Strategy is one of the aspects that seems to be discussed least by the MMA media. On one hand, it seems puzzling – few sports have as much need for insightful strategic analysis as ours. On the other hand, it is somewhat understandable, given that we often only see the results of strategy rather than the formation of it.
MMA seems to me to be inherently more strategic than many other sports. I use the term ‘strategic’ in a somewhat technical sense – insofar as what you do can affect what other players should do, an activity becomes more (or less) strategic. For example, hundred meter sprinting is technically not a strategic game – one athlete running is a certain way does not affect how fast the other athletes run (at least not that much). No matter what happens, the goal is to run those 100 meters as fast as possible, and how fast you run, how you pace yourself, etc. don’t affect how the other runners complete the same 100 meters. Basketball is quite a strategic game – whether you want to play zone or man to man will depend on the other team’s ability to hit from beyond the arc. Whether you want the game to be fast paced or slow depends on whether you’re leading or not, and by how much.
Yet nevertheless, even a complex sport like basketball is not as strategic as ours. In basketball, at the end of the day, the winner is the team that has more points – and so for offense, your goal is always to score as many points as possible, and for defense, your goal is to stop the enemy from doing the same. In MMA, there is not only one way to win. Broadly speaking, there are three ways to win, by submission, by KO, by decision. In detail, each fighter has a dizzying amount of techniques to go to in order to finish a fight – submissions while mostly occurring on the ground, can sometimes be done standing. Kos, mostly on the feet (or on the ground after a fighter gets KOed) can be achieved from guard, from side control, and any other of the plethora of dominant positions. There’s even been a KO by a guy on bottom (go search for the video). Decisions are decisions, but certainly it seems that judges can be swayed by specific types of attitudes and performances displayed within the cage. Diego Sanchez and Leonard Garcia (x10) come to mind.
As such, going into a fight with a sound strategy can substantially increase a fighter’s chances of winning. There are too many moving parts in MMA for any fighter to have a 100% of winning on any given night. But how does one formulate a useful strategy? How should coaches and fighters go about coming up with a successful gameplan?
Strategic analysis, as luck would have it, does not seem to differ that much from field to field, at least from a conceptual point of view. That’s why there are hundreds of books that apply ‘The Art of War’ to business, and why other tomes of strategy, like ‘The Book of Five Rings’ or ‘The Prince’ amongst many others have received similar treatment.
Strategy in short comes down to discovering the opponent’s weaknesses, finding your own strengths, and putting yourself in a position where you can take advantage of your strengths and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses, while preventing him/her from doing the same. This applies in MMA as in any other field.
I’m not just talking about these vague, unspecific ‘gameplans’ that fans often talk about. ‘Taking him down and grind him out’ is not a gameplan, at least not a good one. Neither is ‘Keep in on the feet, because he’s not a striker’. While these are strategies, (and they may be effective), at the top level of the sport, these are too vague and unspecific to be of any help. If you’re fighting a high level fighter, neither of those strategies is likely to help you all that much.
An example of good strategy would be Shinya Aoki’s strategy against Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribiero. Most people thought that the fight would be a technical ground war – but Aoki (presumably) felt that Ribiero’s ground game was too dangerous to engage. However, Aoki’s striking overall probably wasn’t good enough to beat Ribiero either. Aoki’s relative strengths in that fight were his length, his kicks, and his wrestling. And he used those tools to perfection in order to take a decision of ‘Shaolin’.
Frankie Edgar takes advantage of Penn’s quick reactions and uses a cut kick to sweep him
Another excellent example would be Frankie Edgar’s fight with BJ Penn (the 2nd one). His first fight with BJ Penn was close, and this time Edgar wasn’t willing to even concede a moral victory to his opponent. BJ’s strengths are his technique (both standing and on the ground), his power, his reaction speed, his flexibility, and his takedown defense. Edgar came up with a masterful gameplan that avoided or exploited all of Penn’s strengths. He feinted often, exploiting Penn’s quick reactions and excellent technique. He faked takedowns also, to take advantage of BJ’s takedown defense. This opened up gaps in the striking. Edgar threw hard leg kicks, knowing that Penn doesn’t kick much, meaning that the kicking range was Edgar’s. He moved in and out, which combined with his speed, helped Edgar avoid taking punches, and thus avoid BJ’s power. Edgar also went to the body, knowing that Penn has often had issues with stamina – and more importantly, he increased his output as the fight went on, guaranteeing that he took at least the last three rounds.
This is the sort of strategic planning that I expect from top fighters – too often I find their strategies too broad, lacking in specificity. The devil is in the details. If a fighter has a good right hand, then by gods, you should be training to counter that right with a right cross of your own. If your opponent has a tendency to throw lazy kicks, then work on catching those kicks and landing takedowns or punches off of them. If a fighter is a better wrestler and striker than you in all aspects, then your only choice is to pull guard – in that case, work on getting sweeps and submissions from guard.
As the sport grows, and the average fighter’s skills in each discipline get to a pretty high level, good strategy will become more and more important. Guys like Greg Jackson and Randy Couture will be in higher demand than ever, as fighters find that strategy is the only reliable way to distinguish yourself from an opponent (except athleticism, obviously).
Obviously, strategy is not a be all end all to fighting – technique, conditioning, strength and speed – all of these are important factors. But given a more or less equal skill level (which many fighters have), strategy can make all the difference. I’m not saying there’s an easy way to take the crown from an Jose Aldo or a GSP – these types of fighters have so few weaknesses that there is hardly anything to exploit, and sometimes hardworking talent is insurmountable. But in the vast majority of fights, well implemented can and should make the difference between the winner and the loser.
Come back next week to see me attempt to come up with the type of detailed strategy that I’m referring to for a couple of fights coming up.
- See more of my writing at Total-MMA. The site is updated dailly, and I write every Thursday.