It’s no secret that UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is running out of worthy opponents. His last two title defenses were widely criticized for being lackluster — due in large part to the quality of his opponents — and he’s moved up in weight twice looking for competition and exciting fights.
He recently found it in an absolute clowning of former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin at UFC 101. His dominating performance begs the question: Who at middleweight could possibly give this man a fight?
The answer just might lie in a few of those he’s already dispatched. Former PRIDE FC champion Dan Henderson, who was submitted by Silva in the second round at UFC 82, is "probably" next in line for a title shot, according to UFC president Dana White.
And in less than two weeks at UFC 102, two more middleweights will go head to head in an effort to stake their own claim on the #1 contender spot: Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizard Demian Maia and 7-time King of Pancrase Nate Marquardt.
Marquardt, who succumbed to a first round TKOing via Silva at UFC 73 just over two years ago, recently talked about his climb back up the 185 pound ladder as the featured guest on MMAmania.com’s exclusive presentation of Pro MMA Radio .
At 28-8-2, Marquardt has stitched together a 7-2 record in the UFC, earning victories over notable fighters such as Martin Kampmann, Jeremy Horn and Wilson Gouveia. Aside from the title bout loss to Silva, his only other Octagon defeat was a split decision loss to Thales Leites at UFC 85, which many — including Marquardt — don’t consider an actual loss, considering he was docked two points during the fight, only one of which, arguably, was deserved.
The fact that Leites was able to parlay that victory into an eventual title shot says more about how Silva has cleared out the UFC’s middleweight division than it does about Leites as a true title contender — which was prevalent in Silva’s five-round snoozefest unanimous decision victory over the Brazilian at UFC 97.
"When (Silva) fought (Patrick) Cote, I thought that he held back," Marquardt said of the champion, "(But) when he fought Leites, he was fighting very smart, and every time he would try to go forward and attack Leites, Leites would try to pull him into the guard. That was Leites’ game. Anderson didn’t want to be on the ground with him, so I didn’t really blame him for the action in that fight."
While Marquardt feels that Leites should have attacked the champion more, he concedes that it largely doesn’t matter, as Silva silenced the critics in his next fight at UFC 101, when he more than made up for a lackluster title defense.
It was during that fight against Griffin that Marquardt could see real improvements in Silva’s game since they last fought — especially in his boxing.
But Marquardt also faults Griffin, who he feels played right into the champion’s hand with a "really poor strategy" that saw him charge the champion more than once, similar to what we saw in Silva’s Octagon debut against Chris Leben.
"Forrest had a horrible game plan going in," Marquardt said. "And I think a lot of it was the outside pressure to make the fight exciting or whatever. Forrest just rushed in and got caught initially, and he did it a second time and got knocked out."
Despite Silva’s history of making good fighters look bad, Marquardt is confident he can overcome that challenge, stating, "Anderson’s a very experienced fighter, but so am I and so is Dan. Me personally, I have a lot of tools to beat the things that he does. He definitely tries to get you to fight his game, but so does everyone else. That’s what you try to do when you fight, is to try to get them to fight your fight."
Much of that confidence comes from Marquardt’s belief that he’s a new and improved fighter compared to when he last fought the champion two years ago. And you can see it in the way that he finishes his opponents. Before the Silva fight, Marquardt earned four wins inside the Octagon — three by decision. Since the Silva fight, all three of his victories have come by way of stoppage (two via TKO, one via submission).
"The way I fought him," Marquardt says of his UFC 73 loss to the champ, "I didn’t go out and fight to win. I just went out and fought to not lose, basically. Now I’m going for knockouts and the submission, and I think that’s definitely what you’re going to see in my next fight against Maia and in every fight from here on out."
He’s also confident he’ll get his chance to prove it, because he doubts highly that Dan Henderson will steal Silva’s belt.
"Dan’s standup game is pretty one dimensional," said Marquardt, "I mean he’s a great fighter and he has a lot of power in his punches, but Anderson is going to be able to deal with that, and he has a lot more tools on the feet. I don’t think Henderson has enough tools to finish on the ground."
But first, Marquardt needs to get past Demian Maia, who many consider also to be a one-dimensional fighter — only that one dimension is quite possibly the sickest jiu-jitsu we’ve seen inside the Octagon. His five fights with the UFC have all ended with a choked out opponent.
Does this mean Marquardt plans to avoid going to the ground with the Brazilian? Far from it.
"I respect everyone that I fight, and I look at their strengths and weaknesses," Marquardt said about how he has prepared for his UFC 102 showdown. "There’s no area that I won’t engage Demian or any other fighter. I train with the best, and I’ve fought the best, and I know I can hang with anyone on the feet, in the takedowns, on the ground, in whatever position we’re at."
Some of "the best" that Marquardt has trained with at Jackson’s Submission Fighting to prepare him for this fight include former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, fellow middleweight Joey Villasenor, UFC heavyweight contender Shane Carwin, and light heavyweights Keith Jardine and Elliot Marshall.
And let’s not forget the reigning UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who Marquardt credits with having the best wrestling in the UFC, which rubs off on every one of his teammates and makes them into better fighters.
It’s those teammates that Marquardt seems to value above all else, having gone so far in the past as to refer to MMA as a team sport. He learned the importance of teammates during his days fighting in Japan between late 1999 through mid-2005.
While other foreign fighters would train in Japan off and on leading up to their fights, Marquardt would stay and live in Japan for months at a time. There he learned how to eat right and how to rest appropriately, which influenced the fighter that he is today. In fact, his coach, Greg Jackson, credits those experiences with helping Marquardt earn his reputation as being unflappable leading up to a fight.
Another thing Marquardt picked up while overseas: Training partners who fight one another don’t train very well together for fear of giving away their secrets.
In Japan, Marquardt experienced both worlds, training at gyms where fighters training together would refuse to fight one another — such as at the GRABAKA gym in Nakano, Japan, where he received his best training — as well as at the Pancrase dojo, where training partners did in fact fight one another.
"It just wasn’t as good of training," Marquardt said of the Pancrase dojo. "The technique level was a lot lower. And that was because they were not helping each other, because they were fighting each other."
So what does Marquardt make of the UFC’s policy that it is only a matter of time before teammates will have to fight teammates ?
"You know my stance, I don’t fight my teammates," Marquardt said. "I understand (the UFC’s) viewpoint, but they can’t make guys fight teammates. They can’t force us to do that."
But immediately, Marquardt concedes, money could always be a deal breaker: "If it’s a situation where two guys are going to make enough money … that both of them can retire, who knows in that situation? But I don’t see it happening for a while, so I’m not too concerned about it."
For more on "The Great" check out the complete interview here.