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Silva ventures into open water against Irvin

Michael DiSanto, UFC - At some level, UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva must answer the question that undoubtedly burns brightly deep down in his soul: is he truly an apex predator, a competitor at the top of the food chain with few peers and certainly no superiors?

By Michael DiSanto

At some level, UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva must answer the question that undoubtedly burns brightly deep down in his soul: is he truly an apex predator, a competitor at the top of the food chain with few peers and certainly no superiors?

Dominating one weight class is all fine and good, but God-like warriors throughout history, such as Achilles and Hercules, didn't weigh in before testing their skills against another man. Roman gladiators definitely did not cut weight so they could compete at the lowest possible weight inside the Coliseum. Army Delta Force, Navy SEALS, Marine FORECON and other Special Forces soldiers (the world's truest modern day warriors) do not ask the man standing across from them to step on a scale before engaging in one-on-one combat.

History's most famous and today’s most dangerous real life warriors competed, and still compete, whenever the situation called for combat, regardless of the size of the opponent.

Granted, there is a difference in life-and-death combat and the world of sports. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a sport not unlike boxing or Olympic wrestling or any other one-one-one athletic competition between two highly trained athletes of equal physical mass.

But at the end of the day, it is as close to an actual fight as one can get in sports. And weight classes have no place in real world fights.

So, there is little doubt that Silva and every other great champion south of the heavyweight division wonder how he would fare against bigger men. They wonder what would happen if a champion one division to the north cornered him in a dark alley, far away from the press or fans. Those sorts of questions are normal for any alpha male, who constantly size up other males, whether in sport or in business, constantly viewing others as potential opponents.

Those questions must be made even more intense by the fact that only one man in the history of the sport has reigned supreme over two weight classes simultaneously. Dan Henderson accomplished that feat when, as the reigning PRIDE 183 lb champion, he knocked out PRIDE's 205 lb champion Wanderlei Silva. And Anderson Silva recently choked out Henderson in yet another in a long line of displays of his unquestioned middleweight dominance.

After such a definitive win, Silva's unquenchable thirst for greatness surely made him want to not only match Henderson's career-defining feat, but somehow surpass it by either ruling over multiple weight classes for a prolonged period or simply moving up in weight to dominate among bigger men for a significant length of time.

In order to do that, however, Silva must leave the comforts of a weight class that he has dominated like nobody before him and venture into the extremely dangerous open waters known as the UFC Light Heavyweight division, the deepest concentration of elite fighters across all weight classes and all promotions in the sport.

He will do just that on Saturday night, July 19th when he steps into the cage against one of the most fearsome strikers in the talent-laden 205-lb division, James “Sandman” Irvin. As a double bonus for fans, the fight will be broadcast live at 9 pm ET, 6 pm PT on Spike TV.

As my good friend and editor Thomas Gerbasi likes to say, Silva is THE state of the art mixed martial artist, the perfect amalgamation of a world class striking skills, a very real black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, tremendous natural athleticism and solid conditioning. But, alas, nobody is perfect and no warrior is completely devoid of holes in his game. For Silva, that hole is his wrestling and takedowns.

If Silva finds himself to be a boy among men in the standup world against Irvin, or if he just happens to get caught by a shot that puts him in momentary trouble, he may not be able to take the fight to the ground. Irvin may not have the world's greatest takedown defense, but it is good enough to ward off desperate shots from a hurt fighter, and likely good enough to thwart any takedown attempt that Silva can muster.

It is likely, therefore, that Silva will be forced to win the standup battle if he wants to win the war. The two big keys for Silva winning the fight on the feet are staying out of the pocket, except while throwing quick combinations, and dishing out a healthy dose of kicks to the legs and body.

Although Silva is a devastating knockout artist in his own right, he is not the kind of fighter who plants his feet, throws caution to the wind and goes to war. Instead, he is a highly technical Muay Thai specialist who relies on a combination of speed, angles and extremely precise strikes to get the job done. That will serve him well against a powerful striker like Irvin.

Silva fights from a southpaw stance, and the conventional wisdom is that the jab is a largely ineffective tool when a southpaw fights a conventional fighter because there is no open throwing lane with each man’s lead hand creating a nice barrier to entry. That is generally true in boxing because guys keep their hands so high since they don't have to worry about defending takedowns or clinches.

