LAS VEGAS -- For the first time in his UFC career, Anderson Silva showed real vulnerability during his fifth-round submission victory over Chael Sonnen last August. For four-and-a-half rounds, Sonnen controlled the action with takedowns and groundwork. Given his wrestling pedigree, that development wasn't necessarily a stunner. What was more surprising was the fact that Sonnen was able to use his standup so effectively, even hurting Silva with a solid left at one point in the first round.
For the longest time, it seemed that trading firepower with Silva was a sure way to seal defeat. No one's ever outstruck him during his record 12-fight octagon win streak, and the man has always had an iron chin, but given the developments of Silva's last fight as well as his advancing age (he's three months shy of his 36th birthday), you have to wonder if it was a simple aberration or the beginning of a trend.
The man tasked with testing those possibilities at UFC 126 is Vitor Belfort, a 33-year-old Brazilian who is coming off a lengthy layoff from shoulder surgery following a first-round knockout of Rich Franklin. That win came way back in Sept. 2009, meaning Belfort will have to find a way to fight off ring rust and regain his past form in order to beat the longest-reigning champ in UFC history.
Belfort is one of the few remaining fighters from the pre-Zuffa UFC era who is still relevant at a championship level. Always known as a heavy-handed striker, Belfort (19-8) has captured 13 career wins via knockout, including each of his last three fights. Overall, Belfort has a five-fight win streak, and he seems to have found an inner peace that has resulted in more consistent performances than he had in the middle part of his career.
If given the choice, Belfort is always going to prefer a standup fight. That makes him no different than Silva, who also has complete trust in his varied striking weapons.
Their standup games, however, are a little different. Belfort is more of a boxer, preferring to fight from his own comfort range, while Silva (27-4) is more of a Muay Thai stylist, comfortable and adept both from distance and in the clinch.
The variety in their approaches is apparent in the stats. According to Compustrike, only 13 percent of Belfort's standing strikes are leg strikes. Silva, meanwhile, is much more varied, with 44 percent of his standing strikes coming with his legs.
When it comes to power, Belfort has flashed more consistent one-punch knockout power, though Silva is no slouch, as evidenced by some of his handiwork against the likes of Forrest Griffin, Chris Leben and others. Belfort is more likely to load up with the left hand while Silva has a more free-flowing style, throwing whatever is closest or more likely to be effective, whether it is a knee, elbow, kick, etc.
Also of interest is the fact that they're both southpaws. Normally that might be a factor in preparation, but interestingly, both of Silva's last two opponents (Sonnen and Demian Maia) as well as Belfort's (Franklin and Matt Lindland) are left-handers, so they should be well-versed in that regard. More problematic is timing. Silva's style can be awkward and unpredictable at times. Combine that with his 77-inch reach (by contrast, Belfort's is 74 inches) and that's a difficult matchup.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic to the standup portion of the fight is their approaches to action; namely, Belfort pushes it while Silva likes to react to it. Belfort is a quick starter while Silva routinely spends much of the first round feeling out his opponent. At UFC 117, Sonnen took advantage of Silva's slow start to establish himself, and he almost rode the wave of momentum to what would have been a shocking victory. If Belfort looks to score points early, he has enough power that he could land something significant, and he could send a message to Silva that he's in for a long night.
Remember, it's been a long time since Silva faced a striker who could threaten him with power. The last time was at UFC 90 in 2008, when he fought Patrick Cote. But let's face it: power was really Cote's only threat. He didn't have a speed advantage, and he certainly didn't have an advantage on the ground. That made him a one-dimensional threat, and Silva didn't have any problems with his attack.
Belfort has much faster hands than Cote, bigger power, and if the fight goes to the ground, he -- like Silva -- is a jiu-jitsu black belt. So Silva has more to worry about than he's probably ever faced. There's not much to be said about the other facets of the game, simply because it's not likely to go there for long stretches of time. Neither is a particularly strong wrestler, though Belfort is probably better at takedowns and Silva has fairly good takedown defense. On the mat, Silva has a vicious guard game, with slicing elbows and a mentality that is constantly attacking for submissions. Belfort has excellent credentials yet he rarely finds his fights on the ground unless he's following an opponent there to finish a fight. And there, his ground and pound has become excellent.
Belfort's early approach will say a lot about the fight. If he goes after Silva early and plays the aggressor, he might be able to pull off the upset. Silva will always be a dangerous counterstriker, but it's a dangerous game to play with someone with the quickness and power of Belfort. Ultimately though, I expect Belfort to be lulled into a pace more to the Spider's liking for two reasons. First, Belfort hasn't had to train for a five-round fight in years, so he may be hesitant to be overaggressive early. And second, I think he'll just have that much respect for Silva's power.
I've always felt Silva was most vulnerable to a wrestler with great submission defense, which is why I still think Georges St. Pierre has the chance to beat him. But that's a story for another day. Silva can put the first piece in place by beating Belfort, and I think he'll do it. We know Silva can go five, we know he can dig deep when the going gets tough, and we know that he's never really been badly hurt by a striker. All of that can come crashing down Saturday, but it's hard to bet against. He's never been an easy target, and as the fight goes on, I expect him to find Belfort rather than vice versa. The two split the first couple rounds until Silva's conditioning takes over the fight in the middle. Silva via third-round TKO.
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