Part 1 of this post here
Let’s take a look at how improvements work for an imaginary fighter. First, we give him a strong wrestling base, and a name. We’ll call him "Ben Warren."
Jesus. What have I done?
OK, so, uh, Ben Warren has entered into MMA, and he’s looking to improve. He’s already very good at wrestling. However, he can only improve a certain amount between fights, and he’s left choosing between whether to improve his striking or his grappling.
He wants to improve his striking, because he’s already a good wrestler, but there’s a problem here. When he tries to improve his striking, his wrestling naturally suffers. He has to change his stance in order to strike, and the explosiveness of his shot and natural ability to shut people down suffers. He’s just uncomfortable with hitting on the feet.
Below is a grossly reductive picture of what we call the "fitness landscape", and where Ben is on it. The landscape has many more elements to it than what we’ve seen in real life, and would ideally be represented in at least three dimensions (and probably many more than that, even if that’s completely unimaginable. 6D fitness landscapes anyone?).
What can Ben do? He can move left, and improve his (already good) grappling, or right, and improve his striking. In the long term, it makes more sense for Ben to learn better striking, as this leads to a much higher potential of efficiency.
However, in the short term, trying to improve his striking causes him to fall into the "fitness valley" - he is basically less likely to win a fight.
When a grappler starts trying to hit people a lot, they tend to be widely mocked for falling in love with their hands, but it’s worth recognizing that it’s a trade-off: If they simply grapple every time out, they risk stagnating, moving left repeatedly and becoming stranded on the relatively short peak, where they have will become limited and predictable. Going back to our early points, they have limited their potential offensive nodes.
In our Ben Warren example, this is what happens- unless he has such a great advantage over his opponent that he can afford to take the hit in efficiency, he has to improve his wrestling every time out. If he loses, he has lost ranking, potential earnings, and has probably taken an unpleasant beating. Adding to this, the more he’s confined to the peak, the less popular he’s likely to become (with wrestling and control based decisions), and the more essential it becomes that he wins at all costs, and the more difficult and risky it becomes for him to "leave" and change up his game.
When fighters do add factors like striking to their game, they tend to be elements which quickly offer rewards, and minimize the drop in efficacy. For example, if we link back to our earlier example of the overhand right, it goes together with a natural wrestler element (the double leg takedown), and comes from the same fundamental movement. It doesn’t require too much effort to learn, and reaps dividends fairly fast.
In the same way, fighters don’t try to restructure their entire game to get around their flaws, but instead are often compelled by the necessary short-term nature of training camps and the fight cycle to fix them up with the technical equivalents of spit and duct tape.
Therefore, they tend to move along similar paths of progression. Wrestlers for example will essentially be on a common fitness peak, and will naturally tend to add similar, low-investment high-reward elements to their games, such as the overhand right, the guillotine and rear-naked choke. This is a form of convergent evolution, but it doesn’t drive all fighters towards becoming the same.
Rather, it drives most of them towards whatever their nearest local fitness peak happens to be, where each peak often represents a common MMA archetype (your Wrestle Boxers, your Muai Thai Falloverers like Condit, Bruce Leeroy or WEC Cerrone, your Hands-down Loopy Hitters like Swanson and Dos Santos, etc). Again, as usual this is very reductive and ignores subtle elements or individual improvements among fighters.
PAINFULLY OBVIOUS SUMMARY: Fighters don’t evolve into MegaWeidmans, but instead change into better versions of themselves, by and large.
THE ELITE: JUMPING PEAKS
What is limiting Ben Warren is obviously not just where he is, but his capacity to improve between fights. Some can "jump peaks"- leap straight over the fitness valley without falling into it.
For me at least, this is one of the key markers of an elite or potentially elite competitor. They essentially prove that they can improve rapidly enough to cover huge distances in the fitness landscape. It also shows good judgement from the fighter and / or their camp, that they have determined that they are willing to take a potential risk in abandoning their "strength" in order to become a better fighter in the future.
