I have been quite vocal before about how much the hey day of Japanese MMA influenced me, and my time spent training in Tokyo. Thinking of many of the great fighters that I admired but who have fallen to injuries, terrible gameplanning, or natural decline, Wanderlei Silva is among the most saddening.
The Axe Murderer was perhaps the most frightening incarnation of martial arts excellence at his peak, as he overwhelmed his opponents with an excellent combination of Muay Thai aggression and meat and potatoes grappling. He was not a fancy fighter, but he was one who brought to light some of the most effective techniques of the martial arts – all presented with a terrifying ferocity.
Wanderlei Silva has never been keen to put on technical clinics, but in his prime he represented the most complete display of the “Art of Eight Limbs” that could be found (occasionally nine, Guy Mezger can attest to Silva’s effectiveness in headbutting). Leading his game with punishing low kicks to discourage an opponent, he waited until he was ready to attack and then suddenly with a stiff jab, followed by a barrage of hooks, he would be on top of his opponent. It was against covering opponents that Silva did his best work, swimming his hands behind their head to obtain the Muay Thai Plumm, or using his signature outside trip to take them to the mat, before standing over them with the most technical curb stomping game you will ever witness.
Perhaps the saddest thing about combat sports is the reluctance of fans to believe that their heroes have lost a step. A quick look at the MMA forums will reveal some delusional fans who think that the Antonio Rodrigo Nogeuira of today is equal to that of ten years ago, or that Wanderlei Silva still has the ability to be a force in the division fighting as he does now. The popularity of such unquestioning optimism is evident in the great many fans who gave Wanderlei a chance at beating Vitor Belfort in the UFC’s most obvious gimme match to date.
It should be noted that Wanderlei Silva was every bit as good a fighter as he was touted to be. Fighting as he did in PRIDE and the Vale Tudo circuits, he would have been a challenge for any fighter within 20lbs of his weight. So what went wrong? In today’s analysis we will look at Wanderlei’s:
- Abandonment of Straight Punches
- One Dimensional Game
- Declining Chin
Abandonment of Straight Punches
Wanderlei Silva has come to be known for his characteristic looping swings but these were not the only punches that he had success with. Though it is hard to believe, Wanderlei had a very effective jab back in the day. A quick look at Wanderlei’s physique and enormous forearms will tell you that he could throw his fists in any way he chose and still have considerable weight behind them.
Here’s a nice example of Wanderlei taking apart his man with powerful straights. The 1 – 2 that he drops Adriano Serrano with to end the fight isn’t technically perfect, but it’s quick, direct, powerful and better than 75% of the straight punching in MMA today. Wanderlei’s gameplan at his best was always to close in to his opponent with a stiff jab, followed by a right hook. If his opponent ran, he chased with punches, if they stayed in place he would grab the Thai Plumm, or use his outside trip. But this jab was important to establish the striking distance. It forced his opponent to react or be hit. Here, against Quinton Jackson, he enters with the jab, which Jackson is forced to move his head to get away from, ducking directly into the right hook.
Notice how Wanderlei leads with a left straight in the top left frame, this puts him in the right distance to turn his hip all the way through and land a powerful, whipping right hook. This is a stark contrast to the clubbing arm punch that he has been throwing in his recent career, at an almost chest to chest proximity with his opponent. After Wanderlei lands the right hook, he moves off to the left and throws a left hook (bottom left frame), Jackson backs on to the ropes, covering, and Wanderlei immediately moves into his famous Thai clinch (bottom right frame), from here he knocks Jackson out.
Were Wanderlei to simply start swinging without using the jab to establish himself within range, Rampage could simply cover with his forearm blocks. In fact, that is exactly what happened in their third meeting. Wanderlei stood almost chest to chest with Quinton and simply started swinging. Jackson took the wide, muffled swings on his forearms and fired back a tight hook, putting Wanderlei out cold. Perhaps Wanderlei’s blockier physique of late is partly to blame for his slower hooks, but stepping in too close and refusing to find distance with the jab must also be somewhat to blame.
Wanderlei hit Cung Le with an excellent jab that appeared to hurt the American in their meeting, but this only came after Wanderlei was severely hurt by a spinning backfist. While he struggles to take the shots nowadays, employing more straight punches would still make his opponents more likely to respect his ferocious punching power.
One Dimensional Game
This is an intriguing point to raise about Wanderlei Silva’s declining Mixed Martial Arts career. While in his recent fights we have seen flashes of technical excellence, such as his superb Jiu Jitsu displayed against Michael Bisping, he is a far cry from the rounded machine he was in PRIDE.
