Cain Velasquez and Antonio Silva first met in May 2012, and it was not pretty. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
When Cain Velasquez and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva enter the Octagon for the UFC 160 main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, it will be the 102nd rematch in Ultimate Fighting Championship history.
Given that the UFC has put on that many fights since February alone, it is a relatively uncommon occurrence. From the first rematch at UFC 5 between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie to the most recent sequel pitting Urijah Faber against Ivan Menjivar at UFC 157, fighters have sought to avenge past setbacks and prove their superiority against familiar foes.
More often than not, history ends up repeating itself. Setting aside draws and no contests, the fighters who won their previous bout went 54-39 in the rematch. That 58 percent winning percentage is a solid indicator that Silva has an uphill battle ahead of him, but even it may be a little deceptive.
Rematches, after all, do not occur randomly. Rather, they are selected by matchmakers for specific reasons. Often, there is some sort of freak occurrence that prevented the original fight from proving the better fighter. There have been disqualifications (Yushin Okami-Anderson Silva), eye injury TKOs (Anthony Johnson-Kevin Burns and Randy Couture-Vitor Belfort), accidental head butt TKOs (Stephan Bonnar/Krzysztof Soszynski), terrible referee stoppages (Aaron Riley-Shane Nelson) and even fighters accidentally knocking themselves out (Matt Lindland-Falaniko Vitale). These instances were a far cry from a decisive TKO or submission.
Even in cases where a fighter fairly won a bout, there is usually a strong reason to expect things will go differently when a rematch is made. There have been heavily criticized decisions like Leonard Garcia-Chan Sung Jung, Garcia-Nam Phan and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua-Lyoto Machida. Then there have been decisions that were simply very close, like Couture-Pedro Rizzo, Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard 2, Sam Stout-Spencer Fisher, Stout-Fisher 2 and Edgar-Benson Henderson.
Rematches where one fighter beat his opponent as decisively as Velasquez beat Silva are rare, and they do not favor the once defeated very often. Still, with that small sample size, there are some clear examples of the sorts of circumstances that led fighters to successfully avenge prior losses.
The first and most obvious way fighters have changed their fortunes in rematches is by switching up game plans. MMA is a sport with no shortage of ways to win, and finding the right strategy against a given opponent is crucial to success. More often than not, rematches have gone differently because the initial loser decided to make it a different sort of fight.
When Chuck Liddell first fought Jeremy Horn, he still relied heavily on his offensive wrestling. He willingly went to the ground with “Gumby,” and Horn choked him out with an arm-triangle from the bottom. The second time around, Liddell took a completely different approach. Liddell made avoiding the ground game his priority and punished Horn with strikes until he could no longer continue.
“The Iceman” fought the first fight on Horn’s terms and the second on his own.
The opposite basic pattern occurred when Georges St. Pierre rematched Matt Serra. In their first fight, St. Pierre seemed content to stand and trade with Serra. He was likely thinking that Serra had knockout power but was a smaller man and lacked a particularly refined standup game. Unfortunately for St. Pierre, he was cracked with a punch, and Serra quickly secured one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
When St. Pierre and Serra fought for a second time, GSP wasted no time taking the fight to the ground. He neutralized Serra’s jiu-jitsu and pounded out a decisive victory. Before St. Pierre and Serra ever fought, one would not have necessarily expected the Canadian’s second fight strategy to be that much better than his first. Finding the right approach is not always obvious.
Brock Lesnar took a different approach to his second fight with Frank Mir than he did to the first. Lesnar was extremely aggressive in attacking Mir in his UFC debut, peppering shots until he was caught in a kneebar by the submission specialist. In the rematch, Lesnar was more cautious and showed respect for the submission ability of the UFC interim heavyweight champion. By not giving Mir easy openings, he was able to impose his will over time and finish Mir with strikes in the second round. Lesnar did not switch strategies as dramatically as St. Pierre or Liddell, but it was still a marked change in approach that turned around his fortunes.
