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The Spider's Web: Middleweights

Elliot Worsell, UFC - It’s becoming increasingly likely that Anderson Silva’s most dangerous opponent isn’t a number one contender. It’s not a fellow champion. It’s not even a comparative behemoth from a weight division above.

By Elliot Worsell

It’s becoming increasingly likely that Anderson Silva’s most dangerous opponent isn’t a number one contender. It’s not a fellow champion. It’s not even a comparative behemoth from a weight division above.

As far as Octagon danger goes, Anderson Silva’s biggest opponent right now is Anderson Silva. Specifically, ‘The Spider’s toughest obstacle is his own boredom – his need to be tested, challenged and invigorated. The pressure to be great.

The formula is simple. When Silva senses danger he strikes like a snake. His senses become heightened and his reflexes allow him to perform moves that his opponent is still pondering. Simply put, Silva becomes the most dangerous force in mixed martial arts.

However, when Silva carries all the advantages heading into a fight – and is aware of the fact - he often performs more like a snake charmer. Curious, unusual, and almost attempting tricks for his own entertainment, Silva plays with both his opponent and the watching audience.

He’s a cinema projectionist who becomes so tired and fed up of watching Lawrence of Arabia, that he flips the film on the audience and watches Tom and Jerry instead – just because he can. He finds it funny, while everyone else remains dumbfounded and, in some cases, angered.

It goes without saying that at UFC 101 Silva was in the mood for an epic performance. Any attempts at comedy were put on the back burner. Shunning the temptation to pull faces, reinvent moves and destroy his opponent with well-placed stares, Silva instead proceeded to obliterate one of the leading light heavyweights in the world. All wrapped up inside 3.23 of the first round, Silva blitzed Forrest Griffin with frightening ease.

This wasn’t a case of Silva technically and emphatically shutting down an opponent, as he did with Thales Leites in April. This wasn’t even a case of Silva pulling something spectacular out the bag as he did with Dan Henderson or Travis Lutter. No, Silva’s demolition of Griffin was more in line with his wins over Chris Leben and Rich Franklin. We saw a fired-up, razor-sharp Silva intent on shocking both his opponent and the crowd.

One member of the crowd, and a hero of Silva, was former multi-weight boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. Considered one of the greatest boxing talents of his era, Jones dominated the middleweight, super-middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions before capturing a heavyweight belt in 2003.

Such was the natural talent at his disposal, Jones would often receive criticism for making his fights look so easy. He’d make fellow champions look like contenders and former titleholders like pensioners. Jones’ skill set allowed him to win by whatever means he fancied. If he wanted a knockout, he’d increase his power shots. If he wanted to grab a risk-free points win, Jones would hit and move. It was all on him.

The Pensacola-native’s most devastating 90s performance came in the light-heavyweight title rematch with Montell Griffin. Jones sleepwalked through eight rounds with Griffin in their first bout, before being disqualified in the ninth for hitting ‘Ice’ while he took a knee. Unbeaten in 34 bouts at the time, Jones’ disqualification against Griffin presented Roy with the first loss of his title-laden career.

Jones’ performance up to the moment of the disqualification blow was just as telling as the final verdict. Sluggish and out of sync by his usual lofty standards, Jones struggled to get to grips with the awkward and cagey style of Griffin. By the time he did catch up, Jones was uncharacteristically reckless and wild. Panicked, Jones whacked Griffin on the deck.

Five months later, Jones approached a rematch with Griffin, now fully aware of the dangers his opponent possessed. No longer treated as just another contender, Jones entered the Griffin return with a different mindset. Montell was deemed a challenge - someone who could once again ruin Jones’ plans.

Some 151 seconds later, Griffin was dramatically knocked out. Jones had iced the champion in a round.

The difference in Jones’ demeanour, swagger, focus and potency from the first Griffin bout to the rematch was staggering. The reason? A challenge presented itself. It was almost as if Jones disqualified himself in the first bout just to reinvigorate his mojo.

Silva’s mojo appeared to be more than intact last Saturday as he dissected Griffin with all the precision of a fighter pilot. Now in limbo as to whether he’ll remain a light-heavyweight or resume his reign of terror as a middleweight, Silva, 25-4, must decide where his biggest challenges lie.

Here are five middleweight contenders snapping at the heels of Silva, determined to prove that ‘The Spider’ still has unfinished business in the 185-pound division:

Dan Henderson

Reputation: Fresh off a stunning knockout victory over Michael Bisping at UFC 100, Henderson is renowned as one of the heaviest one-shot punchers in the sport. Just as dangerous on his feet as he is when controlling the action with his world-class wrestling, ‘Hendo’ boasts the experience and granite jaw to give most middleweights and light-heavyweights a tough time.

Risk: Henderson carries significant risk in his right hand and top control, when the fight hits the deck. He enjoyed noteworthy opening-round success against Silva first time around in March 2008. He took Silva down and got the better of things on the floor before being choked out late into the second round.

Henderson’s first round effort against Silva remains one of the only times an opponent has gained any kind of upper hand with ‘The Spider’ inside the Octagon.

Reward: In truth, a win over Henderson would do little for Silva’s already established reputation. He’s beaten the PRIDE legend once and did so in emphatic fashion, choking ‘Hendo’ out in the second round.

