One of the reasons why MMA is such an exciting sport to watch is its sheer speed of progression. Sometimes it seems like the game changes from week to week, with a constantly shifting landscape of what constitutes a good technique, or even a good fighter. Some mixed martial artists can keep up, surfing the waves of progress. Others are washed away.
I studied some evolutionary biology (and have forgotten most of it!) and thought it might be fun to apply, if not a rigorous scientific method, then at least some useful concepts from science to looking at MMA.
Naive Physics can be approximated as the wide-ranging ability to reduce highly complicated situations down to simple ones. This is obviously a very broad description (which could be used to describe quite a lot of what the brain does, for example).
Sometimes it’s bad, and the assumptions generated by our brain’s Naive Physics Engine are wrong, but it’s also a completely essential element for dealing with the world. For example, the classic example would be that we can work out what’s going to be happen when a strange-shaped container has water added to it - it’s going to fill up. We don’t need to calculate exactly the manner in which the water moves upwards or work out the volume of the container to know what the end result will be. Similarly, when someone throws a ball we don’t need to puzzle out complicated ballistics to catch it.
Naive physics is also what we use for calculating qualitative situations. This is when we don’t have discrete mathematical elements to work with, and when we’re dealing with fuzzy definitions like "good", "bad", "strong" and "weak."
This is essentially what we have to do if we’re trying to predict or understand MMA, or any sport, really. Despite great sources for stats like mmadecisions, fightmetric, or the fight finder, they are merely aids for reinforcing conclusions which will always be fundamentally messy, analogue and never as simple as A + B + C = Shields by KO.
That said, this article will look at breaking down elements of MMA in "semi scientific" terms, by butchering and bastardizing what should be precision terminology. Hopefully it might provide a different way of looking at certain aspects of fighters, how they approach a match, and how they improve from fight to fight.
However, these are heavy, heavy simplifications of what’s happening, and it’s good to keep the Naive Physics interpretations in your mind. It’s dangerous to get too caught up in the minutiae of a fight, or simplistic reductions of elements. Sometimes (often) that reactionary, Malcolm-Gladwell-Blink-analysis of a fight is the best one:
"Melvin Guillard is going to lose this fight because the other guy has enough speed to hit him, a chin to withstand getting hit himself, and he has the fundamentals of back control and the rear naked choke."
So: disclaimer! None of this is cast iron or even backed up by any real science or technical knowhow, just a few observations. Most technical conclusions are rooted firmly in "reading about stuff" rather than any expertise on my part, namely breakdowns from Slack, Ruebusch, guy, lawrencekenshin, Winston, and countless others who I am indebted to, and errors are, of course, my own.
After running through the pseudo-science, I will give the "Naive Physics" interpretation of the point we’ve come to, which will be referred to as the PAINFULLY OBVIOUS SUMMARY.
GRAPPLING AND NODES
Wrestling is often referred to as the strongest base in the sport, with good reason: A fighter can stop the other from taking them down, or bring the fight back up to the feet. As referenced often by... everyone, it allows you to control where the fight takes place. Greg Jackson talked about "nodes" in a very interesting article here.
The gist of this is that in almost any situation, there are a series of options available to a fighter. At the most basic level, when the fight starts, they can punch, kick, initiate the grappling or attempt to defend. Once they select one of these options, they move into a new node. Illustrated below is a series of arbitrarily invented nodes that lead to a knee from the clinch, along the path of the red arrows.
The ability dictate the grappling in a fight often allows a fighter to bring it to where their nodes of offense or defense are fundamentally better in terms of risk-reward. If a fighter is in full mount, their options are obviously far superior to their opponent’s. So, grappling is rarely an offensive node in and of itself (until we get to "end-points" like submissions or, rarely, KO slams), but is a control element, which allows the fighter to shift probabilities in their favour.