Can Silva effectively alter his approach against Velasquez? That is a difficult challenge. It was not as if Silva made any overt mistakes the first time around. Velasquez’s pressure and wrestling simply overwhelmed him. Silva is unlikely to have improved his takedown defense enough over the course of just one year, and he would have difficulty turning the tables on Velasquez and pushing the pace himself.
Silva’s best chance is likely to time a counter perfectly like Junior dos Santos once did, but that is not much different than the way “Bigfoot” approached the first fight. If there is a way for Silva to dictate an entirely different fight than the first, it is not terribly obvious. However, even if Silva does not implement an entirely new strategy, that does not mean he cannot still win the fight.
A key for a number of fighters who had success in rematches was to find a way to strongly distinguish the previous fight from the later one. Even if the opponent presents the same challenge, a fighter can improve enough to bridge the distance.
When Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz fought the first time, Cruz was undefeated but Faber was the American featherweight division’s unquestioned best. It did not take long for Faber to catch Cruz in a scramble for the submission. When they rematched four years later, Faber was still on top of his game and had the same strengths as an athlete. However, Cruz had improved more. Cruz was now the UFC bantamweight champion. He had honed his particular style of fleet-footed technical striking. Faber was chasing him, and Cruz fought like he knew it. Faber was game, but Cruz had surpassed him. He had pulled away.
In World Extreme Cagefighting, Brian Stann and Steve Cantwell were evenly matched foes with similar styles. They traded wins and were perceived to be at the same basic level. However, while Cantwell largely stayed in his comfort zone and kept doing the same things, Stann sought out training with Greg Jackson and kept improving as a fighter. Stann solidly won their rubber match in the UFC and went on to become a middleweight contender. Cantwell, on the other hand, lost five straight fights. Cantwell was the same fighter, but Stann was different.
“Bigfoot,” to his credit, has markedly improved his technique from his early MMA career when he relied heavily on size and strength. However, it does not feel like he is in a very different place than when he first fought Velasquez a year ago. His wins in the interim are impressive on paper, but Alistair Overeem beat him for two rounds and Travis Browne tore his hamstring during their fight. Velasquez is the fighter who looks to be on more of an upward trajectory.
If nothing else, a fighter can hope for overconfidence or overaggression from his opponent. Andrei Arlovski beat Tim Sylvia in less than a minute in 2005 by dropping him with a shot and then submitting him. When they rematched a year later and Arlovski again dropped Sylvia with a punch, he had reason to be extremely confident. Arlovski recklessly charged in for a finish without sufficiently protecting himself and was caught with a short Sylvia counterpunch that knocked out the Belarusian. It was a remarkable turn of events.
Couture was known for his cerebral approach to fighting, but a similar fate befell him in his second fight against Liddell. Couture dominated Liddell in their first fight by pressuring “The Iceman.” Liddell was never able to land the sorts of power shots that defined his career. In the second fight, Couture again tried to back up Liddell, but he did so wildly. As Couture quickly pressed forward, Liddell put out his lights with a counter. Couture is not one to overlook opponents, but his tremendous success against Liddell the first time around was not to his advantage in the rematch.
One of the hardest workers in the sport, Velasquez is not likely to fall to his own hubris. With that said, it is just the slightest bit harder to summon up motivation against an opponent you have already dispatched in the manner that Velasquez beat Silva. That could help “Bigfoot.” Overeem did not take Silva seriously as an opponent and paid for it. Velasquez needs to set up takedowns with caution and avoid Silva’s power. Just because he did not get caught the first time does not mean he could not get caught in the future.
Velasquez-Silva 2 was not a fight UFC was pining to make. Overeem got upset, and dos Santos needed another win after a decisive loss. Still, Silva will get his opportunity all the same. He can make rematch history of his own and show future fighters that past results can be overcome no matter how seemingly improbable.