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Leites: Blueprint

Michael DiSanto, UFC - There is no doubt that Thales Leites fully grasps the magnitude of the task at hand.

On Saturday night he will challenge the undeniable pound-for-pound king of the sport for the UFC’s 185-lb crown. This bout will be Silva’s attempt to tie the record for most-consecutive successful title defenses at five, equaling the marks of Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz, and establish a new record for most consecutive wins inside the Octagon at nine.
By Michael DiSanto

There is no doubt that Thales Leites fully grasps the magnitude of the task at hand.

On Saturday night he will challenge the undeniable pound-for-pound king of the sport for the UFC’s 185-lb crown. This bout will be Silva’s attempt to tie the record for most-consecutive successful title defenses at five, equaling the marks of Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz, and establish a new record for most consecutive wins inside the Octagon at nine.

But that doesn’t fully describe the monster that Leites will challenge. Silva isn’t just an accomplished champion; he is arguably the UFC’s most savage fighter, methodically dismantling opponents with the style of a serial killer, showing little emotion and even less remorse. Nobody has lasted the distance in his eight UFC bouts. Only Patrick Cote made it to the third round, where he was stopped with a knee injury.

Leites, who is riding a five-fight winning streak of his own, hopes to put an end to Silva’s reign of terror over the middleweight division. The matchup, however, doesn’t seem favorable on paper, at least. In fact, it is difficult to find an area where Leites has the advantage.

The Brazilian challenger is a talented submission specialist with three submissions in his five UFC wins. Of course, Silva is also a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, displaying his ground prowess by submitting both Dan Henderson and Travis Lutter.

On the feet, Leites is green at best. He has a decent jab, but he takes quite a long time to land it. Silva, by contrast, is a Muay Thai wrecking machine and one of the best counterstrikers in the game.

This will be Leites’ first championship challenge and first headlining bout, so the butterflies in his stomach and the wave of emotions will seem more like bald eagles and tsunamis, respectively. Championship fights are now old hat for Silva, making this bout just another day at the office.

In sum, the task at hand for Leites seems like an insurmountable one. Some might even say that the bout is nothing more than a mere formality for Silva’s entrance into the record books.

Yet, I can state with complete earnestness that there is no such thing as a “mere formality” inside the Octagon. We’ve learned as much over the last decade where tremendous upsets have occurred with such frequency that one could argue that there is no such thing as an upset in a UFC bout. Vivid examples include Matt Serra’s knockout win over Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69, Forrest Griffin’s submission win over Shogun Rua at UFC 76, Pete Williams’ knockout win over Mark Coleman at UFC 17, Paulo Thiago’s knockout win over Josh Koscheck at UFC 95, Joe Lauzon’s knockout win over Jens Pulver at UFC 63, etc. I could go on ad infinitum.

The point is that a single strike on the button or a single slip setting up an improbable submission can forever alter history, bringing triumph to the most improbable underdog. Leites hopes to pull off another stunning upset along the likes of Griffin, Williams, Thiago, et al.

To do that, he absolutely must take risks.

Taking risks doesn’t mean rushing in like a fool with guns ablaze. That will result in a highlight-reel knockout, and rest assured, Silva won’t be the one lying in a crumbled heap on the canvas.

Taking risks means looking for openings and exploding like there is no tomorrow once those openings present themselves.

Silva is as close to the prototypical mixed martial artist as we have in the UFC, but nobody is perfect. Every fighter has flaws. One of Silva’s flaws, particularly in his standup game, is his tendency to showboat when faced with an opponent who he deems to be inferior. He may say all the right things heading into each bout regarding his healthy respect for dangerousness of the situation. But he doesn’t always mean the words.

Case in point is his last effort against Patrick Cote. The Canadian slugger certainly has homerun power in his right hand. Nonetheless, he is far inferior to Silva in terms of standup technique and speed. As a result, the champion played with him for most of the first two rounds, dancing around the cage, taunting him with unnecessary head and fist feints, sticking out his chin, and so on. That was a clear sign of overconfidence, because I firmly believe that Silva could have gotten Cote out of there in the first round if he attacked in earnest.

The overconfidence thing is new. It hadn’t reared its head in previous bouts. Instead, Silva was an efficient predator in each of his previous UFC bouts, disposing of each of his foes inside two full rounds with a mix of pinpoint punching, solid leg kicks, ethereal knees and solid BJJ.

Leites desperately hopes that Silva brings that same mindset to the Octagon on Saturday, because that may be the opening he needs to score an upset victory.

The challenger needs to circle early and avoid engaging in the opening seconds. That may lull Silva into some showboating as the crowd jeers. One of his showboating techniques is to stick his chin out and roll his hands in a Saturday Night Fever sort of way. He does that while walking in. It is a taunt designed to get his opponent to strike so that he can counter, which really is what Silva does best.

Leites has no choice but to attack at that point. He needs to attack as soon as he sees Silva bring his hands together while leaning forward. For that split second, Silva is out of position to fire an effective counter. Thus, Leites needs to dive in with a right hand like there is no tomorrow. All he needs to do is land one shot on the chin and the fight could be over. Silva has a great chin, but anyone can get knocked out with those little vale tudo gloves.

If he doesn’t land the shot, he needs to get the heck out of dodge—yesterday. Otherwise, he is going to get bludgeoned into unconsciousness.

It suffices to say that Silva won’t fall for the same thing all night. If Leites’ first attack isn’t successful, Silva may stick his chin out a second time, but I doubt very seriously if he will do it beyond twice.

Leites, therefore, needs to have a backup plan. That plan consists of trying to time a Silva punch and shoot for a takedown. He cannot lead with a takedown attempt because Silva has an excellent sprawl and, more importantly, he is expert at timing shots with a flying knee strike. He knocked out Carlos Newton by countering a takedown with a flying knee strike to the jaw at PRIDE 25.

Yet, if he can shoot off of a Silva punch, he may very well get the fight to the ground. Once there, he needs to be very aggressive trying to pass into a dominant position so that he can work for a submission or try to pound out the champion.

He cannot be cautious and calculating on the ground because Silva is a black belt with an excellent guard. He has extremely long, lean legs, which allow him to place his opponent in a body triangle from the guard. That eliminates any chance of passing and also effectively neutralizes all submission attempts, so it just becomes a ground-and-pound game while caught in Silva’s guard, and that isn’t an overly effective way to end the fight.

If Leites is able to get into side mount, Kimuras and arm bars are a real possibility. Also, Silva likes to defend side mount by rolling to his stomach and standing up. That opens the door for Leites to take his back and look for a rear naked choke.

Again, he needs to throw the kitchen sink at Silva in terms of submission attempts because it isn’t likely that with Leites’ lack of dominant wrestling skills that he will be able to take down Silva repeatedly during the bout.

Can he do it? Anything is possible inside the Octagon. That much is certain.

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