In MMA, by contrast, the jab is always an effective weapon, both as a scoring blow and as a set up tool for big power shots, because fighters traditionally keep their hands a bit lower, which helps open up a throwing lane and the vale tudo gloves used are much smaller than boxing gloves, which further opens the lane.

By using a quick, stiff and active right jab, Silva will keep Irvin off balance and distracted. That will allow Silva to step slightly to his right and fire his most devastating punch – a straight left hand down the pipe. Stepping slightly to his right also puts him more on Irvin’s left side, which helps move him out of right hand range.

Irvin’s right hand is his weapon of mass destruction. His left hook is solid, but it’s not in the same ballpark, in terms of instant fight ending potential, as his right hand, so Silva will want to take his chances by fighting from Irvin’s left side as often as possible.

In addition to distracting Irvin, the jab will force the Sandman to raise his hands up around his face in a quick defensive move – that is an instinctual movement that is difficult for any fighter to prevent. That allows Silva to fire left kicks to the body in combination with the jab.

Kicks to the body are one of the most underrated weapons in MMA. Imagine taking a baseball bat across the liver, ribs or midsection. That is basically what happens when a Thai expert like Silva uncorks a shin with bad intentions. Such blows can temporarily knock the wind out of an opponent’s lungs and temporarily paralyze him with pain. Repeated blows to the midsection quickly sap cardiovascular conditioning, power and energy because of the difficulty they cause to the breathing process.

A recent example of the impact of kicks to the body is Keith Jardine’s fight against former champion Chuck Liddell. There is no question that Jardine’s kicks to the body sapped the “Iceman” of cardio and power, significantly contributing to the shocking upset win for the “Dean of Mean.”

There is no reason why Silva can’t do the same thing on Saturday night.

As Irvin’s power begins to wane, the reigning middleweight champion can move in for the kill with gruesome knee attacks from the Thai clinch. He needs to be wary of clinching with Irvin, at least early in the fight, because the Sandman is very good at popping his head out and immediately firing a nuclear right hand. But as he begins to weaken from kicks to the body, Irvin will find it more and more difficult to defend in the clinch, and that is a very bad situation against a guy like Silva.

In addition to firing kicks to the body in combination with the jab, Silva can further sap Irvin’s devastating power by firing kicks to the inside and outside of his lead leg. Silva can fire lead kicks to the inside of Irvin’s left leg, compressing the femoral artery and causing bruising or generally weakening an opponent. He can also finish combinations with kicks to the outside of Irvin’s leg, targeting just above the knee over and over to cause a deep muscle bruise, thus making it extremely painful for Irvin to fully shift his weight onto his left side, which is necessary to fire a right hand with maximum force.

Either way, Silva’s goal from the opening bell should be to fight a highly technical fight. There is no reason to stand in front of Irvin and trade shots. There is no reason to stand in the pocket for longer than absolutely necessary to land quick combinations and then move out of harm’s way, circling to his right to avoid walking into a right hand bomb.

He needs to break down Irvin early so that he can go for the finish sometime in the third round, which just happens to be the only round that Irvin has failed to score a knockout in, suggesting that, while he maintains devastating fight-stopping power in the first and second rounds, his power may begin to wane in the final stanza.

For those unfamiliar with the Sandman, he is the Earnie Shavers or George Foreman of UFC 205-lb strikers. This guy carries more dynamite in his fists than anyone in the division, bar none. He has legitimate bone-shattering power. The truth of that statement is best evidenced by the outcome of his previous fight.

Facing Houston Alexander back in April, many thought Irvin, despite the universal regard of him as a fearsome striker, had bitten off more than he could chew trying to stand and throw hands with the UFC’s version of a young Mike Tyson. Irvin took the center of the ring immediately and fired a superman punch – a leaping right hand. That single blow ended the fight. The three follow up punches were completely unnecessary as the initial blow temporarily suspended communication between Alexander’s brain and his body, dropping him to the canvas like a man struck in the head by lightning.

The entire fight lasted eight seconds. It takes longer read the preceding paragraph than it did for Irvin to knock out Alexander.

