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UFC 101 Report: Spider. Man.

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How do you knock the man who has everything?

Anderson Silva is one of the few fighters who should be impervious to criticism at this point. You can ride a man for losing, but Silva was on a UFC-record nine-match winning streak. You can slag a man for ducking competition, but Silva had successfully defended his belt five times (six, had Travis Lutter made weight) and was so adept at clearing out the middleweights that he had started in on the light heavies, knocking out James Irvin at 205 before taking this fight against Forrest Griffin.

So we, the desperate critics, turned to the last refuge of a scoundrel: “Anderson Silva has gotten boring.” His last two fights, against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites (who last night again played 15 minutes of keepaway in an attempt to score the UFC’s first Ambien sponsorship,) were snoozers. The question was: whose fault was that? His opponents, for not wanting to engage the dangerous Silva, or Anderson’s, for not just going out and imposing his will on lesser men?

The answer was found three minutes into the first round, with Forrest Griffin on his back for the third time, waving up at the lights.

The sold-out Philadelphia crowd certainly needed something to break them from their torpor after a lackluster start to the evening. The majority of the main card did not deliver the excitement needed for the UFC’s first night in the City of Brotherly Love. Both Kurt Pellegrino and Ricardo Almeida handily outclassed their opposition on the ground, cruising to uninspiring decisions with only fleeting moments of drama: Pellegrino stopped fighting at about 14:30, allowing Josh Neer to Neer-ly pound him into hamburger, and Kendall Grove had an armbar 90% cinched on Almeida before the Big Dog slipped free of his leash.

And then, as if to test the reputation of the notoriously vocal locals, Amir Sadollah’s long-awaited return to the Octagon ended a scant 29 seconds later when Johny Hendricks knocked him down and grazed him with enough follow-ups to convince Dan Miragliotta to stop the fight. I’ll say it unequivocally: that was a very bad stoppage. Hendricks was not connecting solidly and Sadollah was working his way to his feet. Miragliotta was right to be on guard, but a top-level professional fighter needs to be given the benefit of the doubt for at least five more seconds there.

The next two fights, however, delivered the goods.

Jumping forward to the main event, I have this to say about BJ Penn: when he’s on (and in his weight class), he’s very, very tough to beat. Yesterday afternoon, I’d have given Kenny Florian a decent chance, because you never know which Penn will show up: the Prodigy or the Couch Potato. By the time they got to the ring, though, you could see that BJ had all the confidence in the world. Florian’s plan was sound: chip away at Penn enough to get him to the championship rounds, where he’s notorious for gassing out. The problem was KenFlo’s execution. To do that, it helps if you win at least one round to give yourself a chance at the decision, which he didn’t: Penn controlled the action almost start to finish.

Further troubling for Florian was that Penn seemed to be in much better shape, cardio-wise, at the start of Round 4. It wasn’t long before Penn used that killer jiu-jitsu to wrap in an unstoppable choke and further cement his status as the top dog at lightweight. Coming off a tough loss to Georges St-Pierre and the embarrassment of Greasegate afterward, Penn had more serious questions to answer than Silva did last night. He rose to the challenge admirably and, at a young 30 years of age, can now return to claiming his legacy as an unstoppable force in the lightweight division.

But the night was Silva’s. He took a tough fight, outside his weight class, against a man who was going to show the Spider aggression for the first time in a long time. Silva was rewarded with a hostile crowd, who backed Griffin… right up until the opening bell, when it became clear that although Griffin was not out of his league, Silva is just a world apart.

While Silva’s bobbing, weaving, and taunting seemed superfluous against Leites — you can’t dodge what’s not being thrown — here the showmanship accentuated a flawless performance. Time and again, Griffin would come in, catch nothing but air on a one-two combination, and proceed to eat a counter by Silva. By the third knockdown (none of which were followed up by Silva, as if to say “get up, I’ve got a show to put on”) Griffin knew it wasn’t his night. Frustrated either at Silva or himself, or perhaps wanting to get treatment ASAP on his dislocated jaw, Griffin left the cage immediately. It was a rare out-of-character showing from a man known for a fighter’s heart.

For Silva, a title defense is next against the winner of Demian Maia, and Nate Marquardt, and assuming he runs his streak to 11, the UFC world is his oyster: superfights against GSP at 185 or Lyoto Machida at 205 are both a possibility.

The only certainty for Anderson Silva’s career is this: nobody again will make the mistake of criticizing him for a silly thing like the style of his dominance.

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