UFC 97 Musings
DID UFC 97 MARK THE END OF AN ERA?
Chuck Liddell is mixed martial arts’ biggest star. The iconic fighter reached his fighting peak just as the sport exploded into mainstream consciousness, making him a superstar in the process. But with four losses in his last five fights, including back-to-back knockouts, one must wonder whether we’ve seen the last of “The Iceman” in the sport that he helped build.
Liddell was non-committal during the post-fight presser when asked if he was going to retire. I’m not sure why pundits expect a fighter to make such a decision during what is certainly a dark emotional moment. Liddell is a fighter’s fighter. His love of the game and unquenchable thirst for fistic competition are what made him great. They are also what will make it extremely difficult for him to walk away from a sport that is as much a part of his DNA as the color of his eyes.
I’m not one to start shoving a fighter out of the sport before he is either ready to go or it is appropriate for his own safety. Nevertheless, if Saturday night was indeed the last time that Liddell competes inside the Octagon, he deserves to be remembered not for his recent run of competitive misfortune but instead for the entirety of his 11-year run that began on May 15, 1998, in Mobile, Alabama with a solid unanimous decision win over Noe Hernandez.
During that stretch, Liddell racked up a 16-6 record that included a run of dominance from April 2, 2004, to December 30, 2006, that turned Liddell into the fighting cult hero that he is today. Appropriately, that run of seven consecutive wins began and ended with TKO wins over bitter rival Tito Ortiz. In between, he won five other fights by knockout or TKO.
Think about that for a moment. Only Royce Gracie, Jon Fitch and Anderson Silva own longer UFC winning streaks. None of them, however, can lay claim to seven consecutive wins by knockout or TKO. That is simply amazing.
If we have indeed seen the last of Chuck Liddell, I can only utter a simple thank you.
Thank you for putting the sport on your broad shoulders when it needed you the most. After the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, the sport desperately needed an unbeatable, yet likeable, champion to help catapult it into mainstream consciousness. Thank you for everything my good friend Thomas Gerbasi pointed out in his well-penned article posted yesterday on this site.
Thank you for the memories, champ. You are still one of a kind, and it was a privilege to watch you compete.
SILVA’S RECORD-SETTING NIGHT LEAVES MUCH TO BE DESIRED, BUT IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
His corner asked him to engage in exchanges. The crowd begged for him to engage in exchanges. But Anderson Silva was inexplicably reluctant to let his hands and feet go against a man who was clearly outgunned on the feet.
Silva refused to play the role of aggressor, even when he realized that Leites wanted no part of him on the feet. Sure, he stalked and charged from time to time, but he didn’t let his strikes go during those aggressive moments. Instead, he pressed the action with feints and the occasional jab.
At the end of the day, Silva set a new UFC record for most consecutive wins at nine, leaving Jon Fitch and Royce Gracie tied for second place, and tied Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes for the most consecutive title defenses at five. That is great. I’m sure, however, that Silva would give back each of his last two snoozers and the records they earned for one explosive, crowd-pleasing win along the lines of those that made him the most fearsome force in the UFC.
In all fairness, not every fight will end inside the distance. Not every matchup will produce thrilling fireworks. It absolutely takes two to tango. Leites wanted no part of Silva’s standup game on Saturday night. That much was obvious. Still, Silva wasn’t overly interested in leading the dance, either. He chose to spend his time feinting, firing sidekicks above the knee and the occasional single strike rather than attacking with combinations.
Why? I can’t definitively answer that burning question, though I do have a few theories. The obvious one is that Silva is a counterstriker. The early part of his career was spent training with Chute Boxe, where virtually every fighter is a throw-caution-to-the-wind-and-attack-attack-attack kind of guy. Silva was a tall, skinny fighter with lots of speed back in those days, so it made sense for him to counter his bigger, slower attackers.
Silva still fights that way today, exploding on foes who dare approach him aggressively, but always waiting for his opponent to make the first move. The problem is that Silva cannot expect everyone to come out and attack him on the feet. The entire world knows what happens when someone presses him with strikes. They get knocked out. Rich Franklin can attest to that—twice. Chris Leben will co-sign. Nate Marquardt will follow with an “amen, brother.” Each of those men was reduced to rubble when they moved in aggressively against Silva. They paid a very painful price for playing into Silva’s strengths.
It makes sense, therefore, that fighters will look to try something different when challenging the champion. Silva should assume that opponents will try to make him leave his comfort zone and play the role of aggressor, so he should be training accordingly.
Silva isn’t the only reigning champion to suffer through a string of less-than-thrilling performances. Rashad Evans, also an effective counterstriker, has suffered through a number of dreadful fighting moments, opting to wait when an opponent refused to engage him. Former champion Vitor Belfort similarly circled around the cage with his dreaded left hand cocked and ready to fire for long periods without any action when opponents refused to attack him. Yet, each of those men can point to numerous timeless knockouts on their fighting resumes when opponents dared to attack aggressively.
There is no doubt that Silva is equally, if not more, disappointed in way the fight unfolded than the fans and pundits. Remember, this is a guy who was so disgusted with his bout against Cote that he sparred for a couple of rounds in his dressing room immediately following the fight.
