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Crunching Numbers: Why Positional Control Is Key to Understanding Gustafsson vs. Silva

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As the long drought in UFC events comes to a close next weekend, MMA fans will be treated to a thoroughly intriguing event in UFC on FUEL TV 2. This is notable for two reasons, not least of which is that this marks the UFC's debut event in Sweden. The most important consideration, though, is what the main event between Alexander Gustafsson and Thiago Silva will tell us about the future of the light heavyweight division.

Gustafsson enters this bout regarded by some as the next great UFC light heavyweight. The Swede has demonstrated a growing aptitude for the game and increasingly defeated better opposition, seemingly with growing ease. He doesn't appear ready for the Jon Jones end of the division just yet, but this upcoming fight will tell us what sort of trajectory he's really on.

Silva, a perpetual tough task in the light heavyweight division, returns after a year-long suspension tied to steroid use. He also took the time to recover from a nagging back injury.

No one should count Silva out, but it's incontestable that the eyes and expectations of the MMA world are on Gustafsson. Despite the attention, Gustafsson still has much to prove to make good on the promise that's been foisted on him. Against Silva, the data suggests he's going to have his work cut out for him, but there could be one shortcut.

If you're thinking striking is the answer for Gustafsson to defeat the ferocious Brazilian, think again. It's true Gustafsson's stand-up has looked increasingly better. And he recently finished off light heavyweight fixture Vladimir Matyushenko in less than one round with complete ease, although striking's never been Matyushenko's strong suit. But if the numbers tell us anything, they do not tell us Gustafsson is a better striker than Silva. In virtually every measurable respect, Silva's got Gustafsson beat in the stand-up department:

- Silva blocks 65% of strikes thrown at him to Gustafsson's 48%. The numbers favor Silva in the other direction, too. Silva is accurate 52% of the time striking, while Gustafsson only finds the mark 40% of the time.

- Per minute, Gustafsson absorbs more strikes than Silva: 1.93 vs. 1.72.

- Silva is more effective at landing strikes despite having a 2.5 inch shorter reach than Gustafsson. Per minute, Silva lands 3.3 times to Gustafsson's 2.98.

This isn't to say Gustafsson can't win standing. If there is anything notable of his game, it's the exponential speed at which he seems to be improving. It's also true Silva might have a bit of ring rust from the layoff. Still, Silva's turned in far more effective striking performances thus far in his UFC career according to all available data.

That leaves the wrestling and ground game for Gustafsson to utilize, right? Maybe, but it's no guarantee.

A basic look at the numbers tell us the Swede has some slight advantages, but nothing he can majorly lean on. He's more aggressive with submissions (he averages 2.63 attempts over the course of a 15-minute fight compared to .89 for Silva) and is remarkably good at defending against takedowns: he's stopped 14 of 16 attempts and while a 88% defensive rate isn't MMA's best, it's on pace to be at or very near the top. UFC light heavyweight champion Jones has a perfect 100% takedown defense rate, but that's only against 12 attempts.

Despite being a jiu-jitsu black belt, is Silva really going to take Gustafsson down? Unlikely. He's not particularly proficient at it and as aforementioned, Gustafsson is good at defending them. And Gustafsson isn't much better at takedowns than Silva. Taking this all into account, Gustafsson doesn't have much room to work with. If he's only got a marginal advantage grappling and a clear disadvantage striking, where can he win this bout?

In turns out there is a commonality in Silva's two total UFC losses. Yes, he lost to Lyoto Machida striking and Rashad Evans was able to use wrestling to stifle the American Top Team talent. However, it is the in-between space - positional control standing or the ground - where Silva has shown a true Achilles Heel.

For the purposes of this argument and the data, positional control is defined as time spent on one's back or being pressed against the fence.

When Silva faced Machida, the former light heavyweight champion was able to control Silva's position for 2:27 of the 4:59 of fight time. In the Evans fight, it was 7:14 of 15 minutes. Between those two fights, Silva was held in a disadvantageous position for approximately 48.5% of the time.

In all of Silva's other UFC fights, he was positionally controlled for only 7.5% of the time. It should be noted that last figure is true of virtually every fighter, but what the data demonstrates is that it's significantly more difficult for Silva to win when he's placed and held in bad positions.

Why? Two reasons.

First, Silva isn't exactly a rhythm striker in the traditional Thai boxing sense, but he does feed off momentum. As he's given time to open up, he's largely able to be effective and to continuously build on that success en route to wins or stoppages. If he is constantly forced to reset, however, he is significantly less potent as a striker. He needs time and few interruptions to be all he can be. This was evident in the Evans bout. Even when he's not being controlled, Silva naturally worries about the takedown or bad positioning that could come his way if the opponent has been effective in establishing that early in the fight. It's a natural and understandable response to effective aggression and positional control, but a clear deficiency in his game nonetheless.

Second, time held is time lost. As I mentioned earlier, Silva isn't exactly submission hungry. He's got OK takedown defense, but if he's held he's largely content or unable to do much about the position problem. The time in which he's controlled adds up for his opposition.

Is Gustafsson up to the challenge now that the blueprint is clear? Not so fast. The Swede has well-rounded talents, but he's only controlled position for 23.2% of his UFC fight time against previous opposition. That's not bad exactly, but it's not the overwhelming percentage employed that seems necessary for success by Machida or Evans.

There isn't one way to defeat Silva or any fighter for that matter, but it will be interesting to see if Gustafsson tries to follow the road map of positional control. Unless his abilities have taken a demonstrable step up since we've last seen him, standing toe-to-toe with Silva seems like a very dubious strategy. He's got to keep Silva contained before anything else is really possible.

Gustafsson's got talent. No one can or would deny it. But he's under the weight of great expectations, too. Like any top and surging prospect, there's both reason for optimism and expectations that have to managed about potential upside. On Saturday, we'll know if he'll join two previous light heavyweight champions as the only men to defeat Silva or if we've been too quick to anoint him the next big thing.

All quantitative data provided by FightMetric.