Quite frankly, this fight is thoroughly nonsensical in a competitive sense; a prospect fighting a faded legend is relatively commonplace, but a proven contender fighting a faded legend in a title eliminator is relatively rare (and a fairly transparent artifice to get the burgeoning kickboxer to a title shot without risking his derailment at the hands of elite contenders like Romero or Souza).
In a sense, it’s a bit of a detour for Israel Adesanya, who has worked his way through harder and harder challenges and is now getting a fight against a consensus-legend but not exactly a world-beater at this stage; meanwhile, Silva gets an opportunity for a resurgence as the man on the top of everyone’s GOAT lists.
Israel Adesanya can gain a great name on his CV with a win at UFC 234, but it doesn’t really improve his stock if he wins, considering the respect that the oddsmakers and the public are giving him in this matchup. Per the odds, nothing short of an absolute destruction is expected from Adesanya, and anything else could compromise his standing. Adesanya’s scintillating win over Brunson (combined with the state of the division, with three divisional staples considering a move to light heavyweight and another with prior losses to Whittaker and Gastelum) already have him in position for the title shot against the winner of the main event, so this fight carries far less reward than it does risk.
Anderson Silva is in the opposite situation. Since Silva lost the belt to Chris Weidman in 2013, the Strikeforce-import era began with Luke Rockhold winning the title, continued with Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza finding continued success, and has somewhat waned and been replaced (after a short intermission) by a newer crop of strikers represented in the UFC 234 main event. In other words, Silva built his legacy two middleweight generations ago, and the level of competition has improved drastically since he effortlessly ruled the division. A loss in Australia for Silva won’t destroy his legacy, as he’s clearly been out of his prime for a while; however, a win (or even just a competitive fight) would prove that he’s as skilled as his competition made him look. If Silva can turn back the clock and beat Adesanya, he’s almost certainly the next challenge for the winner of Whittaker/Gastelum.
If a stylistic nightmare were to be constructed for Anderson Silva, he would most likely fight similarly to Israel Adesanya. Anderson Silva was a great in an era where boxing in MMA was far from its peak; top contenders such as Forrest Griffin ran forward with 1-2s trying to catch him, and the best striker that Silva faced in his prime was either Dan Henderson (whose striking game began and ended with his signature right hand) or Vitor Belfort (whose game at the time was largely walking his opponent onto a flurry of ridiculously fast 1-2s). Silva was able to make those opponents look like fools, but his exaggerated head movement hid some larger flaws. Silva still is an all-time great, but he’s also a product of his time, and nowhere was this clearer than in his fight against Michael Bisping.
Bisping wasn’t a world-beater and his flaws were well-defined after a long career, but he defeated Anderson Silva with his disciplined feinting and his ability to use throwaway punches to get Silva out of position before committing. For the most part, the fight was Silva sitting back and waiting for an opportunity that a fighter like Yushin Okami was all too happy to hand him, only for Bisping to throw off Silva’s timing and defense. The first Weidman loss showed that Silva’s signature head movement could be capitalized upon, as Weidman allowed Silva to throw himself out of position with each of his defensive maneuvers and cracked him as Silva left himself with nowhere to go, and Bisping did something in the same vein to drop Silva (triggering a reaction from Silva with a long left hook, and stepping in with a combination as Silva reset).
Israel Adesanya shines in the areas where Bisping gave Silva the most trouble. Adesanya’s kickboxing pedigree is about as legitimate as there has ever been in MMA, with a very successful stint up against the very best in the world; he’s no Stephen Thompson, and it shows with his offensive versatility. Specifically, Adesanya’s strongest at a range where he can flick out his long straight punches, an excellent jab and a straight that’s fast enough to serve a similar purpose; Adesanya can use the setup from the jab to build into clean and unique (in MMA terms, at least) combinations.
The unorthodoxy (and soundness) of Adesanya’s combination work is likely to stymie Silva; where Silva’s defensive maneuvers are well-built for the combinations thrown by most, the Bisping and Weidman losses showed that his defense is less useful against opponents who don’t overextend and can confuse him in the middle of a defensive motion with something unexpected (for Weidman, it was a right backfist off a right hand that made Silva nearly fall over to dodge, and left him in position for the left hook). That sort of thing is what Adesanya does extremely well, and an example is Adesanya’s punching off kicks; Adesanya used a right head kick to draw the guard of Brunson before slotting in a snapping right hand behind it that caught Brunson totally unaware. The sort of offensive subtlety that Adesanya possesses isn’t neared by any of prime Silva’s victims, and Adesanya will likely be able to throw off Silva’s counter game and exploit his weaker defense in longer exchanges against smart strikers.
Where Silva found success in his aforementioned fight against Bisping was his sporadic and terrifying moments of willing to go on the lead; Bisping often took serious damage when Silva was willing to go first and Bisping was driven to the fence. Of course, there’s a reason Silva doesn’t do that often; Bisping isn’t an especially dangerous counterpuncher, but he was able to catch Silva with shots on the way in a few times, and Adesanya is both more of a defensive striker and more of a counterpunching threat than the legendary Brit.
Adesanya’s defense is a lot subtler than Silva’s, but he does a good job using a frame to keep his opponent from rushing him and moves his head very well to set up counter-punching opportunities while keeping his stance. Adesanya’s best defensive tool is arguably his positioning and his ability to control distance; Adesanya likes a lot of “modern” MMA tactics, such as switching stances to keep his opponent guessing, but he keeps himself safe by doing those things economically and without leaving himself stranded between stances, so he can often just safely step back to let his opponent fall short. Adesanya is incredibly difficult to push to the fence as a result of all of these factors; his counterpunching, his defense, and his ability to create space with his movement (while not panicking and running back) all complicate the task immensely for a fighter who isn’t uniquely good at pressuring, and Silva is not a pressure fighter.
This fight is likely to just be a straight kickboxing fight, considering the improving takedown defense of Adesanya and Silva’s historical lack of wrestling inclination (although Silva on top likely finishes the fight). In space, Silva doesn’t appear to have much of a replicable shot; in the clinch, it’s slightly better, but still not all that good. Silva’s destruction of Rich Franklin from the double-collar-tie is the stuff of legend, but Adesanya’s understanding of framing and wrist control have been excellent in his MMA career thus far; it’s usually taken the form of stuffing his opponent’s head to stop their returns, but one particularly vicious elbow on Tavares suggests that Adesanya can also hang with Silva offensively in a clinch battle. In general, outside of a few fights, the double collar tie has proven relatively difficult to leverage for long; it’s taken phenomenal clinchers like Rafael dos Anjos to get off long combinations from that position, so even if Silva can consolidate the DCT, it isn’t necessarily a reliable win condition against a competent clincher.
Conclusions and Capping
Anderson Silva is a freakishly tough fighter with the ability to pull a fight from the brink in an instant, so it’s hard to say he has absolutely no shot. However, the style matchup favors Adesanya so thoroughly that it’s also hard to say that Silva has a real path to victory. Overall, Adesanya’s title eliminator is likely to be a very successful one.
Prediction: Adesanya via second-round TKO. This writer caps Adesanya at -400.
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