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UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum – Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva Toe-to-Toe Preview

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Anderson Silva vs. Israel Adesanya co-headlines UFC 234 this February 10, 2019 at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.

One sentence summary:

David: Fedor vs. Bader: The Octagon Version

Phil: The saddest demise of a spider since Charlotte’s Web

Stats:

Record: Anderson Silva 34-8-1 NC | Israel Adesanya 15-0

Odds: Anderson Silva +420 | Israel Adesanya -535

History / Introduction to Both Fighters

David: I don’t know when it started. Maybe Dana White’s experience with Randy Couture gave him a taste for old man blood. Whatever was the catalyst, the UFC has decided to treat Anderson Silva — a true, blue, arachnoid legend — with all the grace of leaving Max Von Sydow to defend himself against robot cannibals with only an unwieldy shotgun in the better Dredd movie (@ me movie lovers of all things dark and brooding). MMA whipper snappers might not remember the raw excitement of an Anderson Silva fight — in part because the UFC loves showing highlights of the first Weidman fight. But it’s interesting to note that he hasn’t been blown out in recent fights. This is especially impressive given that one of them was Daniel Cormier. As usual, I’m not sure what it all means but maybe it’s relevant.

Phil: The story of late career Anderson Silva is of a man clinging on by his absolute fingertips, keeping just enough chinks of light out there that determined Silva stans can tell themselves that the blackness isn’t closing in. Remember when he hurt Cormier with a body kick? He pretty much knocked out Michael Bisping! Bisping was champ one fight later! Derek Brunson is still a decent win! If you want to see someone leveraging the absolute most out of craft, cunning and a scary reputation, it’s been something of a masterclass. With that being said, it’s not exactly characterized by sustainability. At some point, the bright spots disappear. Probably now.

David: Just when we thought Adesanya was on the title fight train, here he is on the legend killing tour instead. This was apparently Adesanya’s “big” idea. Which is fine, I guess. As a piece of political matchmaking to give him breathing room before going after middleweight gold, this is fine. As a piece of political matchmaking to give him more audience reach, this is fine. As a competitive fight to challenge Israel’s talents, and polish his progression, this is bad. This is the UFC, so bad can be good I guess.

Phil: Adesanya is a smart cookie, and has leveraged himself into a good position. The UFC’s prospect management system is characterized by its insane brutality, and he managed to ride it and come out ahead, polishing off Derek Brunson and then setting himself up for a title eliminator. Apparently the first choice was Jacare, and then the UFC were impressed enough by him that they accepted his suggestion of Silva when Souza couldn’t make it. It’s high-profile, eminently winnable, and basically a good fight for him, and for the UFC. It’s a bad one for anyone who doesn’t want to watch their heroes get taken out behind the barn and put down. Which is, uh, most of us.

What’s at stake?

David: This is the UFC. The greatest MMA show on earth. And this is a co-main event on the greatest MMA show on earth. So naturally, the stakes are low. If Israel wins, he was supposed to. If Anderson wins, he’s a legend and great fighters always have one last great fight left in them. Unfortunately Anderson used up that cliche capital when he beat Derek Brunson.

Phil: The whole thing seems very much designed to get us Adesanya vs Whittaker, but I think the UFC would be pretty happy to get Anderson in there for the belt in the (spoiler: incredibly unlikely) event that he turns back the clock.

Where do they want it?

David: At the height of his game, Silva was a brilliant marksman: never willing to land in combination, prod with rhythm, or bludgeon opponents — instead Silva settled onto a calm, patient, cold precision for whatever particular strike he felt like throwing. He had a side order of offensive grappling acumen that kept him from getting blown out in stylistically tough matchups, and a legend was born. The reason why Silva looks so bad at times isn’t just that he got old, but that he got old with the same defense. Defense is always the thing that deteriorates most emphatically. Because if you can’t take hits like you used to, you’re just done. Being slower means being too slow to react, too slow keep your hands up, or too slow to counter back to keep them from attempting strikes. That just magnifies everything about your ability/inability to take punishment and so what we’re seeing with 43 year old Silva is a fighter who can’t afford to do much of anything. His game is static because he can’t do one or the other. Good thing for him he’s still a dangerous MF’er.