The other fundamental control element of MMA is footwork, as it allows a fighter to take angles on their opponents and attack and defend from favourable positions. Obviously these two control elements (just) bleed into one another - great footwork allows for a fighter to control whether a fighter can get their hands on them or not, and effective grappling can negate footwork if the grappler successfully grabs the other fighter.
Almost every offensive maneuver has elements of control, with some more than others - the front kick / teep, the leg kick, and the jab are excellent offensive methods of controlling a fight, and ideally branch off to stronger areas. Almost every strike can be used not only to inflict damage, but to herd an opponent into a space where you want them to be, or as an alternative to another strike. Similarly, from a grappling perspective the omoplata for example is a very low-success submission in and of itself, but works great to sweep and regain position.
Similar nodes of offense are great, because they often fundamentally reinforce one another.
Here’s the most famous example: wrestlers tend to learn the overhand right, because it’s such a natural complement to the double leg takedown. The attacking fighter comes in, his shoulder low, reaching for the opponent.
When they keep their hands up, they get double legged to the mat.
When they drop their hands for the underhooks, the overhand arcs over and hits them in the face.
Therefore, the fighter has enabled a simple guessing game which makes both attacks far more effective than they are in isolation.
When Bruce Lee said "I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 strikes,I fear the man who has practiced one strike 10,000 times", he neglected the corollary, which is obviously the man who has practiced 2 or 3 or 4 strikes a few thousand times apiece. If those strikes tend to reinforce each other, as the overhand and the takedown, or Cro Cop’s straight left and left headkick, then all the better. The guessing games behind interlinked attacks also become vastly harder to deal with as more of them are added.
Great fighters tend to be very "connected". They have control abilities to ensure that there are nearly always pathways available to their strong techniques, and those techniques tend to be complimentary of one another.
Take GSP. He has developed a few specialized weapons, which all come from the same space. His jab, leg kick, superman jab, superman punch, and takedown can be mixed together extremely well. It’s not uncommon for his opponents to just sit there, paralyzed, trying to guess which one is coming next. With superb footwork and offensive and defensive grappling, his control techniques are also among the best in the world.
Carlos Condit is a well connected fighter (he can fight from any position, and generally has more than one option in any area) but his control elements are lacking. He punches wide with flaring elbows, has decent if unspectacular footwork, and has fairly horrendous takedown defense. This means that while he has options available at every juncture, he struggles to force the fight to where he is strongest.
When Condit fought Johny Hendricks, Hendricks was able to capitalize on this by simply blasting through the distance in front of Condit, which he was unable to control with either footwork or a stiff punch. Hendricks would land strikes on the way in, carry on straight into the takedown, dump Condit on the floor, then get up and repeat. It’s not uncommon to see someone beat a superior striker by mixing together strikes and takedowns, but Hendricks beat a man who was basically both a superior striker and a superior grappler, simply by using his control element to create a cycle which repeatedly brought him back to his strongest position- on the outside, and closing in with punches.
An example of an unconnected fighter would be Frank Mir. One of his major strikes is the overhand, yet he has no threatening double leg takedown to back it up. Similarly, his jiu jitsu game can’t be implemented at will because he can’t take opponents to the mat. This leaves him as a fighter who is still individually dangerous in certain areas, but who can also be effectively isolated from implementing them. Junior Dos Santos boxed with him with little fear of the takedown, and Daniel Cormier, Shane Carwin and Josh Barnett corralled him into the clinch.
Condit and Mir’s more obvious deficiencies are mostly caused by problems in the same elements (wrestling and footwork), with a subtle difference- Condit has multiple relatively low-percentage pathways available in almost all situations, whereas Mir can be effectively positionally checkmated. It doesn’t really need to be said, but Condit is also basically just a much better fighter than Mir.
PAINFULLY OBVIOUS SUMMARY: Being good at grappling and footwork is useful. Having techniques which look like each other is good.
A lot of the time, people talk about fighter evolution, but what does this mean? You’ll frequently hear someone saying that a particular fighter just needs to learn "striking" or (more often) "takedown defence", like this is just a thing which they could do if they really wanted to.
