, but isn't something you would expect to see in MMA, which is very much a game of run forward or run backward.
On the Venn diagram of hyper-aggression and decent boxing form, Belfort occupies the overlapping area quite comfortably. While Belfort didn't expose himself to Silva's counters as some of the wilder, sloppier strikers in this article did, Silva was still able to draw his aggression out and attempt to counter it. Against the savvier strikers, that is simply what you have to settle for, even if you’re Anderson Silva.
Not everyone in the world is willing to run in behind their fists and let Silva crack them on the jaw when they fall short. Some fighters will actually get on top of Silva and engage him from an appropriate range, but there are still plenty of errors Silva can capitalize on at that distance.
Dan Henderson, for instance, is for the most part a sensible and measured fighter. The stumpy lead inside low kick, the overhand right, the clinch--Henderson is very good at these things and goes about putting them on his man, most of the time, with some mind for his defence. After a round of holding Anderson Silva down, however, Henderson got into a clinch and as they broke, decided to swing.
Henderson will throw his right hand as if he is stepping in to swing a bat. This leaves him off balance and out of position even if he swings back with that left hook that knocked Wanderlei Silva unconscious. Notice how Henderson leans so much into the first blow that he has to pull his head back as he throws the second. As soon as that left hook is done Silva lands a fast, snappy left straight and then a second as Henderson swings his right again.
The main difference between Henderson and Silva is that Henderson wants to hit hard and doesn't care where his own head ends up. Silva, on the other hand, will snap off a weaker punch as long as he is in position to move immediately afterwards.
Once Henderson is struggling for a clinch, Silva shows that part of his game where he surprises many of his opponents: the messy stuff at middle range. Silva is able to attempt a good knee and get that short-range left high kick off again. It may not seem like much because it isn't the beautiful Mirko Cro Cop-style arcing high kick, but snapping his shin up quickly through his opponent's guard does a great deal of damage. Review some of Silva’s better fights and you will notice quick, short kicks from positions in which you wouldn't even be looking for them.
Much of Silva's efficacy in the ring stems more from the fact that he is showing his opponents skills they haven't seen. Obviously, professional boxers know not to chase a good counter fighter and how to exploit opponents leaning back at that waist, but MMA fighters don't have to face those skills often.
Stiff-arming in mid-range is something Silva does simply to make it more difficult for the opponent to punch back at him. In Muay Thai competition you will see a lot of good fighters push into their opponent's shoulder or even chest simply to prevent the opponent from turning their body into an elbow strike or punch when they are in close.
One great instance of this stiff arming was against Rich Franklin. Silva's constant muscling around prevented Franklin from even covering up, much less firing back.
Another brilliant example was Silva pushing Stephan Bonnar backwards as he punched him, before driving him into the fence and connecting with a knee on the rebound.
On the Attack
If you can point to one area of Silva's game that isn't nearly up to scratch with the rest of it, it's his ability to lead. With a lot of great counter fighters you will find a reluctance to lead, quite understandably, because they knock opponents out for doing the same thing.
The few occasions Silva has led effectively in the cage had more to do with pressure and trickery than with flashy combinations. There's plenty more to say about this topic but I want to take a quick glance at my two favourite instances of Silva leading inside the Octagon.
Against Forrest Griffin, Silva showed the kind of offensive pressure we were talking about Mike Tyson using earlier. Backing Griffin across the Octagon, Silva flustered Griffin into circling out. As Griffin did so Silva stepped out at 90 degrees into a southpaw stance and connected with a good right hook, a powerful strike because Griffin was moving into it. The stepping right hook was a favourite of Ray Sefo, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson among others.
Griffin's error, of course, was circling out with his head high and his left hand reaching towards Silva. Circling out is certainly something that is taught to MMA fighters but something many cannot execute nearly so well under fire as professional boxers or kickboxers.
A final lovely exploitation of an opponent's defence was Silva's high kick against Yushin Okami. Noticing that Okami was over-reacting with his lead hand to Silva's feints, Silva threw a left straight, which Okami moved to parry with his right hand, then Silva yanked Okami's arm straight as he threw a high kick over the top.
A subtle movement but one that made all the difference. You will notice that Okami's lead arm is straight and far away from his head as Silva's kick comes in. Silva followed Okami to the fence, checking both hands in order to land a nice knee, Alistair Overeem-style.
Obviously no one is unbeatable. If you think that such a thing can really exist, you haven't been around the cruel world of combat sports long enough. Every fighter has habits and every habit is exploitable.
Anderson Silva is as prone to favouring some methods over others as any human being. What makes him so successful is his understanding of where good form and good sense are so lacking in his opponents.
Silva could come out with his hands high and go on the offensive in every fight, but he'd get hit a lot more, expose himself to takedown attempts underneath his leads, and wouldn't get nearly as many knockout victories. Instead he sits back, waits, and asks the opponent to come at him. Knowing that anytime anyone reaches towards him they are presenting him an opening long before he presents them with one.
Come back next week and we'll talk about Silva's first fight with Chris Weidman and the possible improvements they might make for their upcoming rematch!
Check out these earlier breakdowns from Jack Slack:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.