Styles Make Fights
Michigan kept throwing the jab because Washington never protected its face.
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In the main event of UFC 112, middleweight champion Anderson Silva dominated a title bout against challenger Demian Maia. Silva won all five rounds to two of the three judges, with the third awarding him four.
“I apologize, and I will — I don’t know how yet — but I will make this up to the fans who bought this [expletive] tonight,” UFC president Dana White said after leaving his cageside seat before the fight ended and literally tossing the title belt to Silva’s manager. That’s not how championships are traditionally presented, even by the impetuous White.
If you don’t watch the fight and take a cursory look at the stats, this seems bizarre. Silva landed six strikes to every one for Maia, recorded the fight’s only knockdown, and stuffed all 13 of Maia’s takedown attempts. One of the greatest grapplers in the sport’s history, Maia couldn’t get into position to threaten Silva. The outcome was never in doubt.
UFC 112 occurred in 2010, by which time I was a huge Silva fan. I’ve almost never agreed with Dana White about anything. When he called the fight a “disgrace,” though, and suggested Silva’s next fight — despite him holding the belt — would be on a preliminary card instead of the top of a pay-per-view, I shared his anger. We were both genuinely disappointed.
"Unfortunately, not every fight turns out the way everyone would like," Silva said.
Silva entered the cage offended at some benign pre-fight trash talk from Maia, who supposedly said he’d break Silva’s arm, a statement that admittedly sounds nasty outside of a cagefighting context. In that world, however, Maia was selling the only way he could win the fight: getting Silva to the ground and earning a submission using his stellar Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Silva could always tap out, after all, and saying you’ll disfigure a limb generates more PPV purchases.1
While Silva was a tremendous grappler in his own right, his striking was otherworldly. He introduced himself to the UFC with one of the most precise, gorgeous, and violent combinations that the mixed martial arts world had ever seen:
Silva had finished nine of his ten fights in the UFC, eight of them by knockout, on his way to winning the middleweight title, defending it five times, and even winning two fights up a weight class—both by KO—heading into the Maia bout. He was untouchable. He knew it.
That became the problem. For all Maia’s ability on the mat, his skills were rudimentary when the fight was standing, and he couldn’t match Silva’s long reach. Silva could land his precise jab, keep Maia outside of takedown range, and wait for the knockout blow.
Silva kept Maia at a distance, landed one or two strikes at a time, then backed out and taunted his opponent for being totally unable to do anything about it. At first, it was entertaining. Then it became clear that Silva wasn’t just playing with his food; he had no intention of finishing his meal.
Amused cheers soon turned to full-throated boos. Sure, Silva didn’t need to engage with Maia to win the fight, but nobody tuned in to watch the champion land only a couple strikes per minute without ever going for the finish. A five-round fight can feel very long even when there’s consistent action, especially when it’s the last bout of the night.
Silva proved he could win while being one-dimensional and holding back. He kicked Maia’s ass. Nobody left satisfied.
Michigan fucked up Washington on Saturday night. They held leads of 17-0 and 24-3 before eventually winning 34-10. The Wolverines rushed for 343 yards on 56 attempts, good for 6.1 yards per carry.
That’s a performance we don’t see often against a team with a legitimate defense. While Washington has an inept, John Donovan-coached offense, their defense is supposed to be strong by Power 5 standards. Here are the other times Michigan has rushed for 300+ yards on 5+ YPC against teams that weren’t bottom-feeders since 2000:
Notre Dame 2019: 57 rushes, 303 yards, 5.3 YPC
Wisconsin 2018: 48 rushes, 320 yards, 6.7 YPC
Penn State 2016: 49 rushes, 326 yards, 6.7 YPC
That’s it. Michigan didn’t do this from at least 2000 (the furthest back the sports-reference game-by-game stats go) until 2016. We witnessed a historic paving.
You already know the “but” that’s coming. But! Cade McNamara completed 7-of-15 passes for 44 yards, U-M’s lowest total gained through the air since at least 2000. The coaches seemed hell-bent on minimizing his impact, even calling runs on a couple third-and-longs in the first half.
