December 31st, 2004. That was the last day Anderson Silva tasted legitimate defeat in mixed martial arts (Yushin Okami rolled over and played dead after an illegal upkick by Anderson to earn a disqualification "win" a year later). Between that time and today, the greatest mixed martial artist to compete in combat sports thus far has gone up against a wide range of foes.
Rich Franklin was the champion of the world, and looked to be "the man" in the UFC's middleweight division for some time to come. Silva blasted him with knees and punches in one round (then waited until the second in a rematch). Travis Lutter came off an impressive performance in the Ultimate Fighter season 4 version, and had the grappling game which had given Anderson fits in the past. "The Spider" beat him at his own game, and submitted him in the second. Guys like Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort, and Yushin Okami each presented a certain set of skills that some thought could derail the champs record breaking run. None made it past the second bell. Chael Sonnen was able to take Anderson in to deep waters in their first bout, but he couldn't hold the lead. The second bout was a bit like the first, but it played out a bit quicker.
Each of these men had attributes that could theoretically give Anderson issues. However, each man's strengths didn't necessarily cover up his weaknesses. The ones with great jiu-jitsu didn't have good wrestling to back it up. The ones with powerful striking tend to get sloppy, and don't usually have the best fitness levels for long fights. The one that possessed great wrestling has some of the worst submission defense for a title challenger in UFC history. The men had their faults, and the Sugar Ray Robinson of mma exposed every one of 'em. The problem for the champion is no faults have been exposed on Weidman.
Chris Weidman has been lauded as a prodigy of fighting even before his career began in 2009. After finishing his collegiate wrestling career as a four time All-American (twice in Junior College, twice at Hofstra), Chris began training in jiu-jitsu while acting as a wrestling coach at Matt Serra's Long Island gym. Three months later he had submitted every single person he went up against in two divisions at the East Coast Grappler's Quest competition. After that Chris continued to compete on the USA senior wrestling circuit, and tried to earn a spot on the international team. He was never able to make that leap, but his dabbling in bjj would pay off down the line.
Roughly a year and a half after win at Grappler's Quest, Weidman qualified for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling Championship (ADCC). Some hype traveled with the grappling savant as he had only about 8 months of full jiu-jitsu training before qualifying for a tournament that saw the best submission artists in the world compete. However, his legend grew after he took on Andre Galvao in the second round. After taking apart Daniel Tabara in the first round in the 88 kilograms division Chris took on the favorite in his weight class, Galvao. Just seconds into the bout, Galvao locked up a deep Omoplata on Weidman, which he used to roll backwards, take Weidman's back, and nearly armbar him. From there, the Chris attacked Galvao with brilliant throws from the clinch before the points period, which against most other grapplers in the world, would have landed him in dominant position. Weidman's potent base allowed him to shut down Galvao's deep half guard game, as well as allowing him to attack with submissions of his own. Rather than play the passive points game that many wrestling converts do at ADCC, Weidman trapped Galvao with both a Brabo choke and a Peruvian necktie, forcing the multiple-time bjj world champion to work far harder than was anticipated. Galvao eventually used his savvy to score during the points period, passing guard and earning a 4-0 points victory.
Weidman had arrived, and the fact that he was planning on a mma career was music to the ears of people who follow the sport closely. Then Ray Longo dropped the bombshell that Chris was progressing in striking just as fast as he had come along with jiu-jitsu. Suddenly, the word "prospect" seemed too small for Chris. He had years of wrestling that led to a 3rd place finish his Senior year in college. He has multiple appearances in ADCC when most bjj neophytes are still competing at the purple belt level in regional competitions. His striking has led to knockdowns or knockouts of half of the people he's been in the cage with. Basically, he's BJ Penn with the work ethic of an All-American wrestler.
A lot of people still want to doubt Chris's accomplishments in fighting going into his match with Anderson. "He's only had 5 fights inside the UFC", "He looked like crap against Maia", and the newest "He looked great against Munoz, but Mark was obviously injured". Each of those things is easily explainable; Lesser prospects have had less fights before a title shot in the UFC, and injuries happened to fighters for Chris to get that spot (that would have been simple match ups for Anderson anyway). Weidman dropped 30 lbs in 11 days to fight Maia, after receiving the match up on short notice. Mark has had many injuries, but he said multiple times in interviews before his fight with Chris that he was at full strength. If he did have a foot injury, its quite possible that Weidman bullying him around the ring aggravated it into being something much worse. However, none of of that is of any matter. What has happened in his career so far is just warm-up, Chris's best still hasn't been seen yet.
Anderson has always received comparisons to the great boxer Roy Jones Jr. in his career, because of each's mixture of speed/power/accuracy (Anderson has called him out for a boxing match at multiple points in his career including this week). The comparison could be ominous for Saturday. RJJ lost for the first time in his career after rising some 20+ lbs to take apart the unheralded John Ruiz in 2003. Anderson's last fight took place 20 lbs above his weight class against Stephan Bonnar at UFC 153. Roy was 36 at the time. Anderson Silva is 38 years young. The years have been kind to him in terms of physical ability, and his work ethic is renowned for its discipline. However, age catches everybody at some point and when it does it strikes quick.
I have picked against Anderson 3 times in his UFC career. Twice were matches against Rich Franklin (the second was more a product of fandom as I admitted to most people I talked to that Anderson would probably beat him again). The other was Anderson's second match up with Chael Sonnen. After the second match up with Chael where Anderson figured out his enhanced foe a bit earlier than their first match, I said to myself I wouldn't be picking against Anderson again. Chris is putting that proclamation to the test.