If there is one fundamental aspect of mixed martial arts that will never change, it’s that styles make fights.
The first televised UFC bout took place Nov. 12, 1993, between 216-pound Dutch striker Gerard Gordeau and 410-pound sumo wrestler Teila Tuli -- neither of whom fought for the UFC past that one night.
The entire event was built around the concept of pitting one style against another. In the case of Gordeau and Tuli, it was referred to as “savate versus sumo.”
Savate turned out to have sumo’s number that night. Gordeau ended the bout with a single kick to Tuli’s face when the sumo wrestler, for whatever reason, forgot to defend himself after his first (and lone) takedown attempt. It was all over in 26 seconds.
Nearly two decades and thousands of UFC fights later, the way in which styles alter fights might not be as visible, but it is still just as important.
If styles didn’t make fights, making a case for No. 1 middleweight contender Chael Sonnen against reigning champion Anderson Silva this weekend at UFC 148 would be difficult. Silva is widely regarded as the best fighter to ever live. Sonnen is a high-level athlete, but his résumé doesn’t compare to Silva’s and it likely never will.
To dismiss Sonnen’s chances in this fight, though, as so many seem to be doing despite how successful he was in their first meeting, is to somewhat forget what the entire UFC was built around.
“People do overlook the fact styles make matchups,” said Las Vegas-based grappling coach Neil Melanson, who has worked with Sonnen since early 2010. “I don’t care how great Anderson is, we’re still a bad matchup for him regardless.
“Chael’s approach, as far as he’s relentless with the takedowns, he wins rounds and he throws a lot of strikes, is difficult for everybody. He has elements we hadn’t seen used against Anderson except for when they fought and it was very dominant.”
At UFC 112 in April 2010, B.J. Penn left the cage without his 155-pound title despite entering that night as a 7-to-1 favorite over challenger Frankie Edgar. The outcome was seen as such a fluke, Penn was booked for an immediate rematch, where he was once again listed a significant favorite at 3.5-to-1.
Penn’s trainer, Jason Parillo, who believes Penn is the greatest lightweight of all time, says he entered both Edgar fights with confidence but saw the challenge ahead. Knowing Penn inside and out, Parillo figured Edgar’s style would be a nightmare.
“In all honesty, I truly believe B.J. has the ability to beat Frankie,” Parillo said. “But I’ve been with B.J. for so long and I knew the kind of style that would give him problems would always be a fast-footed guy.
“If you don’t want to stay and engage with him -- if you want to run from him a bit, you can give him problems. Frankie is tough enough to do that and he’s got the heart and skill to get away with it.”
Edgar ultimately won the rematch far more convincingly than the first. In some ways it reminded Parillo of a scenario he saw in boxing, when the highly touted Vernon Forrest ran into Ricardo Mayorga twice in 2003.
Forrest, the welterweight champion of the world at the time, was coming off back-to-back wins over Shane Mosley and was, in Parillo’s eyes, a far more technical fighter than Mayorga. It didn’t show when the two met in the ring that year, however. Mayorga finished Forrest in the third round of their first fight, then won a majority decision six months later.
When Parillo watches the first fight between Silva and Sonnen, his eye falls on what he refers to as the “rhythm” of each. What he sees, he’s seen enough throughout his years in combat sports to recognize. Sonnen’s rhythm disrupted Silva’s.
“Of course I give Chael a shot. It appeared in that first fight he had Anderson’s number,” Parillo said. “There’s some stuff you can’t develop in the gym and I think it goes back to the word ‘rhythm.’
“Some rhythms off-beat other rhythms. No matter how talented one guy is, he’s got a problem with certain guys because of the natural rhythm they have. It’s not something you can pick up. It’s what’s in you.”
Sonnen and Silva have spent five rounds in a cage together. Sonnen successfully landed a takedown in each. He landed 320 total strikes and became the first fighter in UFC history to knock the Brazilian down, which he did in the fifth frame with a straight left hand.
He accomplished more on his feet than any of Silva’s previous opponents in the UFC. As Melanson noted, it’s not necessarily because Sonnen’s striking is more advanced than that of a Rich Franklin, Forrest Griffin or Vitor Belfort -- it’s that his particular style doesn’t allow Silva to dictate every move of the fight.
“I think Forrest Griffin is a great fighter but style-wise, that fight was tailor-made for Anderson,” Melanson said. “[Griffin] got clowned in that fight and he’s great. Anderson is too fast and too long for his style. Chael’s not going to hang out there [at the end of Silva's punches].”
Another one of Silva’s former opponents believes Sonnen’s success on the feet had less to do with his technique and more to do with another element of his game.
Patrick Cote, who became the first UFC fighter to take Silva into the third round at UFC 90, thinks Sonnen can find success against Silva because he’s one of the few men out there not afraid of him.
“I don’t think you can beat him by skill,” said Cote, who still predicts Silva to overcome Sonnen in the rematch. “You can beat him by a game plan and power shots and showing you’re not scared of him. That’s exactly what Chael Sonnen did in the first fight.
“The thing is you have to deal with [Silva’s] confidence. He’s so confident in his skills. He’s not scared, because he knows he can back it up with something else if [one thing] is not working. He always has a Plan B, and that’s scary.”
Of course, no one style holds every advantage over the other. In this case, Silva, as one might easily imagine, possesses multiple ways to win the fight and secure his record-setting 10th title defense.
Sonnen has had serious defensive lapses in his opponents’ closed guard, resulting in an eye-catching seven losses via triangle choke or armbar.
In the first fight, he staggered in the fourth round after Silva rocked him with an elbow strike followed by a straight punch. He survived, perhaps only because Silva willingly followed him to the ground after an unsuccessful takedown attempt.
At times Sonnen lacks finishing power, as evidenced by the fact that not one of those 320 strikes landed in August 2010 was powerful enough to end the fight. Silva has even turned to pointing that out in the buildup to the rematch.
“He was in his most dominant position for most of the fight,” Silva said. “If I was in my most dominant position for a few seconds, that fight wouldn’t have went the way it did.”
Yes, there are still reasons to like Silva in the rematch -- lots of them.
This sport has taught all a lesson, however, that has generally held up regarding every fighter to step in the Octagon. No one is invincible. If Silva is ever destined for a loss in the UFC, this weekend would certainly appear a prime candidate for it to happen.