It's a familiar scene in the MMA world. Before the fight, fans exalt the natural ability of Melvin Guillard, and eagerly await some sort of evolution to his game. And then afterwards it's either ‘Guillard is a beast!', or ‘If only Melvin would fight to his potential'.
The UFC on FX card showcased both responses. Guillard came out and looked really good for the first two minutes. He rocked Jim Miller, and even when Miller was going for takedowns, Melvin countered with his uncanny balance and strength.
Suddenly Melvin makes a mistake, having tossed what felt like his eleventh consecutive jumping knee inside of two minutes, and Miller capitalizes by taking Guillard to the ground. As Melvin lazily tries to establish guard, Miller passes, Guillard explodes out, Jim maintains control, and Melvin taps with two minutes and four seconds left in the first round.
You don't have to train jiu jitsu to see what Melvin did wrong. Yes, to the educated observer he made technical mistakes, but his worst mistake was panicking.
In response to Melvin's performance, various fans are back to their own brand of apologetics. Dana White noted to Ariel Helwani that he's "waiting for this kid to take things serious". And Tristen Critchfield over at Sherdog argues that patience is what's missing in Guillard's game.
I don't think there's anything wrong with these interpretations, as Guillard has given credence to both in explicit ways. But I would argue instead that what's missing is not simply patience, and focus, but skill. Talent, instinct, aptitude, craft, prowess...all the things Melvin Guillard is praised for are simultaneously traits that he is certifiably lacking.
One of our readers wrote a splendid post on the fallacy of wasted potential. Simply put, Guillard's loss is a revelation of who he is, not of who he can be.
If there's a sport more forgiving to the narrative of ‘potential', it's MMA. We tend to think of a mixed martial artist like a boat with his flaws representing holes that can simply be plugged during a leak. But the truth is that he or she is instead like a sieve. There are too many ways to lose, and the ways in which a loss can be set up is exponentially greater making it impossible to avoid adversity. And that adversity tends to beget defeat.
None of this is meant to pick on Guillard. He's still a good fighter, and I could absolutely see him walking into Bellator, and absolutely throttling an Eddie Alvarez or Michael Chandler. On the contrary. UFC on FX was a great place to examine the meaning of "potential".
Duane Ludwig used to be the poster boy for this fallacy of wasted potential. Following his win over Japanese icon Genki Sudo at UFC 42, many fans felt like Ludwig just needed to work on his ground game. I'm sure he did. But that didn't stop him from getting submitted over and over, and he's had nearly a decade to work on his flaws.
Pat Barry spoke of his ground game experiencing ‘tremendous growth' leading up to his fight with Christian Morecraft, and I doubt anyone questions that he probably dedicated a significant amount of time to grappling training. And yet during the fight, Barry nearly became the first fighter ever to lose by a no-hooks rear naked choke twice, and it's not like it was Caol Uno lurking behind him. Off his back, Barry's guard proved to be as elusive as the Higgs Boson. But credit where credit is due: his flaws were on such dramatic display that it allowed him to steal ninety thousand dollars away from Mike Easton and Jared Papazian.
It's easy to look at these fighters, and make the mistake of thinking they owe themselves just a little more dedication. We see their qualities in one area, and naturally assume they can be applied elsewhere with a little focus, and diligence. But these qualities merely set up the illusion of inevitability. If you want to see the mechanics of inevitability set up by potential, watch a Jose Aldo fight.