Sports clichés are interesting things. They often start as meaningful bits of commentary, lines that sum-up one person or a set of skills perfectly. They’re easy to say, and thus get repeated ad-nauseum. Until eventually what initial usefulness they had has been stripped away, and all we’re left with is a handful of empty phrases that get trotted out any time somebody gets close to fitting the pre-determined cliché mold.
In MMA no phrase fits the sports cliché model better than the "well-rounded fighter". It has become such a staple of how we view the sport that it has quietly shaped the sport around itself. It’s every fighter’s supposed goal to become “well-rounded”, to get better at everything. Sometimes we use other clichés to talk about it, like “plugging holes,” or “shoring-up,” but the inevitable meaning is the same: The best fighters are the ones who are good at everything.
And that’s crap.
Now I will preface all this by saying this is not a throwback argument that we should go back to the super one-dimensional days. The fabled Art “One Glove” Jimmersons or Teila “Head Kick” Tulis belong only to the past (and weren’t even very successful then). Instead I’m arguing against the idea that a fighter’s goal should be to become as well-rounded as possible. When I hear the term trotted out as it invariably is several times per MMA broadcast my first thought is “That means he’s not very good at anything.” For an example of the truth in this, watch any season of the Ultimate fighter (realistically any of the past 7 seasons) and listen to Dana and the coaches talk about how well-rounded their guys are as they flail around in the cage shooting for mediocre takedowns, bailing on submissions, and being unable to strike a match.
In reality most of our great fighters of today have one elite skill (two if they're incredibly lucky) and everything else has been made just good enough. JDS is an excellent boxer, Jon Jones an excellent Greco-Roman wrestler, and Jose Aldo an excellent striker. Fighters like GSP and Anderson Silva have both used singular exceptional talents (GSP’s wrestling, and Silva’s striking) to allow them to develop and catch people with secondary skills. But it is the dominance of their primary skill set that gives them the space to develop skills in other areas; much like Chael Sonnen’s great wrestling ability has given him the ability to out-strike much better strikers, or Michael Bisping's high volume, technical striking attack has allowed him to develop a decent wrestling game.
Of course there are counter examples. Fighters like Ben Henderson, and arguably Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson, have been able to reach the sports highest levels without any one exceptional skill set. But even then, they are reliant on exceptional athleticism to make up for the deficiencies that would otherwise leave them as also-rans. Eventually the truth of MMA, like most, if not all, other sports, is that it favors the specialist. There may be an exceptional few who can be pretty good at everything and use pure athleticism to make up the difference, but for most fighters focusing on developing one skill to a truly elite level will serve them much better than trying to be a well-rounded fighter.