Breaking down the UFC 117 main card
Prepare your puny brains for a violence exhibition par excellence come Saturday, as UFC 117: Silva vs. Sonnen airs live on pay-per-view from the Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.
Headlined by mercurial UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva defending his strap against the brutally acerbic Chael Sonnen, the main card is arguably the best slate of fistic entertainment you'll get this month -- no small feat considering there are three other Zuffa-run cards in August.
Such supreme goodness requires analysis and prognostication. As per usual, I'm here to deliver the knowledge. So stand up, sit down and repeat while reading. What? I figure some of you could use a bit of exercise.
After months of Sonnen's delusional and at times ignorant rants, it's finally time to see if he can back up his verbal assault with a physical one against Silva, the reigning UFC middleweight champion. Making that happen begins with takedowns. Then it gets awfully complicated.
Sonnen is capable of taking down any middleweight alive and Silva's defensive wrestling has never been impregnable, so that's certainly not the defining aspect of this fight. Everyone from Dan Henderson to Nate Marquardt managed to get Silva on the floor. They all lost, too, primarily because they could not advance position.
Guard-passing has never been a part of Sonnen's tool belt, and it's the main reason why he has been submitted from the guard so many times before. To his credit, he's absolutely fearless when it comes to posturing up in his opponent's guard and dropping strikes. The tradeoff is that anyone with a competent guard game is going to tap out Sonnen sooner or later.
Not only does Silva have a decent offensive guard, but his long frame allows him to quickly secure the body triangle and play a lockdown defensive guard. An oft-ignored aspect of Silva's guard is that he has never been above waiting out a referee restart. That means Sonnen will be in an ongoing struggle to generate offense, and he has never been a dominant ground-and-pounder.
It's worth noting that Sonnen hasn't finished an opponent in nearly three years. A 25-minute fight always favors the fighter who has more ways to end it. Besides the very real possibility that Sonnen will be too clueless to defend a submission from Silva's guard, he still has to navigate the dangers of closing the pocket on "The Spider."
One of the big reasons why Silva has so much success against takedown-minded opponents is that he makes them come to him. A natural counterpuncher with that rare combination of timing and knockout power, Silva excels at catching opponents as they try to get in on him. Since Sonnen has roughly a zero-percent chance of survival on the feet, he has no choice but to step inside Silva's range and risk the consequences.
It's a process that Sonnen will have to repeat several times to have any chance of winning, and that is what puts this fight beyond his reach. No one is going to ground-and-pound Silva for 25 minutes, because that feat goes hand in hand with shutting down perhaps the most brilliant offensive fighter in all of MMA. Even when Silva goes off the rails and turns into Charlie Chaplin, he still does things that 99 percent of fighters could never do on their best day.
Sonnen's best day against Silva would be to win a round or two with uneventful top control before either getting starched or tapped. Undoubtedly the greatest testament to Sonnen's prefight verboseness is the misguided notion among some observers that he has a real chance to win this fight. To put it simply: A focused Silva puts Sonnen away in less than 10 minutes; a playful one humiliates him for the full 25.
Make no mistake: This fight is happening only because the UFC wants to eliminate either Alves or Fitch as a legitimate contender for a title shot. As distasteful as the machinations that created this bout may be, it's still a supreme-quality bout between the 2A and 2B of the welterweight division.
Fitch enters the fight with a four-year-old win over Alves that really has no meaning as far as prognosticating the rematch. In the years since that loss, Alves' takedown defense has improved to the point that he was able to no-sell Josh Koscheck's double-leg and batter him for 15 minutes solid. However, Fitch poses an entirely different challenge than Koscheck.
One of the few "grinders" to make his way to MMA, Fitch doesn't barrel anyone over with supersonic shots or hit sky-high throws. Instead, he bulls his way into the clinch and puts every ounce of his ginormous frame to work. It's a strategy that leaves his opponents stifled but doesn't lend itself to high-level offense. Often, it also leaves Fitch running on fumes from the physical exertion of manhandling monster athletes.
Enacting that strategy against Alves will be doubly problematic in that Alves excels at controlling distance and can land with fight-ending power from any range. Although Fitch has taken pains to improve his striking and do a better job of setting up his takedowns, his overall lack of speed remains a glaring vulnerability. Being so slow of fist and foot makes Fitch an easy mark for counterstrikes, a fact that was painfully brought to life in his doomed title bout with Georges St. Pierre.
Tough as Fitch may be, he'll get aced in exchanges by Alves' vastly superior boxing and would undoubtedly end up hobbled by leg kicks. Although Alves was hesitant to use his leg kicks against St. Pierre, that mostly stemmed from St. Pierre's transitional wrestling ability, which is something Fitch does not have. It takes more than a deep single leg to put Alves down, and Fitch is used to simply digging in on his takedown attempts and forcing fights to the floor.
For all the warts in Fitch's game, however, he is undeniably effective. It's entirely possible that he could get Alves down. The rub is that if Fitch couldn't finish Ben Saunders, he's not going to finish Alves unless he busts out a one-in-a-million moment of offense. That lack of offensive dynamism and his cardio-sapping style make the second half of fights especially difficult for him.
Getting into a war of attrition with Alves just isn't a good idea, and the only fighters Fitch ever completely shuts down are ones who can't get past his wrestling. Take for example his fight with Mike Pierce, which saw him dominate up until the very end, when Pierce cracked him. Besides being far more dangerous than Pierce, Alves has the conditioning to keep his pace for the full 15 minutes as well as the defensive wrestling to impose his pace on Fitch.
Odds are this fight does come down to the last round. There is no reason to think an exhausted Fitch will have the juice to hold Alves down in the stretch. If anything, a more competitive version of Alves' fight with Koscheck is likely what we'll end up with. Just as in that fight, Alves' defensive wrestling and debilitating leg kicks will win the day come crunch time.
More from Sherdog.com
Want the complete UFC 117 main card preview? Sherdog has you covered.
If you have anything to be thankful for as an MMA fan, it should be that the days of Paul Buentello and Jeff Monson challenging for the UFC heavyweight title are long gone. Currently in their stead are Dos Santos and Nelson, who will match wits and fists for the right to take on the winner of the upcoming Brock Lesnar/Cain Velasquez ultra-fight.
Deciding who earns that potentially dubious prize comes down to who controls range. Setting aside Nelson's back-to-back KO wins, he does his best work when he gets in the clinch and hits his trademark outside trip into half-guard. Dos Santos, on the other hand, likes to stay mobile on the outside while throwing the occasional jab or feint before collapsing the pocket with power punches.
Both at range and in close quarters, Nelson will have serious trouble with Dos Santos' hand speed and crisp boxing technique -- a fact best illustrated by Nelson's bout with Andrei Arlovski, which saw him struggle and ultimately fail to keep up with the Belarussian's striking. Dos Santos is a much better counterpuncher than Arlovski, and his chin isn't made of talcum powder, either -- thus he's much more willing to stay in the pocket and wait out opportunities.
A boxing match just isn't going to go Nelson's way. He's effective only from just outside midrange, where his clubbing punches have their best chance of landing. Even if Nelson were able to keep the fight at that range, Dos Santos' two best punches are the counter left hook and lead uppercut, both of which will beat Nelson's parabolic punches to the target every time.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
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