UFC

Will Silva's five-year run continue?

The Fight Network Ariel Shnerer
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship is returning to Brazil for the first time since 1998 as UFC 134: Rio emanates from the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil live this Saturday night on pay-per-view.

Three Brazilian mixed martial arts legends are featured on the card, which is headlined by middleweight juggernaut Anderson Silva defending his throne against Yushin Okami.

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In other featured fights, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua will seek revenge in a rematch with Forrest Griffin, and heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira makes his long awaited return to action against rising contender Brendan Schaub.

Silva (28-4) is one of the most awe-inspiring fighters in mixed martial history. He looks to defend his middleweight championship for the ninth time against a Japanese challenger hungry for his crack at gold after a five-year run in the UFC.

Silva, 36, has ruled the 185-pound division since October 2006, when he destroyed Rich Franklin. Most of the division’s top contenders have fallen victim to the Brazilian wrecking machine, including Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort. Silva has also tried his hand at light heavyweight, recording emphatic first-round finishes of Forrest Griffin and James Irvin.

Silva’s career traces back to 1997 in his native Brazil. After achieving some success, Silva started fighting for Shooto in Japan, beating Hayato Sakurai to win the organization’s middleweight title.

Silva then signed with the Pride Fighting Championships, but his run in the now-defunct promotion saw him lose two decisive fights against Japanese journeymen Daiju Takase and Ryo Chonan by submission. Silva’s improvements on the ground since those shocking setbacks are well-documented, but the losses on his record remain a reality.

Silva also went on to claim the Cage Rage middleweight title in the United Kingdom, amassing wins over Lee Murray, Jorge Rivera and Tony Fryklund.

In January 2006, Silva and Okami’s paths would cross in the Rumble on the Rock tournament held in Hawaii. Silva was dominating the striking game before Okami secured a takedown and controlled from top position. As Okami postured up, Silva unleashed an illegal upkick that rocked the Japanese fighter and ultimately cost him the fight via disqualification.

Despite the contentious loss on his record, Silva’s career journey brought him to the UFC and Chris Leben became his first victim, succumbing to a violent knee in under a minute. Silva subsequently established a legacy as one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the octagon.

With that being said, Silva’s game is far from perfect and Okami (26-5) happens to be the type of challenger who can exploit his weak areas.

Okami, 30, competed primarily in Japan during the early portion of his career, which dates back to September 2002.

Strength and conditioning, which are now some of Okami’s strongest areas, were primary reasons for his losses to Amar Suloev and Falaniko Vitale, but he submitted both Brian Foster and Nick Thompson leading up to his questionable victory over Silva. Okami was eliminated from the talent-rich Rumble on the Rock tournament by Jake Shields, who edged him in a three-round majority decision.

Okami made his UFC debut in August 2006, just two months after Silva, defeating current contender Alan Belcher by decision. Despite winning most of his fights by decision, Okami got the job done against the likes of Mike Swick, Jason MacDonald, Evan Tanner, Dean Lister, Mark Munoz and Nate Marquardt.

Okami’s only losses in the octagon have come by decision against former champion Rich Franklin and top-three middleweight Chael Sonnen.

A judo black belt with tremendous wrestling and submission grappling skills, Okami has evolved considerably since his fight against Franklin. Adding to his arsenal, Okami has developed a potent stand-up game with a stiff jab and effective footwork to set up his shots.

After losing to Sonnen, Okami took all the necessary steps to correct his errors. The southpaw has split his time training in Japan and the US., where he has worked with Sonnen and Matt Lindland at Team Quest in Oregon. Despite beating Okami in convincing fashion, Sonnen insists he’s a top dog in the division with the perfect skillset to dethrone the seemingly indomitable champion.

Silva, also a southpaw, trains primarily with Team Nogueira, where he surrounds himself with MMA royalty, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Lyoto Machida, Jose Aldo and Junior dos Santos.

A black belt in judo and taekwondo, the muay thai executioner Silva is most dangerous when he’s unloading vicious combinations on his feet. Also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Nogueira, Silva has the submission skills to threaten on the mat, but he will want to spend as little time on his back as possible.

Silva is indeed that good, but his glaring weaknesses were exposed by superior wrestlers, including Sonnen, Henderson and Travis Lutter. Silva triumphed in all three fights with come-from-behind submissions, but he’s hardly winning every round along the way like his welterweight counterpart Georges St. Pierre.

Silva deserves the benefit of the doubt. A rib injury leading into his fight with Sonnen could have certainly hindered his performance, but wrestling remains his weakest area. Munoz, one of Silva’s wrestling coaches, had little success trying to take Okami down in their fight last August. Okami is a hard-nosed grinder with stellar submission defense, which could spell trouble for the champion.

However, Okami has a habit of covering up or backing away when he’s hit with big strikes. He will need to press forward relentlessly if he hopes to emerge victorious on Saturday night. The moment he turtles, Silva will pounce.

When “The Spider” is on, he is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Silva’s knockouts of Belfort, Griffin and Franklin will live on in MMA highlight reels, but his fall from greatness is inevitable.

Whether Okami is the man to end Silva’s streak remains to be seen, but the possibility should be widely acknowledged.

If the Japanese warrior employs an intelligent game plan and forces Silva into a grueling grappling affair, it might not be pretty, but it could be enough to play the role of spoiler to Silva’s Brazilian homecoming.

Verdict: Okami via decision

Click the following for a breakdown on the other UFC 134 matchups:

Mauricio Rua vs. Forrest Griffin

Brendan Schaub vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Ross Pearson vs. Edson Barboza Jr.

Luis Cane vs. Stanislav Nedkov

Thiago Tavares vs. Spencer Fisher

Rousimar Palhares vs. Dan Miller

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