It has been six weeks between since the last Zuffa event. During that time, we've seen "King Mo" Lawal suspended nine months for steroids, Cris "Cyborg" suspended one year for steroids, and Alistair Overeem fail a drug screening due to an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. It's a bit disconcerting that in the wake of all that, the UFC returns with a main event headlined by yet another fighter connected to a PED suspension.
To be fair to the promotion, Thiago Silva has paid his penalty, sitting out for one year as mandated by the Nevada state athletic commission. In any other sport, when an athlete returns from a suspension, he generally reclaims his spot without much debate or criticism. That's whether he hits cleanup for his baseball team, like Manny Ramirez, or is a star linebacker, like the NFL's Brian Cushing. When you're back, you're back without restriction.
On the other hand, the main event slot carries some cachet. It's a role with distinction, a ceremonial spot customarily earned through hard work and success. Even though Silva wasn't the UFC's first pick as Alexander Gustafsson's UFC on FUEL 2 opponent, the pairing is bound to leave some feeling a bit uneasy. But such are the ethical dilemmas of sport in 2012, where it's no longer just about winning and losing.
Silva's reasoning for using PEDs is in many ways germane to the analysis of this fight. He said that at the time, he reinjured his back, and realized the only way he could continue with a scheduled fight with Brandon Vera was to take injections that contained banned substances. Silva's back has been an ongoing source of concern for years.
The first time he publicly mentioned his back as an issue was back in 2008, when he was forced out of a proposed matchup due to an injury. In 2010, after losing to Rashad Evans, he confirmed he had suffered herniated discs. A few months later, he withdrew from another bout due to a back injury. The failed drug test at UFC 125 was the fourth known time he had hurt himself.
If you follow sports, you'll know that most back injuries are chronic. Silva was 13-0 before his first public disclosure of back problems. SInce then, he's gone 1-2 with 1 no contest. What's different? The issue affects your core functioning and mobility, and while he still possesses punching power, he doesn't have the same lateral movement he once had.
That could prove to be a big key against someone who moves as much as Gustafsson (13-1). For such a big guy (he's 6-foot-5), Gustafsson doesn't mind expending energy with his footwork. He's tall, he's rangy and he doesn't mind dancing around on the outside, confident that his constant movement will take him into and out of striking range safely. In that, you see faint shades of UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, who Gustafsson has trained with off and on for a few years now.
This isn't his first time facing a hard hitter. He faced Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna and Matt Hamill consecutively without many problems.
Despite the difference in their styles -- Gustafsson is active while Silva is more stationary and lumbering -- Silva is historically more accurate. According to FightMetric, Silva lands 52 percent of his strikes, quite a bit better than Gustafsson's 40 percent. He also is hit less, as Gustafsson's opponents connect against him 52 percent of the time while Silva only gets hit on 35 percent of the strikes against him.
While those numbers are a bit surprising given their favored fight styles, they became less important when you determine how they'll play against each other. Silva's connect percentage, for example, might be high because he's historically fought a series of opponents who stand in the pocket and trade, fighters like James Irvin, Tomasz Drwal and Houston Alexander, to name a few. When he's faced opponents who feature more movement, like Lyoto Machida and Evans, the results weren't the same.
Gustafsson is also a younger fighter still finding his true style, so he's more likely to show marked improvement from one fight to the next. That's essentially what we've seen from him in the last two years, as he's worked on his wrestling defense and sharpened his standup. If any strike has paid dividends for him recently, it's the uppercut. That's been his money punch lately, but it's also a shot that can get you in trouble, as you can't throw it from distance, and it requires you to lower your hand, leaving you open to a counter. Silva is savvy enough to know that it's coming, so watch for exchanges whenever Gustafsson tries to fire it off.
Since Silva has had so much time off, it will be interesting to see if he changed anything about his game. He's a BJJ black belt, but he's never been a guy who spent much time looking to take the fight to the ground. Doing so here would take away a lot of Gustafsson's advantages, but will he try to do it? I have my doubts. Neither Vladimir Matyushenko or Hamill could take Gustafsson down and they're far more accomplished wrestlers than Silva. That's actually been an underrated part of Gustafsson's game, as he's shut down 88 percent of takedown tries against him.
So that leaves us with a fight that is almost certainly going to be fought vertically. Gustafsson's continuing mastery of fighting from distance to go with his technique are likely to accumulate more points. Even though Silva probably has the power edge, Gustafsson's shown enough chin to suggest his durability will stand up. The X-factor is Silva's time off. Fighters can deny the phenomenon of ring rust all they want, but most of them eventually admit their timing is affected when they don't stay sharp. To add to it, Silva's long-held back injuries may catch up to him late in the fight if fatigue becomes an issue.
I see Gustafsson scoring from the outside while Silva looks for the big punch from the outside. Taking two to give one rarely works at the highest levels of striking, and I believe Gustafsson to be heading in that direction. The top five may soon be in his future, and he takes one step closer on Saturday with a unanimous decision win over Silva.