Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
The odds tell you all you need to know about the UFC 153 main event, that there is no need for any real in-depth analysis of how styles match up. In any measurement of the careers of Anderson Silva and Stephan Bonnar, the only logical conclusion about a fight between the two is that Silva should win.
And yet if you are one of those people, like I am, that often wonders if there are other things at work besides the obvious, well, sometimes, you still have doubt.
Allow me to take a turn away from statistics and tendencies, and move towards the more cosmic. Years ago, I began my career in newspapers, where I was lucky enough to occasionally cover Major League Baseball, and more specifically, the New York Yankees. I had grown up 30 miles away from Yankee Stadium and followed the team all my life, so I knew plenty about them, and because of it, I knew nearly as much about their rivals, the Boston Red Sox.
For 86 years, the Red Sox found new ways to stumble. Even though they were often very good, they repeatedly failed to win a World Series while the Yankees vanquished them over and over and became baseball's most celebrated champions. The kicker to it all was that they helped build the Yankees' dynasty by selling them superstar Babe Ruth.
Some day, though, that streak would end. And after all those years of misery, their curse could not conclude in some ordinary way. When the Yankees went up three games to none on the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship series, I got a funny feeling. While most Red Sox fans prepared to throw in the towel, something crazy struck me. This is how it's supposed to happen, I thought. It has to be something so big that it borders on the preposterous. In baseball, no team had ever come back from three games down in a series to win. And that's why, to me, it made perfect sense. Down 86 years and three games, the Red Sox had to end the curse in the most impossible way, and this was it. The Yankees were going to lose. I said it out loud, and no one believed me. A few days later, Boston completed the implausible mission, and went on to finally capture the World Series.
Bonnar is the Red Sox. He helped provide Forrest Griffin his stardom and the UFC its stage. He's struggled when it mattered the most, and on Saturday more than ever, he is supposed to lose. He's not fast enough and his defense has way too many holes. Yet why do I keep thinking an upset seems perfectly logical? It's not like I get this feeling on many long-shot matches. I picked Jon Jones to stop Vitor Belfort. I picked Cris Cyborg to throttle Jan Finney. I'm not crazy.
Perhaps it's because this is the moment Bonnar is owed by the MMA gods. By virtue of his role in the seminal April 2005 fight with Griffin, Bonnar's place in MMA history is assured. Yet it's a bittersweet memory since he lost in a close decision. Partly because of that, Bonnar's career is marked by his inability to win against the best. He fell short against Griffin twice, he lost by majority decision to Rashad Evans, and also dropped a bout to Jon Jones, though he won a round from him.
Those are all men who have worn UFC gold, and he's fought each one of them close, but in the end, he's always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. So, is it really impossible to think he turns the corner this time? That the accumulated knowledge of all the experience will carry him past Silva's speed, power and precision? Or that maybe, just maybe, the stars line up and everything goes perfectly for him?
Let's get real: Silva's all-around MMA skills are better than Bonnar's. He's faster, hits harder, is far more accurate and is more difficult to hit. In fact, Bonnar's worst attribute is his inability to avoid damage. According to FightMetric, he's absorbed more strikes than he's landed over the course of his career, an unusual statistic for someone with a winning record, and a downright terrible omen against Silva.
But that also leads to the point that Bonnar is one of the toughest men Silva has faced. Though he has two TKO losses on his record, they're both due to cuts. He's never been submitted. How many times do you even remember him getting wobbled? He's always been able to take a pounding and continue on, forcing his opponent to beat him until the final bell.
Of course, that's no way to beat anyone, that's just a way to survive. So, how could Bonnar possibly win? Well, the answer is in his three-fight win streak. Four takedowns against Kyle Kingsbury. Three takedowns against Igor Pokrajac. Two against Krzysztof Soszynski. In the past, he'd gone six fights without a single takedown, but now it's a weapon for him. Silva has always been content to play off his back, and Bonnar will not easily be submitted. As noted, he's never tapped out, and he's been a black belt for years. If he can get it to the ground, well...
Historically, Silva has strong takedown defense, (he stops 70 percent of attempts against him), but that's mostly because he controls range well enough to force them to shoot from way outside. That won't matter to Bonnar, who works his takedowns from inside. There is danger from that position, too, with Silva's Thai plum leading to several highlight reels, but oh well, against Silva, there's danger from everywhere.
Bonnar won't fear it. A few weeks ago, he thought he was retired, so he's playing with house money. That should be a freeing experience for him. While Anderson Silva has to face growing pressure every time he goes out to the octagon -- and yes, it's worth noting that he's handled it just fine -- at some point, maybe it will be too much. Maybe a short-notice bout with a tough, huge man is a little more difficult of a task than we'd like to believe.
Everything about this physical matchup says that Silva should win. His laser right hand should find Bonnar's jaw repeatedly, and as long as it stays standing, his odds of winning grow exponentially. But my doubts remain. I've been around sports long enough to know that there often seem to be forces beyond the physical at work. Sometimes, the setting is just right for something unexpected. Those elements are here. The inconsistent past, the uncertain present, the last shot at glory. Wouldn't it just be fitting for Bonnar to bookend his Ultimate Fighter moment with something so grand as an upset of the best we've ever seen?
I'd like to be brave enough to outright pick Bonnar here, but baseball is not MMA. It's one against one. I do believe Bonnar will make it far closer than the lopsided odds suggest. I do believe he'll get Silva down at least once. And I do believe he'll make the Spider put in a full night's work. For the first time in a breakdown, I will refrain from making a formal pick. After all, it's not necessary. From a purely analytical view, Silva is a near lock. But I've been around long enough to know that crazy things happen under the right circumstances. Buster Douglas can beat Mike Tyson, and the Red Sox can come back from three games down, and yes, Stephan Bonnar can beat Anderson Silva.
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