As a result, I expect that Silva will react differently in the future if his opponent refuses to attack. His team will adjust his training to account for that scenario, since they surely realize that most guys will come out looking just to survive. Silva will reach them by pressing the action with strikes in bunches in search of what fans desire most – a sudden conclusion to the conflict.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to predict that his next fight will be one of the most thrilling of his career.
CAN ANYONE DEFEAT SILVA?
Criticisms aside, it is hard to deny the obvious: Anderson Silva is the single greatest fighter in the world—a label he has earned while in the midst of an unprecedented reign of terror inside the Octagon. That is true across all weight classes. His last two efforts don’t change that fact. All it will take is one exciting win and the Leites and Cote results will be forgotten or at least forgiven.
What is next for the champion? Can anyone present a legitimate threat to end his rule?
As far as middleweights go, there is no obvious challenger. A second bout with Nate Marquardt would certainly be an exciting affair because Marquardt will not circle passively like Leites and Cote. He will attack, though whether the result will change the second time around is open to debate.
Wanderlei Silva is another exciting option, assuming he can defeat Rich Franklin in June in their 195-lb catchweight bout. The two Silvas are former teammates at Chute Boxe and a healthy dose of dislike is starting to build between the two after the champion referred to his former teammate’s drop to 185 lbs as “pretentious.” Wanderlei is as aggressive as a rabid pitbull, so there is little doubt that he will attack Anderson, which plays right into his strength. Yet, Anderson has never before faced a middleweight with the same striking prowess as Wanderlei, assuming he brings all of his savage mauling power down to middleweight from light heavy. But none of that matters if Wanderlei is unsuccessful in his bid against Franklin at UFC 99.
Of course, the champion doesn’t have to stay focus solely the middleweight division when looking for motivating challenges.
Some guy named Georges St-Pierre competes 15 lbs to the south. GSP is the quintessential modern-day fighter. He is tall and lean, with excellent standup, dominant wrestling, an endless gas tank, and surprisingly effective BJJ. In fact, GSP is the only fighter in the UFC who draws current pound-for-pound comparisons to Silva. The Brazilian weighed 182 lbs for Saturday’s bout, so superfight against GSP at a split-the-difference weight of 178 lbs isn’t out of the question.
Sure, Silva would be the bigger man in that fight, but that shouldn’t much matter. James Irvin was far larger than Silva when the pair faced off in Silva’s lone light heavyweight bout, and he ended up crumbled on the canvas courtesy of a Silva counter left hand. Could GSP do the same to the bigger Brazilian? It is certainly possible. If nothing else, GSP would press the action against Silva, making for tons of fireworks for as long as the fight lasts. Plus, his unbelievable wrestling and stellar submission defense might just be the solution to the Anderson Silva riddle.
Another intriguing matchup for Silva is the winner of Rashad Evans versus Lyoto Machida. Don’t let the fact that Silva weighed in at 182 lbs fool you. The reigning middleweight champion walks around at 215 lbs or more, so fighting at 205 lbs is no problem at all. In fact, he looked tremendous in his 205-lb bout against Irvin last year, knocking him out in 61 seconds.
Evans and Machida are both amazing fighters, but they aren’t the biggest, strongest guys in the division. So, why not let Silva attempt to set yet another UFC first–simultaneously holding titles in two different UFC divisions. Dan Henderson accomplished that feat in PRIDE. But nobody has done that to date in the UFC. Silva can be the first. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson purportedly has dibs on the Evans-Machida winner. I’d like to see him take a momentary backseat and let Silva try to make history—again.
It is tough to say what is next for Silva. If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on a move to 205-lbs. Silva is starting to buy into the fact that he is an all-time great, and I think he wants to retire as the best ever. Thus, it makes sense for him to seek out additional history-making challenges. Winning another three or four fights at middleweight is great. Yet, it is plausible that someday someone will come along and break whatever record Silva establishes both for most consecutive wins inside the Octagon and also most successful title defenses. If he becomes the first man to ever hold two UFC belts at the same time, Silva will forever remain in the record books.
WELCOME BACK, SHOGUN
Any post-mortem on UFC 97 would be woefully incomplete without a few words on Shogun Rua’s impressive knockout win over Liddell. After the way that the former PRIDE Grand Prix champion looked in his first two bouts, I had basically written him off as a true contender. I thought he was a shot fighter at the tender young age of 27, that his two knee reconstructions had sapped the fighting spirit from him.
To say this fight was a career crossroads for Shogun is a gross understatement. He was fighting for his competitive life. He didn’t just have to win to secure his place among the light heavyweight mainstays; he had to win impressively. That sort of pressure can be paralyzing for even the fiercest competitors.
He didn’t shrink in the face of tremendous pressure. He didn’t wilt when standing opposed from a man who was also fighting to remain in the UFC. Instead, he rose to the occasion by giving the fans one of the finest performances of his young career.
The win firmly re-entrenches Shogun among the division’s elite. It instantly elevated him to the status of legitimate threat to whoever wins next month’s championship bout between Evans and Machida.
Welcome back, Shogun. It’s been far too long since fans have gotten to see the real Shogun compete. Let’s hope this version is here to stay.