- Chris Weidman’s sudden explosion in striking against Mark Munoz
- Jon Jones’ largely stand-up based attack against Jake O’Brian
- Pettis implementing a wrestling game against Jeremy Stephens
- Georges St Pierre outwrestling Josh Koscheck
It’s worth noting that these don’t always entirely work out - most of the time, a fighter does drop a bit in efficiency. Pettis probably could have sprawl and brawled Stephens and finished him, Jones’ stand-up was a little sloppy and risky, etc. However, much of the time it indicates that the fighter successfully integrated a new, powerful element into their MMA game. Without that first wild win against O’Brian, we might not see the patient distance control of the modern Bones Jones.
This is also why "squash matches" can also be particularly beneficial for developing fighters, where they can take the efficiency hit, develop in-cage confidence in the new element of their game, and still get the win. See: Chad Mendes vs Cody McKenzie.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t really work out well at all- After TUF, Michael Johnson changed from being an aggressive wrestle-boxer into a powerful, gazelle-like Muai Thai fighter who maintained distance and struck in and out. His stand-up improved greatly, together with one control element- his footwork.
Unfortunately, his other control element (grappling) fell into the toilet, and he got subbed by a variety of fighters.
However, it was still important to recognize how drastically he had shifted up his game. There are often going to be "fitness valley" growing pains associated with a change like that, but you can recognize that if all the elements that he has learned click together and mesh, he’s going to be rocketing up a potentially superior slope to the one he was previously on.
Is he going to be a top tier fighter? Unlikely, I suspect he might never be good at dealing with submissions, but anyone who can beat Joe Lauzon up like that and throw in a picture-perfect double leg at the end of a round in the way that he did has my attention, at the very least.
Similarly, Demian Maia got a lot of flak for his stand-up approach in wins over Dan Miller and fairly pedestrian fights against Weidman and Munoz. However, the "New Old" Demian Maia, whom everyone is happy to see use his grappling again, is no doubt greatly informed by his time spent striking, integrating it to close the distance and back up those clinch takedowns.
PAINFULLY OBVIOUS SUMMARY: When someone shows you a drastically different look, pay close attention, even if it doesn’t quite work out.
EXPLOITING THE STRONG
When MMA fighters are improving and learning their skills, they are not doing so in a vacuum. They’re learning them in an environment where they are surrounded by other evolving MMA fighters. As such, the process of improvement or learning is not static and linear.
In addition, we can think about how patterns within the sport play themselves out. Let’s say that there is a hypothetical simple UFC, where we have just two types of fighter: pure strikers, and wrestle-boxers, in a 50/50 proportion.
It's a magical world, where style match-ups play out with almost 100% regularity, so the wrestlers take down the strikers and win almost all the time. Because it's such a dominant strategy, our UFC starts to fill up with more and more wrestlers.
Then, someone, let's call him Evan Bisping, with a skillset to beat wrestlers comes along- strong takedown defence, good BJJ, fairly solid-if-unremarkable stand-up.
He starts beating the wrestlers, and everyone realizes that this is a great skillset in this environment. Suddenly we see lots of anti-wrestlers.
But! Vitor Barboza, a striker, has managed to hang around. He can’t really wrestle much offensively, but he has very good stand-up. He loses to wrestle-boxers, but put in there with an anti-wrestler, he can beat them up on the feet, and they don’t have the offensive grappling to take him down.
Suddenly the near-pure striker is a valid proposition again. Bear in mind, he hasn’t changed much in order to be effective in this new MMA world, rather that the environment has changed into something which he is more effective within. This an example of what is called exaptation.
The addition of a single element causes a rock paper scissors scenario. This kind of thing occurs in video games all the time.
PAINFULLY OBVIOUS SUMMARY: What is considered "effective" is obviously dictated by the environment in which it occurs. In particular, anything which counters dominant or popular strategies is immediately "good", even if it may initially appear counter-intuitive or strange.
An example of an individual coming up with an interesting answer to a popular "strong" strategy was Robert Whittaker against the double-leg / overhand mix-up which he and his camp correctly guessed would be coming his way courtesy of Colton Smith.