Phil: Over Silva’s career, an approach characterized by pinpoint violence and unbreakable durability was made even more terrifying by the threat of some crazy shit. When he was closing in, feinting with his hips or his shoulders, kung-fu dancing or demonstrating the 52 blocks, who knew when an up elbow, or a jump knee or just a long, nasty jab was going to come sliding out of the weirdness? Over time, the threat and the weirdness had to do more heavy lifting as the durability and the accuracy started to slip away. I’m reminded of this great piece by Davis Miller about meeting an aging Muhammad Ali, who manages to convince Miller for just a single moment that he’s still got it.

”And Ali throws another three dozen blows at the gods of mortality. He springs a triple hook off of a jab, each punch so quick it trails lines of light. He drops straight right leads faster than (most fighters’) jabs, erupts into a storm of uppercuts, and the air pops, and his fists and feet whir. This is his best work. His highest art. The very combinations no one has ever thrown quite like Muhammad Ali. When he was fighting, he typically held back some; this is the stuff he seldom had to use.

“Do you believe?” he asks, breathing hard.”

That’s what has saved Silva, more than anything. The ability to muster up those moments, and convince against all evidence that this right here is Anderson “The Spider” Silva, mythical destroyer, and not just a shopworn but infinitely crafty fighter approaching the end of his career.

David: I can’t complain about Adesanya’s nickname like I do most other fighters. But I do think ‘The Spider’ might be more accurate for Israel than Anderson. Unlike Silva, Adesanya casts a violent network of projectiles to take down his opponents. Adesanya is all about being fluid rather than defined; protecting himself from predictability first, and the common tactics that opponents use to capitalize on that predictability, second. There was a moment against Brunson where Adesanya compactly steps in for an overhand right. His reset into a southpaw stance is instantaneous. He doesn’t follow up with an overhand left, but the punch was there, and it would have ended Brunson’s night if he had thrown it. This is the web he weaves: pressure not merely from offense, but pressure from engagement. Make no mistake: barring a miracle, Anderson will get deaded.

Phil: The story here is inevitably one of youth vs decline, but we have to get something straight: Adesanya would have been a tough matchup for any iteration of Silva. His ability to throw accurate strikes while staying defensively responsible, keeping his weight over his feet and conserving energy and space always would have been tough for Silva’s defenses, which were primarily focused on pulling people into major overcommitments. In particular, Adesanya has a wonderful variegated jab which he can throw at multiple speeds and from different angles, which he can use to pull responses out of his opponents. He’s not as unhittable as Silva could be, but this is partially because he is fighting better strikers, and partially because he’s built a style which is built to be effective against a wider range of opponents. His issues are relatively limited: he occasionally stops to watch his work after landing a shot, he doesn’t appear to have a particularly deep grappling game, and he’s debatably a little undersized for the weight class. None of that seems like anything Silva can really capitalize on.

Insight from past fights?

David: Oddly enough, despite Anderson’s lengthy career, he hasn’t fought many high level strikers: fighters who were true specialists. Unless you count his boxing training and brief career. In which case, what makes him special seems to show up even in specific aspects of combat. He has unique quickness and movement, etc.

Phil: Both the Weidman and Bisping fights showed Silva being forced into major defensive errors and getting punished. In both cases they stayed on top of their feet, pushed him backwards by doubling up on their lead hands and then clocked him once he was out of position. Adesanya seems eminently capable of doing this.

X-Factors

Phil: Dick pills? The fact that it was two years since Silva’s last win and he probably didn’t win it? The main question: is there an X-factor which leads to Silva not getting destroyed, and the answer is: probably not.

David: Dick pills? What did I miss? Other than Israel’s tasteless shirts?

Prognostication

David: I expect this one to get drawn out. Anderson is still worth respecting, and will be when he’s wearing a colostomy bag at a hospice. Adesanya doesn’t like to threaten indiscriminately, so expect one of those awkward “feeling out” rounds (to make us feel like we’re watching something competitive when really it’s a wild west shootout with a clock problem) before the violent, predictable finish. Israel Adesanya by KO, round 3.

Phil: Adesanya doesn’t tend to get people out of there all that quickly, unless they sprint into his strikes a la Brunson. This could be a painful, drawn out thing, but in all honesty I hope it’s over quickly. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 1.


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