It is being called the biggest rematch of all time. UFC President Dana White is even predicting more than one million pay-per-view buys, something that has not happened since UFC 121 in 2010. Combine the comedic trash-talking genius of Chael Sonnen with the awkward, Portuguese-speaking, longest-reigning, most dominant UFC champion of all-time and toss in the ultimate missed-it-by-that-much moment in MMA history, and, yes, you have yourself a very intriguing main event.
The history runs deep on this rematch, and the first fight between Silva and Sonnen makes the second much, much more interesting. While people mostly counted out Sonnen in the first fight -- he was a more than 4-to-1 underdog -- he went on to dominate Silva for four-and-half rounds before the triangle armbar seen around the world.
Now, we are all left wondering the same thing: can Sonnen finish what he started? Let us first understand how each of these fighters looks in critical-performance categories and exactly why that first fight was so surprising.
Tale of the Tape
We have two full-size, southpaw middleweights fighting into the back half of their 30s, but, despite those similarities, stylistically, they are very, very different fighters.
In terms of the Tale of Tape, Silva’s reach advantage will be important if he can maintain his distance this time around -- and keep the fight standing. If he has room with which to work, Silva has the much greater finishing experience upon which to capitalize. One unusual data point in the Silva column is his layoff of 315 days. That is by far the longest period of inactivity in his UFC career and twice his average layoff of 145 days.
In the other corner, Sonnen will again try to get this fight to the ground to nullify Silva’s striking advantage in order to control the fight and grind out a decision – something he has been quite good at in his UFC career. However, that also means working hard for all 25 minutes. His layoff of 161 days is fairly typical leading up to a title fight and only slightly longer than his usual layoff, not counting the extended, forced vacation he had in 2010-11. Though at times Sonnen looked a little gassed against Michael Bisping back in January, one would assume he is preparing for five full rounds as his best chance for victory.
Now let us look at the UFC career statistics for these two.
The Striking Matchup
It is a tale of two very different fighters when it comes to the standup game. Silva has been absolutely dominant with his striking skills, knocking opponents to the floor 15 different times in the Octagon with high-precision head striking ability, both from a distance and from the clinch. While both fighters have better than average striking defense, Silva’s power head striking evasiveness is particularly impressive. Both fighters have also shown strong chins throughout their careers, which is unusually good for men in their mid- to late-30s.
Sonnen, on the other hand, does not even have the head striking accuracy of an “average” UFC middleweight and owns less than half of Silva’s boxing accuracy metrics. Though their pace is fairly evenly matched, Silva tends to throw a majority of standup strikes with power, while Sonnen relies more on jabs. Sonnen’s slight edge in striking pace reflects his tendency to initiate exchanges as a way of setting up takedowns. He is not necessarily landing more strikes, but firing off jabs to set up takedowns.
We will get to their first fight in a minute, but let us be clear that a healthy Silva has a clear and significant striking advantage over Sonnen, with lots of numbers to back up that claim. In terms of “significant strikes,” which includes all standing strikes and power strikes from the clinch and on the ground, Silva ranks number one all-time in terms of accuracy. Silva also has more knockdowns (15) than any fighter in UFC history, including heavier sluggers like Chuck Liddell.
Takedowns and the Grappling Matchup
When it comes to wrestling, it is a different story altogether. Sonnen has used his wrestling base as the key to most of his fights, relentlessly attempting takedowns and getting dominant positions to rain down strikes. In terms of jiu-jitsu, Silva has the better metrics. Silva has three submission finishes and has never tapped in the UFC. Sonnen, on the other hand, has been submitted four times in the UFC and only recently scored his first submission against Brian Stann, notably, by an arm-triangle choke that favors wrestlers.
That poses an interesting matchup on the ground yet again: Silva’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu versus Sonnen’s wrestling. With the fight spending little time standing, it was this ground matchup that defined the first fight for Sonnen, as well as the win for Silva. This matchup imbalance will remain a key question in the rematch.
UFC 117 ‘Silva vs. Sonnen’
Now let us rewind and take a look back the numbers from the first fight.
To say that Silva’s performance at UFC 117 was “uncharacteristic” would be wholly inadequate. He landed a grand total of 12 standing strikes over almost five rounds, while Sonnen pressed the action and landed more than 300 ground strikes. In terms of who got to implement his game plan, Sonnen won that battle hands down. As we all know, what matters is who had his hand raised at the end, and despite Sonnen’s talk of being the “true champion,” he still had to be saved by the referee that night. At the end of the fight, those climactic final seconds were far less surprising than the preceding 23 minutes, as the mortality of Silva was finally exposed.
Sonnen’s ground-and-pound was mostly done from full or half guard, though he did get to side control once in the fifth round. It was then that Sonnen looked to tire and started striking the body from Silva’s guard before getting caught by the triangle. Certainly, Sonnen has been practicing submission defense, given that his offensive strategy will likely be similar and he will not try to “coast” to a victory. Just as certainly, Silva will look to keep the fight standing and more at his optimal distance. Where will the fight go and which fighter will make the better adjustments? Could we even see Silva trying to put Sonnen on his back?
One big unanswered question focuses on the rib injury Silva sustained just before UFC 117. How much of a factor was it in his performance that night? It is very hard to tell, even with the help of an interpreter. Did it affect his standup striking? Did it hurt his takedown defense? If so, Sonnen will be facing a tougher opponent than he did two years ago, one who could tip the Octagon control towards a more standup-focused fight. This really will be the key to the matchup, and that makes the first takedown and subsequent seconds the critical first clue to how this fight will play out.
The Final Word
At UFC 117, Silva was a -460 betting favorite, Sonnen a +410 underdog. This time around, Silva comes in as a more reasonable -280 favorite, with Sonnen at +220. The betting market likes Sonnen’s chances a lot better in this rematch, but he is still a sizable underdog. Since Silva’s debut in the UFC, he has averaged a -345 favorite, and only once has he ever been considered an underdog, which was in his first title shot against Rich Franklin. Silva still won via knockout.
The numbers say that if this fight ends early, it will be Silva extending his record winning streak even further. However, we now know what was unthinkable before UFC 117: Sonnen has the recipe for a championship upset. Pulling off this victory would be the greatest called shot since Babe Ruth’s 1932 World Series home run to center field.
The the fact that emotions are running high on both sides of the cage will ensure that the fans will see a real fight. Regardless of who wins, the post-fight interviews and press conference will be more interesting than usual. Someone will have some big bragging rights. Let us hope it does not end in a draw.
How do you see this going down? Does history repeat itself, with Sonnen dictating the fight and dominating on the ground? If so, can he evade Silva’s submission long enough to seal the victory? Or do we see the fight we expected the first time, with a healthy and angry Silva putting on his usual striking clinic and scoring the knockout with laser-like strikes. What do the numbers tell you?
Later this month, we will take a look at the numbers for Urijah Faber and Renan “Barao,” as they face off for the interim bantamweight title at UFC 149.
Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics, FightMetric and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.
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