When we as fight fans analyze an upcoming mixed martial arts fight in an attempt to pick a winner, there are a lot of different ways to come to whatever conclusion we come to.
Of course everyone knows about MMAth, in which you compare the combatants results against a mutual opponent. This method is usually derided by educated observers as wholly unreliable, and statistically it is, yet it is almost always brought up by someone during the lead up to the fight (and enthusiastically discussed in great detail by all parties).
Another quick and easy method of pre-fight evaluation is to look at the two fighter's skillsets in an attempt to determine where the fight will take place. This is a much more respected methodology and it is easy to see why: Grapplers (wrestlers in particular), are almost universally able to dictate where their fights will take place, if they are going up against a striker or less talented grappler. If they want to have a stand up fight, they will use their grappling savvy to avoid going to the ground. If they want to have a ground fight, they will use their grappling savvy to bring the fight to the mat.
Where you can run into some problems with this method is when the two combatants come from a different grappling base: It's not always clear in fights between a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter and an American wrestler which fighter will have the grappling edge. Making this method even more challenging is when you have two strikers facing one another. We don't always know how good a striker is on the ground game until/unless they are forced to use it, making it nearly impossible to make an educated prediction with this method.
If we want to go even more in-depth, we will discuss and evaluate what individual techniques the two fighters use. Are they combination strikers or do they go for power shots? Do they shoot power doubles or stick to single leg takedowns? This can help us in matches like Brian Stann vs Alessio Sakara, a bout that took place at last weekend's UFC on FUEL TV 2. Stann is a power puncher, and Sakara has had some trouble when he gets hit with big strikes. Sure enough, Stann connected with powerful shots early in the fight and went on to score a TKO victory.
These methods are useful ways of looking at a fight but it seems to me there is one more level of evaluating a fight (and fighters), which is, essentially, how successful a fighter is at influencing his opponent to move as he sees fit. Jack Slack, one of the premier striking experts in the MMA blog-o-sphere and Mike Riordan, a new addition to the SB Nation ranks over at Bloody Elbow, specializing in wrestling, recently gave us great examples of this kind of evaluation.
- Fight Like Dos Santos: The Right Body Straight. (Jack Slack)
- A Theory On Successful Wrestling Translating To Successful MMA Wrestling (Mike Riordan)
In Slack's post, he details how Junior Dos Santos used body attacks in his title fight with Cain Velasquez at the first UFC on FOX show to influence Cain to drop his hands. When he did drop his hands, Dos Santos was able to land an overhand right, sending Velasquez to the mat and giving Junior the UFC heavyweight title.
Riordan takes us inside the world of wrestling set-ups, showcasing numerous examples of wrestlers taking what seems to be a stale-mate position and using it to their advantage.
This ability to make your opponent do what you want them to do is, to me, what separates the greatest fighters from their peers. One of my all time favorite fighters is Bas Rutten. The main reason for this is the clarity with which he is able to describe his fighting experiences. If you've never seen this video of his fight with Jason Delucia, it's a must watch. It's special because Rutten provides a running commentary of the fight, giving us some incredible insight into how he approaches a fight and how he chooses to attack Delucia:
At the highest levels of combat, the athletic abilities are often so even that they do not play a large role in the fight. Of course there are exceptions to this; Georges St. Pierre stands out as a fighter whose natural athleticism is nearly impossible to overcome. Brock Lesnar was thought to be of a similar ilk and indeed he was able to rely on his physical gifts to destroy men like Heath Herring and Frank Mir, much more technical fighters than himself. When he came up against fighters who could either offset his wrestling with their own, or had an equal amount of brute strength, he was exposed as a mediocre fighter, unable to influence his opponent in any way.
On the opposite side of this coin is Anderson Silva, a fighter who is so in tune with his opponents that fans have openly wondered if he is proof that we are indeed living in some an artificially constructed reality. The diversity of the attacks with which Silva has beaten his various opponents is truly spectacular. How can one fighter use so many different methods to such a great degree of success? To put it simply, Silva knows where his opponent is going to be before they are there. This isn't to say it is a simple task; it took years and years of training for Silva to reach the level that he is at, but it is the most critical element to his success.
This ability to seemingly "control" your opponent was alluded to by Rashad Evans during the first of two Fuel TV "Ultimate Insider: Counterpunch" segments that he and Jon Jones appeared on last week. During the confrontational clip, Evans and Jones discussed how they themselves saw their fight (the headlining match at this weekend's UFC 145) going and towards the end of his comments, Evans declared:
When you're in there with me, I can get you to skip to my lou. And you will skip to my lou. You're gonna do exactly what I want you to do.
During the extensive pre-fight trash talk that has gone on between Jones and Evans, one of the oft-repeated refrains from Evans is that he's been in the cage with Jones before, (the two sparred together for months as teammates and training partners at Jackson's MMA) and as such he knows what to do to beat him.
And why shouldn't Evans feel this way? After all, he isn't really a physically dominant fighter. He's quick, to be sure, but for a light heavyweight he's rather small. He hasn't shown himself to be beastly strong for his size either, so he has been forced to earn his victories through technical superiority and that ability to influence his opponents into making the mistakes he wants them to make.
Jones on the other hand, for all the physical comparisons we draw to Anderson Silva, (they do indeed have very similar body types) more closely resembles an earlier version of Georges St. Pierre, before the welterweight champion toned down his aggression on the feet: He intelligently uses his physical superiority to dominate his opponents.
Silva is a master of quick strike offense. He spends much of the early part of a fight calculating his opponents timing, judging their reaction to his feints and movements. When he has figured out how best to attack, the fight usually ends soon after.
Jones is much more methodical in his approach. He prefers to get an early takedown, sowing seeds of doubt in his opponents mind. He plays a patient striking game, using his kicks to wear opponents out before he opens up with a more diverse striking attack. He almost always ends up taking the fight back to the ground before he looks for the finish. He is improving his striking at a rapid pace, but for the most part the danger in his game is predicated on his ability to take the fight to the mat. I'm not blessed with enough technical know-how to be able to say this with certainty, but I believe that his wrestling prowess is more about his physical traits than his ability to influence his opponents into mistakes.
When you set aside all the talk, all the fluff associated with the friends turned enemies promotion of this fight, what makes this fight between Evans and Jones so intriguing (and what would make a fight between Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre so intriguing) is the differing approaches that the two men bring to the cage.
The former champion Evans, who has overcome for his lack of physical dominance by forcing every one of his opponents save one (Lyoto Machida) "skip to his lou".
The current champion Jones, who has imposed his physical dominance so easily on every man he's ever faced.
Will Evans be able to coerce Jones into making critical mistakes? If he can, will he be able to capitalize? Will Jones be able to impose his physical dominance on Evans? If he can't, will he be able to adjust?
What if we see a little bit of both? Who is best equipped to deal with partial success and in turn, partial failure?
I wrote last week that this fight was a super-fight. The claim was challenged by some who believed that Jones was simply too good for Evans. Despite some solid arguments supporting this idea, I still don't believe that it is the case. I believe this fight will be one of those special bouts that will be remembered long after it has been fought.
I guess we'll soon see.