LAS VEGAS -- A year ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that we would be here again. Last May, Cain Velasquez thrashed Antonio Silva so violently, so decisively, that it wouldn't have been out of line to suggest that Silva was finished as a heavyweight title contender. After losing to Velasquez, he'd been routed in two straight fights, yet so soon afterward here we are, with Velasquez and Silva matched again, and with the stakes even higher than the last time, when both men were looking to avoid two-fight losing streaks.
Silva worked his way back into the spotlight the hard way, with two upset wins. First, he knocked out Travis Browne last October. Then, in February, he pulled off an even bigger stunner, coming back from two rounds down to knock out Alistair Overeem in one of the most buzzworthy moments of 2013. All of the sudden, he was a legitimate contender again, and the landscape of the division vaulted him all the way into a title shot.
But that doesn't erase what came last year. This is how one-sided Velasquez vs. Silva I was: in 3:36 of action, Velasquez out-landed Silva 53-3. That's no misprint, Silva was only able to land three strikes.
Since the fight, Silva's team has suggested that the fight's outcome was affected by an early cut that spurted blood in his eyes and rendered him unable to see, but by the time the cut occurred, Velasquez had already taken him down and hurt him with elbows.
Velasquez actually took Silva down during the first seconds of the bout after catching a lazy low kick. Silva never got back to his feet. Finding success in the sequel will require him to stay on his feet for much longer stretches.
His wins over Browne and Overeem, while impressive, didn't require the need to stop an aggressive wrestler. He was fighting strikers, and simply caught them before they caught him. The bad news? Even Overeem, who is not nearly the wrestler Velasquez is, was able to take Silva down. In other words, there is no evidence that Silva has improved enough in that discipline to stop a repeat performance of being grinded out on the mat.
As anyone who's watched Velasquez more than a few times knows, his game is predicated upon a fairly complete offensive arsenal paired with peerless conditioning among those in the division. According to FightMetric, Velasquez holds the UFC records for both strikes landed per minute (6.37) and strike differential (4.76). Those numbers make it clear that he puts his opponent on the defensive from the get-go and rarely lets up. Essentially, he is a bully. He comes at you, and beats you up until you say uncle.
And the thing about him is, he is going to put you on your back over and over. Despite the fact that most of his fights go quickly -- six of his 11 UFC bouts have ended inside of one round -- he averages 2.7 successful takedowns per fight. He's shown no signs of trouble with defending submissions there. Not in the brief time he fought Silva, and not in the 25 minutes he spent pounding on Junior dos Santos in his last bout. Both of those gentlemen are black belts, and could do nothing but try to withstand his endless barrages.
Silva doesn't have a very active guard, a fact that Velasquez took full advantage of the first time around. Silva rarely looks for submissions, and instead searches for sweeps. Experienced grapplers like Velasquez are often able to feel out the position, break his grip and then reset from the top. Even when he gets that space, Silva is slow enough that he can't quickly return to his feet, and he ends up stuck on the bottom. In this case, he's going to have an energized Velasquez diving back in with strikes.
If "Bigfoot" does manage to get a sweep, he's murder on top with his clubbing hands and massive frame. But Velasquez is so well schooled that seems like a slim proposition. So does the possibility of Silva taking him down with his wrestling.
Silva is a massive underdog in the fight, as Velasquez will go off at around -600. It should be noted that the last time Silva faced that kind of odds, he ripped through Fedor Emelianenko. So when you factor that in along with his Overeem and Browne wins, you must credit him for coming through in big situations many times in his career.
He obviously has fight-changing power, and Velasquez is easier to hit than some other, more defensive-minded champions like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. So as long as Silva stays in the fight, he will always have the possibility of landing a heat-seeking missile. If he can find a way to put his five-inch read advantage to use, that will help his cause. Judicious use of his kicks would also be wise.
Bottom line: it's going to take a nearly perfect performance for Silva to win. Velasquez has most of the clear paths to victory. He has the superior wrestling and conditioning, and he's already proven that he's capable of dominating the challenger. The sequel should be very much like the original. Velasquez via TKO, Rd. 2.