The last time Michigan passed for less than 100 yards in a game, they started redshirt freshman Brandon Peters2 at quarterback against a listless Minnesota team playing Demry Croft at QB in 2017. The time before that was John O’Korn’s start against Indiana that same season. While they won both games and dominated on the ground, these weren’t great signs for the future.
Brady Hoke, unsurprisingly, had a team throw for fewer than 100 yards in three of their first four games. What may come as a surprise: it was the 2011 squad that went 11-2, beat Ohio State, and won the Sugar Bowl.
The outcome on Saturday never felt in doubt. Even still, Michigan didn’t truly put the game away until Blake Corum scored his third touchdown with 1:48 to play. The typical fan reaction, mine included, was to feel unsettled after a blowout over a Pac-12 team — one we all would’ve happily taken one-point victory against if offered during the offseason, no style points necessary.
Michigan only led 10-0 at halftime when it felt like they should be up by at least three scores. I joined the ornery masses:
In the warm light of day, I’ll readily admit that was premature. The game plan fit the opponent. Washington proved punchless and incapable of stopping the jab. Michigan kept throwing the jab. They just danced less than Silva between punches.
It wasn’t what I wanted to see because I want to know more about McNamara and feel better about him. That’s impossible to do when this is a fair summary of his performance:
Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis don’t care about my feelings, nor should they. The coaches have seen a whole hell of a lot more of McNamara than I have. We’ll all find out if they trust him when a team forces Michigan’s hand. I should’ve listened — to myself, of all people:
Which opponent is going to tell us whether Michigan is good or not? Wisconsin? MSU? Indiana? We could get to mid-November without having a good read on this team—and this is college football, so getting a good read on a team is difficult even in the most controlled of circumstances.
I’m allowing myself to give in to the excitement. No, I don’t expect Michigan to charge into the OSU game undefeated. But, hell, it seems like it could be on the table, which is more than I would’ve said last week. The optimism will continue until morale improves.
It’s quite hard to argue with Harbaugh’s take on the offensive approach:
Harbaugh said as much Saturday night after the game, when he quipped, "We were going to fare a lot better running the ball (56) times than we would have throwing it (56) times. Our guys are good, and they came up with the plays when they had to. They didn’t stop the running game."
We didn’t see the football equivalent of a front-kick to the face because Washington never blocked the simplest of punches.
Silva was in huge trouble in his very next title defense. Chael Sonnen, a wrestler in both trash-talking and fighting styles, negated the champion’s striking by putting him on his back for most of the fight. Midway through the final round, Sonnen had Silva flat on the mat yet again and was on his way to a stunning upset via decision.
But Silva had that BJJ black belt, even if he rarely showed if off in the UFC. With seemingly the last bit of strength in his body, he pulled his legs over Sonnen’s neck, formed a triangle, and squeezed until the challenger had to tap out. When a desperate situation required it, Silva displayed the all-around prowess of a great champion.
After dispatching his next four opponents by knockout, Silva faced undefeated prospect Chris Weidman, who had a college wrestling background and only one knockout in five UFC fights. Weidman was a younger, more talented, less heelish version of Sonnen.
Silva returned to the clowning that he’d mostly cut out of his post-Maia fights, dropping his hands, using only head movement to avoid Weidman’s punches, and even faking wobbly legs after ducking a punch. Then, a minute into the second round, Silva didn’t move his head fast enough, and when he returned to consciousness, Weidman was the middleweight champion. Silva injured his leg in the rematch and was never the same.
Is Michigan’s offense the Silva capable of sleepwalking through the easy bouts and turning it on when challenged? Is it the Silva that trusts its striking too much and all but begs for the right opponent to deliver a crushing blow? I have no idea. I do know I’ve tortured this analogy enough.
Look, if you’re reading this, you watch college football. Let’s just agree to be into what we’re into.
I am four thousand years old. Somehow it both feels like Peters arrived in Ann Arbor last week and that he was Elvis Grbac’s backup.