At his best his standard assault was based around the takedown to ground and pound, or the Thai clinch, with the swinging hooks serving as glue to hold the entire plan together and make the opponent concerned with covering up. Success with his hands has led Wanderlei to believe that boxing should be his entire plan. Unfortunately Wanderlei’s boxing was only ever functional to his purpose – forcing his opponent to cover.
Silva has heavy hands – there is no denying this – and he throws powerful punches every time, but he is terribly inaccurate and without a jab he is just inviting a counter. At his best, he was never about boxing. He was about forcing the opponent to cover and playing on their reactions. Against Jackson, Matsui, Mezger and numerous Vale Tudo fighters this meant swinging into the Thai clinch.
It is important to remember that the Thai Plumm was barely used at the time of Wanderlei’s rise – he lacks the technical transitions of Anderson Silva, but he almost always got the plumm when he wanted it. Few men have ever been as good at forcing their way into the clinch, even Anderson.
This is not to say that the Thai plumm was Wanderlei’s only goal however. Silva was an adept ground and pounder, and despite only owning one submission victory, had an excellent transitional Jiu Jitsu game. This made it possible for him to comfortably take many of his opponents to the floor. Against Mirko Cro Cop in their first meeting, Wanderlei used his jab to right hook started to back the Croatian into a corner and take him down almost immediately from the over under clinch.
Furthermore, Wanderlei was able to adapt. When he was chasing down the stunned Yuki Kondo, he reached for the Thai Plumm, abandoned it, and continued punching. This is a far cry from the Wanderlei Silva who decided to reintroduce his clinch, then came out reaching for Chris Leben’s head with no set up and continued to reach as he was in the process of being TKOd by the sloppy American brawler. One dimensional focus on either swinging for the fences or, as he did against Leben, reaching for the Thai clinch at the exclusion of defense, has plagued Wanderlei’s recent career.
Notice how here, against Yuki Kondo, Wanderlei has the Japanese fighter reeling in the first frame. He moves in to secure his clinch and land a knee in the second frame but gives it up in frame 3, landing a hard left hook as Kondo straightens up in an attempt to evade the clinch. This kind of adaptive Wanderlei Silva is something that we haven’t seen in a long time.
Wanderlei’s overconfidence in his swinging strategy first became obvious against Mirko Cro Cop in their second meeting. Cro Cop took advantage of Wanderlei’s new misplaced confidence in his boxing ability by side stepping the Brazilian every time he waded in and hitting him with a hard left straight from an almost ninety degree angle. Wanderlei landed no telling punches, and was countered numerous times en route to being knocked out with a highlight reel high kick.
For some reason, perhaps based on masculinity, fighters cannot seem to admit when their ability to take punishment is waning. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop, my own hero, Kid Yamamoto and Wanderlei Silva are all great examples of world class fighters who simply can not take big punches anymore but write almost every knockdown or knockout off on a case by case basis. Chuck Liddell is the only MMA fighter who I have heard actively admit “I just can’t take the shots anymore” following his meeting with Rich Franklin. Even then it had taken several highlight reel knockout losses to drive the point home.
Wanderlei has never had a strong jawline. Even in his prime he was dropped by Kazushi Sakuraba and numerous other fighters who were not known for their knockout power. His ability to recover, however, was always world class. In recent bouts, however, Wanderlei has looked more vulnerable than ever before. Famously pillow fisted Brit, Michael Bisping, was able to stun him with a strong right hand. The similarly light punching Cung Le was also able to put the Brazilian in trouble. These are men who would simply be padding to Wanderlei’s resume in his PRIDE days, but who now can make him seem a sub standard fighter.
The reasons for Wanderlei’s decline therefore are two fold; a technical decline in both ability and gameplanning, and a physical decline in his ability to take punches. As an enormous fan, it is sad to see Wanderlei continue after what could have been a fairy tale ending in his victory over Cung Le. If he is to continue, however, I would rather see him fight other declining greats such as Rich Franklin, rather than being abused as an easy knockout for Vitor Belfort in his continuing campaign to never fight a top ten middleweight grappler.
To learn more about the subtle striking strategies utilized by elite MMA fighters, boxers and kickboxers, purchase Jack Slack’s ebook Advanced Striking: Tactics of Boxing, Kickboxing and MMA Masters. With over 70 techniques utilized by 20 different fighters, it is the most complete book on elite level striking to date.
Jack Slack also blogs at his own site, www.FightsGoneBy.com and can be found on Twitter @JackSlackMMA
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