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The Blueprint: Silva-Belfort

On Saturday, February 5th, Anderson Silva defends his middleweight crown against Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC 126 in Las Vegas. Michael DiSanto breaks down this long-awaited battle...
Say what you will about Anderson Silva’s recent run of lackluster performances. It is tough to argue with the numbers.  Twelve UFC bouts. Twelve wins. The streak stands alone in the UFC record books for most consecutive wins, whether to start a career or at any other time.

Of course, that isn’t the end of the story.

Silva’s run of seven consecutive successful title defenses stands two clear of Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz and Georges St-Pierre, the trio who share second place in the UFC record books. His record should actually be eight. Silva defeated Travis Lutter at UFC 67 for what should have been his first successful defense of the middleweight title, but Lutter could not make weight, so the belt was not on the line that night.

It suffices to say that this Silva guy is pretty good. Most believe he is the very best in the world, pound for pound. But Chael Sonnen proved back in August that he is anything but unbeatable.

Sonnen almost pulled off the upset of 2010 when he dominated the champion for almost 23 minutes. Winning by a comfortable margin on all three cards, Sonnen made a costly mistake by over extending himself during his ground-and-pound attack, while Silva’s hips were high on his chest. That opened the door for “The Spider” to slap on a triangle choke, and the fight was suddenly over. Sonnen tapped with 110 seconds remaining in what should have been a career-defining moment for the Team Quest standout.

All it took was that one mistake by the challenger, and Silva was able to bring the bout to an abrupt halt.  That is what is so beautiful about mixed martial arts. One false move, one slip, one unnecessarily aggressive punch, a telegraphed takedown or thousands of other scenarios can result in an instant loss, regardless of what was happening up to that moment. That is particularly true when facing a fighter like Silva, who is close to a perfect offensive fighter, minus wrestling ability.

Silva’s fight with Sonnen showed his resolve as a champion, but it also highlighted another fact, one that has to be a bit unnerving for his followers. For the second straight time in his 12 UFC bouts, he looked remarkably human. He was repeatedly taken down and beaten up on the ground. Luckily for the champion, Sonnen is not the type of fighter who can quickly end a fight with a single punch or a slick submission hold. He is grinder, so Silva had plenty of opportunities to try and come back from the dead.

Silva’s next opponent is anything but a grinder. He is arguably the most explosive fighter in the division. Make a mistake against Vitor Belfort and one punch will forever alter the course of history. Just ask Rich Franklin, Matt Lindland, Wanderlei Silva, Tank Abbott, Terry Martin or any of the other victims who fell prey to “The Phenom” by way of knockout.

Some would actually argue that Belfort is one of the most complete fighters in the sport. He has no glaring gap in his skills. I can tell Belfort stories for days. Everybody knows that he is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and has been for years. One former UFC champion who is known for his submission excellence once told me that Belfort was one of the toughest guys he ever rolled with.
“The Phenom” has ridiculous physical strength. Since I’m telling stories, Ricco Rodriguez, following his 2001 loss to Belfort in the quarterfinals of the Abu Dhabi Submission Grappling Championships (absolute division), said that Belfort was physically the strongest person he had ever grappled with. That is a pretty bold statement.

Belfort’s explosiveness is unquestioned. Watch his bouts against Wanderlei Silva or Franklin, if you need a reminder.  He also possesses surprisingly good straight wrestling. He is one of only a handful of fighters to successfully take down Liddell, and he seemed to reverse Dan Henderson at will in their PRIDE bout.

Of course, Belfort is not perfect. He has a history of running out of gas in fights that last beyond the first six or seven minutes. Maybe that was due to carrying unnecessary muscle at heavyweight and light heavy. Maybe it was a case of not properly preparing. Who knows?

He also seems lackadaisical at times, almost as if he is just going through the motions during fights, rather than competing against another man in a sport where he can get badly injured if he isn’t fully prepared.

So far, those shortcomings haven’t reared their ugly head in a bout south of 205 pounds. Three fights.  Three wins by knockout. Only one of those fights lasted beyond a single round. In that fight, he scored one of the most savage knockouts of his career 8:12 into the fight.

Has a drop to middleweight turned “The Phenom” into the fighter everyone thought he would be when he first blazed through the UFC as a cocky 19-year-old, winning two fights in the same night in a total of 120 seconds? Toss in the fights that bookended those two, and Belfort started his career 4-0 after only 182 seconds of competition.

Silva will ask Belfort that very question on the eve of Super Bowl XLV. How will Belfort respond?

Some of that depends on how the fight unfolds. I have a feeling that the first several minutes will be nothing more than a feeling out process, with both men circling and feinting, but not doing much more. Both men are countersrtikers to the extreme. Neither is comfortable taking the lead. That presents a quandary because someone has to take the lead at some point.

Many experts, including living legend Randy Couture, believe that Belfort should put extreme pressure on Silva. Both Sonnen and Demian Maia experienced a lot of success when they pressured the champion. Then again, Chris Leben and Forrest Griffin experienced very different fates when they tried to attack Silva.

I disagree. Belfort is not an aggressive, press-forward fighter. Couture claims that Belfort has taken to an attacking style like a “duck to water.” The gym is one thing. Belfort has always been a monster in the gym regardless of the style he uses. Leaving one’s comfort zone in an actual fight is a completely different situation, one that Belfort should forget about for now.

To complicate matters, I don’t think that Silva should aggressively attack, either. I’m sure UFC President Dana White wants to club me with a very large baseball bat after reading that. He isn’t that type of fighter, and a guy with Belfort’s power and speed is the wrong opponent to try something new against.

Granted, these guys cannot come out and just circle each other for five rounds. Someone has to take the lead at some point. I get that. Still, I think it should be a tactical chess match of feints and range-finding strikes, until someone makes a mistake.

