Last night's welterweight showdown between seven-fight UFC veteran Rick Story and Pennsylvania-born Spanish teacher turned mixed martial artist Charlie Brenneman at UFC on Versus 4 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was supposed to be a lopsided decision in favor of Story. After all, Story was scheduled to face former UFC middleweight contender Nate Marquardt, a bout that would have been Marquardt's first in the 170 lb. weight class. Despite the concerns that the weight cut would hinder Marquardt, the fight was going to be ultra-competitive and a true test for both fighters. Naturally, when Marquardt failed his pre-fight medical requirements, the late replacement was thrown under the bus by most fans and analysts.
Charlie Brenneman, who was told fifteen minutes before stepping on the scales that he would fill in for Marquardt, wasn't given much of a chance against a fighter who had upset former UFC welterweight contender Thiago Alves only one month before last night's encounter. Many fans didn't expect Brenneman to be a game opponent on only one day's notice. As it turns out, Brenneman was the better wrestler in the fight and on paper, and he possessed the stifling ground tactics to neutralize Story's stand-up game for fifteen minutes.
The short notice nature of the match-up does spotlight some interesting issues when we think about the situation from Story's viewpoint. Should fighters risk their career goals on what could be considered a lose-lose situation in order to help out their employer? Is it possible to adapt to such a dissimilar opponent than what you trained for on only a day's notice? Story took the time following his loss to Brenneman to outline some of the issues he faced in the sudden change of opponents. Sherdog.com has the interview:
We aren't privvy to the mental details that a fighter must endure when a change in opponent occurs. Most fighters have a week to a month to prepare for a new challenge, and we simply assume everything will be fine. In Story's case, he had one day to prepare and gameplan for a completely different fighter. As he stated in the interview, he had prepared for an opponent with a solid Muay Thai base and credible Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques, a far cry from a blue chip style wrestler like Charlie Brenneman.
Some of the reaction to the change was ignorant to say the least. Some fans said that if Story was any good, he would persevere and prove his worth. Others, including myself, felt that the past performances against wrestlers proved Story could handle Brenneman and utilize his superior striking to grasp victory. In reality, we all missed a very important detail. Training for a fight that features a legitimate wrestler is much different than training for the Nate Marquardts of the mixed martial arts world, even if Marquardt is considered the better fighter in comparison to Brenneman.
Brenneman's performance and Rick Story's post-fight comments reminded me of the words that King Mo spoke to SBNation.com's Luke Thomas back in April of last year:
King Mo: When high-level wrestlers come into the game, they get used to wrestling guys that have no wrestling background and it's so easy for them that their skills deteriorate. Guys like Randy Couture, Matt Hughes, Matt Lindland, and Dan Henderson. They stop working with high-level wrestlers to sharpen their skills.
Thomas: Ok, well to that point. You've mentioned it before about Josh Koscheck being a former collegiate national champion but his skills are deteriorating. You just mentioned it with Couture, Hughes, Lindland and Henderson. Are you worried about your skills deteriorating?
King Mo: No, because I train with top level guys still. I train with Daniel Cormier, Kevin Jackson. I have options. I'm not gonna abandon my wrestling. I'm gonna bring guys in who I can drill with and bring guys in who I can wrestle with. I'm gonna keep my base high.
Lawal's comments are in the context that many well-known, highly-credentialed wrestlers deteriorate over time in mixed martial arts, mainly because they don't see the same challenges in the wrestling department in MMA as they did on the wrestling mat. It doesn't directly tie into my overall point as it is more of a macro problem. On a micro level however, this same argument can be said for fighters on a fight-by-fight basis. If you aren't training at a high level on your wrestling, those skills will deteriorate from fight-to-fight. The Rick Story who stuffed NCAA Division I champion Johny Hendricks doesn't stand the same chance as the Rick Story who drilled kickboxing for six weeks to fight Nate Marquardt. It is absurd to believe he would have the same wrestling ability, and Brenneman proved that he didn't by taking him down at will.
I'm not going to take anything away from Brenneman's performance. It was gutsy and all kinds of manly. It isn't, however, in the best interests of any fighter who is in a similar situation to take that fight on a few hours notice against a completely different opponent. This wasn't a step down to Carmelo Marrero from Cain Velasquez. Brenneman was a legitimate grind 'em out wrestler, and Story accepted the challenge despite drilling for weeks to fight a more skilled striker and defensive grappler, not an offensive wrestler.
I do hear the counterarguments though. If he says no, the UFC would be upset, and they may shun him into undercard hell for awhile to show their displeasure. Which brings up my final question... is it possible for a fighter to adapt to the situation that Rick Story found himself in? Perhaps Georges St. Pierre and Cain Velasquez could perservere through such a challenge. Those men are champions for a reason, and perhaps this entire experience is a rude awakening for Rick Story. A chance to see exactly what it will take for him to ascend the mountain.