A lot of this, I feel, stems from the same misconception that people use with respect to evolution in general, which I like to call the Octo-Cheetah Delusion (it’s more commonly called the ladder theory).
This is the concept that evolution is a process towards becoming more awesome. For example, most are comfortable with the idea that humans evolved from apes. This fosters an idea that humans evolved from things like modern chimps, and that we are therefore "more evolved" than modern chimps.
This is untrue - current chimps have evolved from our common ancestors exactly as much as humans have. They simply evolved into a different ecological niche (one involving less running and hunting) which turned out to be less successful than ours. At the time of writing at least.
Evolution is not a process that shepherds organisms towards becoming "the best" in any rigorous sense- this is why everything hasn’t evolved into armor-plated venom-spitting super-intelligent Octo-Cheetahs. When Darwin said "survival of the fittest", he meant "fittest" as in "most appropriate to a purpose" rather than in the sense that we normally mean "fit", as in strong or fast or even intelligent.
We can challenge one assertion from this straight up: MMA is certainly an environment where there IS pressure towards becoming the most bad-ass. Surely, then, a fighter should evolve towards becoming the most well-rounded individual they can be, with the ultimate ideal being some kind of MMA equivalent of the Octo-Cheetah, a Generically Well-Rounded MegaWeidman, packed with control techniques and with offensive nodes in every area?
The answer is, of course, no, for almost every athlete.
This is because they are individuals, with different potentials, and will always emphasize different elements of their game. The factors which dictate which path a fighter will take are often set right from the start of their careers, by elements such as their fundamental aptitude and ability, the base which they train from, the training camp they go to, and their stance. Let's look at that first.
One of the advantages of the tall stance is that it allows them to perform kicks without "chambering" or telegraphing them. Basically, biomechanically it is far easier for them to just swing their leg up and boot their opponent.
Lyoto Machida, in wireframe form, demonstrates the elegant martial art of booting
In addition, the added distance and visibility they gain from keeping the head up and back allows them to evade head strikes more easily.
A disadvantage is that it weakens the standard double-leg takedown- in order to perform it, the fighter must crouch down, destroying their stance, slowing down and telegraphing the attempt.
In addition, the upright stance makes the fighter vulnerable to the takedown, and the striker therefore generally keeps at least one hand down to stop an opponent’s double leg.
Conversely, the more hunched "wrestler" stance with the head forward and the heavy lead leg leaves the head with increased vulnerability to strikes, and requires more commitment or a change of stance in order to throw kicks (just imagine trying to throw a front kick from a bended knee. It's intuitively unpleasant). The heavy weight on the front leg also leaves it vulnerable to leg kicks. However, the double leg takedown is both easier to defend and perform.
"Hands up" is generally part and parcel of the wrestler stance, to provide a layer of defense to compensate for increased strike vulnerability, and because keeping the hands down to stop the takedown is fundamentally less necessary.
Stances are incredibly idiosyncratic and deep and don’t just fall into these simple categories, from Conor McGregor's wide, bladed "karate" style, to whatever the hell Chuck Liddell and Miguel Angel Torres were doing, to GSP’s "fencing", to Robert Whittaker’s interesting redux of Thomas Hearns’ "Hitman Style" which I will talk about in part 2 because I feel like it.
There is no perfect stance - which a fighter will choose is generally dictated by what they are already good at. However, once they have picked a stance and a style, they will naturally move towards improving the associated strengths of that style, and will inevitably inherit some of its weaknesses. Conor McGregor showed that he has a surprisingly decent takedown game, but his stance essentially prohibits him from becoming a double-leg machine. Similarly, Chad Mendes is a great wrestler with ever-improving stand-up, but we’re unlikely to see him peppering people with minimally telegraphed kicks any time soon (there is of course a caveat- these guys are special talents so the "rules" don't necessarily apply, as we will see in part 2)
Fighter improvements will not just be limited by their style, but by their potential and the time that they have to implement it, which is coming up next.