If that happens, I think Belfort has the advantage. He is at his best when he circles while feinting and throwing lone strikes in order to entice his opponent to throw a reckless strike. He is extremely patient during that process, always focused on finding that one opening to attack. Once that happens, he explodes with a savagery that is rare, even in MMA. His highlight reel of knockouts doesn’t take a backseat to anybody’s. That is why Belfort is one of the most famous athletes in the sport.

Silva hates it when fighters look to counter. He is completely lost in that scenario and becomes remarkably passive and impatient. Go back and watch his fights with Patrick Cote, Thales Leites or Maia. He prances and clowns more than he fights in those instances.

That is precisely what Belfort wants Silva to do in their bout. He wants Silva to start dancing or engaging in crazy feints. Why? Because Belfort is the faster, more explosive fighter, and he can take full advantage of those moments by striking as soon as the champion begins those ridiculous movements.

If Belfort instead attacks with reckless abandon, he is likely to get knocked out. Remember when he faced Chuck Liddell back at UFC 37.5? Belfort was winning in what was largely a technical kickboxing contest with the then-future Hall of Famer. It was close, but Belfort was definitely winning in my opinion before making the silly mistake of recklessly rushing in against Liddell, who is a counterstriker similar in style to Silva. The result was a flash knockdown that sealed the win for Liddell.

If Belfort rushes in foolishly against Silva, the result will be at least that bad, probably worse.

Silva’s key to winning is to remain patient. He needs to forget the jeers of the crowd, if the action starts off slowly. Stay focused because Belfort will eventually attack. Opportunities will present themselves for him to counter. But patience is the order of the day.

If Silva remains focused on the task at hand, then this becomes a tossup, in my opinion. To quote Joe Rogan, it is a “ballet of violence” when Silva fights. Look, when this guy is focused, properly prepared and fully motivated, watching him fight is a special event. No different than watching Michael Jordan play basketball or Tiger Woods hit a golf ball at Augusta. But he absolutely must match their focus in this fight; otherwise his record run will end on February 5.

A big question on everyone’s mind heading into this fight is whether Belfort will be sharp enough after being on the sidelines for the longest period of his career to put together the near-perfect effort required to unseat the greatest champion the sport has ever known.

Come fight night, Belfort will end a 504-day streak of inactivity. That is a ridiculously long layoff heading into any fight and the longest in history leading up to a UFC championship bout. That simple fact alone would be enough for me to completely discount a fighter’s chance at victory, particularly against an elite assassin like Silva. Not in this case. I actually don’t think the layoff will play any part in the outcome because Belfort has a history of stellar performances following lengthy absences from competition.

To wit, the former champion has endured layoffs of at least 240 days five other times in his career. Belfort is 4-1 in those bouts, with single-round annihilations of Rich Franklin, Wanderlei Silva, and Marvin Eastman, as well as a hard-fought unanimous decision over heavyweight monster Gilbert Yvel in a fight after a 402-day absence (the second longest layoff of his career to date). His only loss was the razor-thin unanimous decision dropped to Liddell at UFC 37.5.

Ring rust won’t play a factor on Saturday night. I’m confident of that statement. Belfort will win or lose based on his ability to rise to the occasion, not his inactivity.

Who am I picking? I have no idea if this fight will end in 30 seconds or last the distance. I don’t know if it will end by knockout or submission, though the former seems more likely. A decision is possible. And I can see either man getting his hand raised in any of the aforementioned scenarios.

I know that isn’t very decisive. I don’t know how anybody can definitively pick one guy to win. If pressed, I would pick Belfort because I just don’t see where Silva has any clear advantage over him. Ask me again tomorrow and my answer might be different. That is why this is a great matchup.

QUICK FACTS

Anderson Silva

•    35 years old
•    6’2, 185 lbs
•    77-inch reach
•    27-4 overall (12-0 UFC)
•    12 consecutive UFC wins is most in history
•    10 UFC wins inside the distance (7 by KO/TKO and 3 by submission)
•    50% of those wins were in the first round
•    Hasn’t lost since January 20, 2006 (DQ loss to Yushin Okami outside of UFC)
•    8-0 in championship fights (8 championship fights is 7th all time)
•    8 championship wins ties Georges St-Pierre for 3rd all time
•    7 successful consecutive defenses is the most in UFC history
•    Current layoff is 182 days (SUB5 over Chael Sonnen on August 7, 2010)
•    Longest layoff of UFC career is 245 days (KO1 over Forrest Griffin on August 8, 2009, to UD5 over Demian Maia on April 10, 2010)
•    Submission of the Night twice (SUB2 over Dan Henderson by rear naked choke on March 1, 2008, and SUB5 by triangle choke over Chael Sonnen on August 7, 2010)
•    Knockout of the Night twice (TKO2 over Rich Franklin on October 20, 2007, and KO1 over Forrest Griffin at August 8, 2009)
•    Fight of the Night three times (SUB2 over Dan Henderson on March 1, 2008, KO1 over Forrest Griffin on August 8, 2009, and SUB5 over Chael Sonnen on August 7, 2010)

Vitor Belfort
•    33 years old
•    6’0, 185 lbs
•    74-inch reach
•    19-8 overall (8-4 UFC)
•    3-0, 3 KOs at 195 lbs or less
•    All 8 UFC wins inside the distance (7 by KO/TKO and 2 by submission)
•    8-1 in UFC bouts that ended inside the distance (lone loss to Randy Couture on October 17, 1997)
•    Current layoff of 504 days is the longest of his career (TKO1 over Rich Franklin on September 19, 2009)
•    Knockout of the Night (TKO1 over Rich Franklin on September 19, 2009)

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