At UFC on Versus 4, fans were witness to one of the most spectacular comebacks and KO victories in the history of our sport, as Cheick Kongo came from the very edge of consciousness to knock Pat Barry out. It was a spectacular moment that will live on in highlight reels for years to come. But looking past the momentary rush of excitement, it's also a very educational moment for fighters and fans, as it highlights an issue that has become increasingly debated in MMA: the conflict between fighting safe and having a killer instinct.
After his last fight with Joey Beltran, Pat Barry received an enormous amount of criticism, even in victory. This critique focused largely on his inability to finish Beltran. Heading into the Kongo fight, this point was often brought up with many fans stating that Barry simply lacked that killer instinct to finish fights, and that because of this, his upward mobility in the UFC Heavyweight division was limited. Only Pat Barry knows how much he took those comments to heart, but against Kongo, he definitely went for the kill. And it cost him. After almost taking Kongo out, twice, Barry rushed in on the attack, looking for not just a Beltran-style victory, but the kind of big finish that would satisfy his critics and move him further up the rankings. In doing so, he let down his guard, focusing instead on ending the fight. As he swung for the finish, Kongo found the opening and put him away - defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory.
Contrast this result with the Matt Mitrione fight from earlier in the evening. There, Mitrione stunned Morecraft, knocking him down, but initially chose to stay on his feet and continue the stand-up instead of go to the ground. It was a smart strategy, built around playing the safer game, and it led to a Mitrione victory.
The danger is, this smart strategy can often lead to fan outrage. The classic example today is Georges St. Pierre, the highly intelligent, cautious champion who is constantly attacked by fans for his failure to finish fights. He's defeated the past 3 former Welterweight champions, clear-cut top contenders like Alves and Fitch, yet his popularity is declining among a certain set of fans. This is far from a GSP-isolated trend. Numerous fighters have stepped into the cage, put on an intelligent, tactical performance that scored them the victory, then been ripped apart the next day. In fact, there's a very good chance we'll see another champion anger fans at UFC 132 this weekend, as Dominick Cruz defends against Urijah Faber. Cruz will likely play it smart and outpoint Faber - himself a former victim of over-emphasizing the killer instinct in the place of caution.
For fighters, it's a tough balancing act, with dangers on both sides. Do you go for the win, hoping to earn some fans and support, but opening yourself up for defeat? Or do you stay back, securing the victory, but angering fans and, perhaps, Dana White? On Saturday, Pat Barry made his choice, and it seems he chose wrong.
There's no easy answer to this debate, and as the skill levels in MMA continue to rise, it's a debate that will become more common. But that tough position for fighters is something for fans to consider the next time we see a safe, and yes, boring, performance.