Of course, Irvin’s power is not limited to just his fists, just ask Terry Martin. After dominating Irvin for the entire first round of their 2005 fight, the Mike Tyson look-alike walked into a flying knee strike, instantly rendering Martin rigid and unconscious. Irvin looked at his fallen foe and saluted the crowd. The Sandman had just slept another opponent with a single blow, adding Martin to a fraternity of men, such as Scott Smith, Doug Marshall, Hector Ramirez and many others, who each suffered an instant defeat from a single Irvin blow.

If Silva isn’t careful, he will be the next name added to that fraternity’s growing membership list. Irvin may not be able to match the champion’s speed or technique, but he knows that all he needs is one opening to end the fight in the blink of an eye.

That doesn’t mean Irvin should just go out and fight with guns ablaze without regard to a game plan. If he wants to send Silva back to the middleweight division with a very sore jaw and a badly damaged ego, the Sandman needs to win the battle of foot positioning, lead with the right hand and avoid unnecessary headhunting.

Now, there aren’t many guarantees in life. We know of at least two: death and taxes. Every American adult experiences both at some point in their lives. Well, I’m going to offer up another. If Irvin lands one clean right hand down the middle thrown with even 80% of his full power, he will win by knockout. And he will land the right hand if he wins the battle of foot position.

The biggest mistake conventional fighters who rely on landing the right hand make against southpaws is not making sure their left foot remains on outside of their opponent’s right foot. Doing that accomplishes two things that could mean the difference in winning and losing for Irvin.

First, makes it much more difficult for the southpaw to circle out their right. Watch Silva in the early rounds against Irvin; he will look to circle to his own right as often as possible, thereby circling away from Irvin’s nuclear hand and greatly the odds that he will walk into a fight-ending blow. By keeping his left foot on the outside, Irvin can cut off Silva when he steps to the right, forcing him to stand and fight, retreat straight back or circle to his left, each of which increase the odds of Irvin landing his right hand.

Second, by keeping his right foot on the outside of Silva’s foot, Irvin opens up a throwing lane to land lead right hands because it places his right shoulder inside of Silva’s left shoulder and brings his right hand squarely in between Silva’s guard. That allows Irvin to feint the jab and fire lead rights knowing that if one of them finds pay dirt, the fight is over.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Irvin should go out firing nothing but big lead power right hands to the head to the exclusion of all other strikes. He may not possess the same technical striking prowess of Silva, but Irvin is a very skilled striker in his own right. He fires good combinations, particularly two-three-two combinations (right hand, left hook, right hand). He can do a ton of damage with leg kicks, kicks to the body and flying knees. And he is a pretty decent body puncher.

Silva is a master at identifying incoming headshots and making slight head movements to avoid them. Irvin must disguise his right hands upstairs by mixing up his shots. That means occasionally leading with the jab, even though that won’t likely be an overly effective punch against a quicker guy like Silva, who loves to counter jabs. He should lead with left hooks to the body – a cardinal sin when fighting a conventional opponent because of the fear of counter rights, but Silva’s right hook isn’t something that keeps opponents awake at night. And he should also lead with good, hard kicks and, from time to time, flying knees.

By doing that, Irvin will set up a superman punch or a feint followed by a right hand, either of which will bring the night to a violent end if landed cleanly.

Above all else, Irvin needs to remember that he is the bigger, stronger man in the cage, and he needs to fight like it. That means he shouldn’t worry about firing punches with 100% power. Those lottery-winning punches are very difficult to land, and, believe it or not, missing shots can be more tiring than landing shots, and it certainly is more demoralizing.

Instead, Irvin should just go out and touch Silva early and often. He is a natural power puncher, so the force and velocity will be there whether or not he tries to land knockout shots. He needs to land those thudding shots anywhere he can – on Silva’s arms, shoulders, chest, head, anywhere. Every punch he lands will hurt. Every shot will remind the middleweight champion that he is in against the biggest, strongest, most dangerous striker he has ever faced in his illustrious career.

Is Silva truly an apex predator capable of conquering bigger, stronger opponents? Or will he be sent back to compete with men his own size courtesy of an Irvin right hand?

We will find out this Saturday night when Silva leaves the lagoon he rules with an iron fist to swim out into the open waters of the light heavyweight division, where great whites rule the food chain. And, despite being greater than a 5-to-1 underdog heading into the fight, James Irvin is, without a doubt, a great white shark on the feet.

That is why this bout has upset potential written all over it.