There will come a time when Anderson Silva and the UFC middleweight championship belt are parted. That is a given. Every reign ends, eventually. Dinosaurs went extinct. The Roman Empire fell. Elvis died on the toilet. Some endings are more graceful than others.
At 38 years old, Silva is as graceful as anyone we've seen in a mixed martial arts cage or ring. He is fluid and powerful, almost ethereal in his movement and superhuman in his mastery of striking and angles. Although the end result of his handiwork is violent, you could justifiably label him a "beautiful" fighter.
As time has passed on, we've seen barely a trace of deterioration in skill or speed. We've heard no hints of motivational issues. To witness it is both wondrous and mystifying. How does he do it, after all this time? When will it end? On Saturday night at UFC 162, many believe.
Silva (33-4) is still the favorite, and Weidman is still an underdog, but the numbers are not the overwhelming kind that usually precede a fight with the long-reigning king.
The odds have wavered, but they generally consider Weidman the most significant threat to Silva since he fought Dan Henderson more than five years ago.
Amazingly, at the time Silva and Henderson fought, Weidman had yet to even take his first MMA class. It was right around that time when Weidman was training in wrestling with his eye on making the U.S. Olympic team before a rib injury popped his dream bubble. This short time later, here he is, facing the sport's G.O.A.T.
That compact MMA resume has been a major argument against Weidman (9-0) from his detractors. He is just over three years into his pro career, and has yet to hit double-digit fights. He's also never been in any kind of trouble, so what would he know about fighting through the adversity he will almost certainly face against Silva? And can he have possibly narrowed such an enormous skill gap so quickly?
There is some fair evidence in his favor. To date, Weidman has done everything well. He's won twice on short notice, including once against jiu-jitsu ace and former middleweight No. 1 contender Demian Maia. He's never been out-struck a single time. He's never been taken down.
His rapid progression proved downright stunning in his last fight. While his victory over Mark Munoz has been downgraded by some following Munoz's admission that he competed with a foot injury (it proved to be a stress fracture), the level of domination exhibited by Weidman in the matchup is beyond criticism. Weidman took Munoz down twice, out-struck him 46-1, threatened him with several submissions and closed him out with a standing elbow and some hellacious ground strikes. In his first match against a top 10 opponent, he turned in a masterfully one-sided performance.
Weidman has shown an aptitude for learning that is reminiscent of many greats. His trainers refer to him as a prodigy, and have thought that way from the beginning. These are the same things we heard from the Jon Jones' camp before he won the belt. Or from Georges St-Pierre's, or several others.
He is gifted and fearless. But how can he win? Weidman's best qualities might well be his attacking style and confidence, which work hand in hand with his athletic abilities. Silva likes to operate in open space, a place that puts great emphasis on hand speed, head movement and accuracy. Not surprisingly, he tends to have a giant edge on his opponents in all three categories. This is not Weidman's forte. His striking is improving, but he'll be playing from behind here. But when a fighter is looking for his opponent to shoot low, as Silva probably will be, that opens up holes. Weidman doesn't even have to be good enough to find them; he just needs to be good enough to threaten finding them.
Why? Because this fight will be won or lost for Weidman based on his shots. Can he set them up with strikes and get deep enough on Silva's hips to take him down? Because if he can do that and get Silva on the ground in each round, he will win. Weidman has a phenomenal top game. He has fantastic control, but he also goes for submissions. He attacks, knowing at worst he is opening up his opponent for strikes, and at best, closing out the fight. He loves guillotines and D'arces, but he's excellent at retaining position if nothing is there, and he nearly always wins scrambles. That style is a round-scoring machine.
Silva is dangerous off his back, as both Chael Sonnen and Travis Lutter can attest, but he rarely expends energy trying to get back to his feet. His primary interest is in controlling the posture of the top-position fighter. He tries to establish wrist control, and when he has a chance, he'll try to throw up a triangle. His guard is good and basic. But it is not very aggressive, or at least, it hasn't been historically. That's because Silva has always felt that if he can stall out his opponent (and get the referee to stand them up) or ride out the round (and start the next round on his feet), he'll be back in his preferred position, where victory is often just a punch or two away. He is that relaxed and that confident, and because of that, he sees no real reason to gamble. Meanwhile, his opponent is usually expending valuable energy.
It's a great tradeoff for him, and it's a strategy that's worked well, but I do not think he will have the luxury of using it so freely against Weidman, who looks to pass from the moment he executes his takedown. He often lands in side control or half-guard and then immediately attacks. He innately understands ground angles for striking and submissions, and how they meld together. Throw in his top control and it's my belief that he has a sizable advantage over Silva on the ground.
Standing, though? That's Silva's world, and will be until time catches up to him, and his speed and/or reflexes slow. We haven't seen signs of that yet. Weidman appears to have a good chin, but we really haven't seen enough of him to know for sure, and we certainly don't know how it will stand up against the best striker in the division. If Weidman can't get the fight to the ground, over the course of a 25-minute fight, it undeniably trends in Silva's direction.
Picking Weidman over Silva requires a certain leap of faith. Of course, his resume pales in comparison to Silva's. Yes, the standup position could be, shall we say, problematic, and oh yeah, we must also point out he's coming off a one-year layoff. But I've seen enough signs in his wrestling, his ground game and his approach to expect a fully formed, mature performance in the spotlight. Every reign ends sometime, and on Saturday night, Weidman escapes the Spider's web with a decision victory and the UFC middleweight title.