However, Henderson has since rebounded with wins over Rich Franklin and English hero Bisping, and may now be ready to learn from the mistakes he made first time around with Silva. His imposing opening round with Silva in 2008 will give the California-native boundless hope going into a return.

Demian Maia

Reputation: Considered one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu exponents to ever step inside the Octagon, Maia’s considerable threat is clear. The Brazilian possesses the grappling skills to submit pretty much anyone in the 185-pound division, Silva included.

Risk: If Silva happens to spend a substantial amount of time with Maia on the ground, the threat becomes considerable. Very few fighters, even fellow black belts, can survive Maia’s guard. However, should ‘The Spider’ fight the right fight and keep things standing, Maia may wind up being way out of his depth. Most are when Silva decides to kick and punch. With stand-up clearly a weakness, Maia would be no different.

Reward: Should Maia be able to defeat Nate Marquardt at UFC 102, his already considerable stock will rise only further. He already claims submission wins over Chael Sonnen, Jason McDonald and Nate Quarry and is seemingly only one win away from a title shot.

Maia’s incredible jiu-jitsu credentials present Silva with a worthwhile challenge. Although the fight could presumably be a no-contest with both on their feet, fight fans would be intrigued to see how ‘The Spider’ deals with being inside Maia’s intricate web on the ground.

Nate Marquardt

Reputation: Most mixed martial artists claim to be well-rounded – Nate Marquardt truly is. Just as comfortable in the stand-up as he is wrestling, grappling or looking for submissions, Marquardt presents danger to opponents wherever the fight may go. With recent stoppage wins over Wilson Gouveia and Martin Kampmann still fresh on the mind, Marquardt appears to be getting better and better.

Risk: Having been on the receiving end of Silva’s strikes already (in July 2007), Marquardt knows exactly what he’s up against should a return materialise. He claims he’ll learn from his mistakes and give Silva the kind of fight he should have provided first time round.

The familiarity factor works for Silva, too, of course. The Curitiba-native looked brilliant when stopping Marquardt first time round and would surely fancy his chances of doing the same again.

Reward: All things considered, there’s very little for Silva to gain from beating Marquardt in a return. He’s already gone there once and, unless Marquardt dazzles against Maia at UFC 102, the demand for a rematch is not there right now. However, should Marquardt snap Maia’s unbeaten run on August 29, Nate ‘The Great’ will boast three big wins in a row and will surely be due a shot.

Wanderlei Silva

Reputation: Renowned as one of the most vicious strikers in mixed martial arts, ‘The Axe Murderer’ always brings it, whether in glorious victory or crushing defeat. The former PRIDE champion will soon commence the next chapter of his career as a middleweight.

A Muay Thai destroyer who prefers the traditional art of punching people in the face nowadays, Silva is the kind of guy that will chase you across the Octagon in order to touch your face. Nothing deters Silva and only a huge shot (see Quinton Jackson, Mirko Cro Cop or Dan Henderson) will extinguish the fire.

Risk: Perhaps not what it would have been in years gone by. Despite the fearsome reputation, Silva is coming off two straight defeats and has only won one of his previous five bouts. He was also picked apart by Rich Franklin at UFC 99, a tactic Silva would surely utilise – only with more aggression - should he engage with his marauding namesake. Wanderlei’s wild swings and thirst for terror can crush weaker fighters, yet it can also provide ample opportunity for craftsmen to use his limitless aggression against him.

Reward: The personal reward for Anderson would be significant. Though they used to be team-mates at the legendary Chute Boxe Academy, Silva and Silva now trade insults rather than sparring kicks and punches. Anderson has ridiculed Wanderlei’s desire to move into the middleweight division, while Wanderlei insists ‘The Spider’ is scared of him.

Nothing beats an old-fashioned grudge showdown, and this fight will probably have legs regardless of how many defeats are etched against Wanderlei’s name.

Georges St-Pierre

Reputation: If Silva claims the number one pound-for-pound spot right now, St-Pierre is a chest hair behind him at number two. Some many choose to have it the other way round. I wouldn’t argue either way.

That’s an indication of both St-Pierre’s enormous skill set and also the magnitude of a bout between the pair. Although GSP boasts the UFC welterweight title to his name, a 185-pound match-up with Silva would undoubtedly be the most significant bout in the sport right now.

As far as physical threats go, St-Pierre can do the lot. Dangerous on his feet but unstoppable with his takedowns and grappling, St-Pierre has ripped through the welterweight division with sheer athleticism, power and determination. The model mixed martial artist.

Risk: Size could be a deciding factor, but St-Pierre’s skills make him inherently dangerous. Though he’d sacrifice an edge in size and striking to Silva, St-Pierre’s wrestling – considered the best in the sport – would give him opportunities to dictate in areas Silva would be reluctant to visit.

St-Pierre’s chances would be dependent on how close he can get without being struck on the way in and how comfortable and dangerous Silva can remain if he’s continually put on his back. Ultimately, the size difference could be the decider.

Reward: Massive. Although Silva wouldn’t be fighting St-Pierre the welterweight, he’d still be meeting one of the pound-for-pound premier talents at the peak of his powers. This would be a signature fight for both and the victor would be elevated to a whole new stratosphere of greatness. Both men carry an air of invincibility right now and, should they ever meet, that air would have to be shattered for one of them.

*** Check back for Part 2 - a focus on the light-heavyweight (205-pounds) threats to Silva’s greatness.