Whittaker uses a stance very similar to that popularized by Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns, where he leaves his hand low, by the waist, and his right hand cocked. This is also similar to Mayweather's "Philly Shell", although Mayweathers stance is more defensively minded and tight than Hearns's, with the L of his left arm held close to his body.
Whittaker has taken it to an extreme, particularly in the fight against Smith. It's an interesting example of adapting what nominally appears to be a boxing stance for advantages in MMA. His left hand was left especially low in this fight. This was to allow him to immediately grab an underhook if Smith dove for a takedown.
As Smith charged in, Whittaker would move to his left and back, so that if Smith instead chose to throw his overhand, it would pass harmlessly by, and he would uncork a short, devastating uppercut from his coiled right arm
Notice how his right foot is facing to outwards, pushing him laterally out of the way of the oncoming punch or takedown, and into the line of his uppercut.
Unfortunately this particular upper actually missed by inches, but this was the best illustrative sequence I could find.
If you so wish, below is an artist's impression of the short right upper connecting from Hitman style.
This kind of step back upper was also seen from Conor McGregor against Marcus Brimage, and I hope we’re going to see more of this strike in the future, as it seems like a strong counter to the natural bent over posture that comes with several of MMA’s offensive techniques.
The adoption of techniques is something that we see a lot in MMA. If a technique shows it has enough utility, it often gets added to the MMA lexicon and spreads rapidly among fighters. Attacks we’re currently seeing become increasingly popular include the step in elbow, the spinning kick (2013’s Striking Technique of the Year!1), and snap kick to the face (2011/2’s Striking Technique of the Year!1).
Some techniques are naturally a little more "obscure". Perhaps they have a prescribed way to counter them, or they are inherently risky.
Fighters only have a certain amount of time that they can devote to training and learning new skills. So, they will naturally prioritize the more popular techniques, the weapons so useful that almost everyone learns them or how to get around them.
If enough people do this, then the more obscure skills will start to greatly fall out of favour.
Once everyone has stopped learning the more unpopular skills, anyone who learns them suddenly has an immediate advantage. That technique can function as an ace-in-the-hole against unsuspecting opponents.
Of course, the more this happens, the more people recognize that the technique is potentially pretty good. They start practicing how to counter it, and eventually most fighters know how to deal with it. It drops out of favour, and the cycle starts again.
I’d say this is probably the kind of thing we’re likely to see with the wheel kick (although maybe not, as not that many people will actually physically be capable of throwing a wheel kick), but it I’d contest it’s something we DO see with techniques like leglocks.
Hypothetical leglock chart:
1) Leglock city! Everyone, quickly learn how to defend leglocks!
2) People are starting to learn how to counter them and so less people use them
3) Because everyone countered them all the time, no-one does leglocks any more. Everyone stops practising how to stop leg-locks because no-one does them
4) Some guy(s) is / are picking up tons of wins by leg locking fools left and right! Learn leglocks!
5) Leglock city!
Reductive once again (with every cycle, people remember leglocks that little bit better, and it gets added into the "generic MMA toolset" that tiny bit more, and "unexpected" ace-in-the-hole cards become harder to hide at the higher levels), but you get the idea.
Thanks to Messrs. Sass and Palhares, amongst others, we’re currently in a bit of a leglock drought (Point 1 or 5), but take heart! These crafty submissions will return. Hopefully.
PAINFULLY OBVIOUS FINAL SUMMATION:
- Fighters who are good at wrestling and footwork have an inherent advantage.
- Being able to mix up your attacks is useful.
- Most fighters improve into better versions of themselves, rather than into generically well-rounded martial artists, and there is not and cannot be such a thing as a fighter who is the best at everything (not even Chris Weidman, Warbreezy).
- Stance and a fighters style inform each other a lot.
- Most fighters have to fix their flaws in the short term.
- Fighters who can show drastically new looks are often very talented.
- Efficacy is dictated by environment
- Trends in attacks and styles are not constant, but instead rise and fall.
Well, that was a lot of work for some rather simple conclusions.
Hope you enjoyed!