Many believe that finishes-knockouts, submissions, and stoppages-are the reason that combat sports exist. Certainly, history's most beloved fighters have almost invariably been those who sought, at all turns, to win their contests absolutely; there is no arguing the legitimacy of the win when one man is left standing and the other on his back.
But I do not believe that combat sports exist to satisfy our primal hunger for violence. It is not the ability of a fighter to finish that compels us to watch, but rather the refusal to be finished. The greatest and most memorable fights in history-bouts like Frazier vs. Ali I, Henderson vs. Rua, or any of the three wars between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera-are celebrated for the stories they tell, not the amount of blood spilled. The will to not only survive but to overcome is the one factor that decides whether a fight will be remembered in ten years, or forgotten in one.
This series intends to celebrate those fights, in boxing, kickboxing, and MMA. No, not every main event is one for the record books, but every man or woman who wades relentlessly into the deep waters of a long fight creates a narrative that needs to be conveyed, and that story is told in the momentum swings of the fight. Let's celebrate those moments when everybody knows it's all about to be over, except the two in the cage.
This is Pivotal Moments: Saffiedine vs. Lim.
As with so many great fights, the first round of this one was a slow, tentative affair. Both Saffiedine and Lim contented themselves, for the most part, with feeling one another out. Saffiedine prodded Lim with his jab and a handful of low kicks, while Lim tried his best to get a bead on his lightfooted foe.
With a minute left in the round, Lim decided to be the first one to throw some serious leather and, rather than chasing Saffiedine down, he used some impressive timing to catch the Belgian coming to him.
1. Saffiedine steps in behind a jab, perhaps expecting Lim to retreat. Lim does not, and Saffiedine ends up too close.
2. Lim counters with a short right hand over the top of Saffiedine's jab.
3. After disengaging, Lim once again counters Saffiedine, punishing his characteristic ducking with a driving right knee that catches him in the chest.
4. Lim follows this with an exiting jab.
5. Lim reenters range behind a long left hook, which Saffiedine deflects and counters with a right low kick.
6. Lim catches his kick before he can retrieve it and cracks the Belgian with a clean straight right that puts him on his back.
The shots landed by Lim were not bad at all, but the most telling aspects of this sequence were the parts that I have not shown you. Watching the GIF, you can see the way that Lim leaps out of range after every landed attack. Despite showing the courage-and Lim's courage should never be in question again after this fight-to stand his ground and counter, Lim proved that he doesn't have the technical know-how to enjoy more than momentary success with his striking.
Lim is a naturally powerful man, with a huge frame and a decent array of techniques. His natural power has saved him in close fights before, as it did in his previous outing against Pascal Krauss. Not many men in the welterweight division can take several of Lim's shots and stay standing. The problem is that Lim has come to rely on this power. These early exchanges showed us what Lim brings to the table, but they also showed us what he lacks.
Round two saw Lim's growing confidence snuffed by the technicality of Saffiedine. Check it out.
1. Lim charges forward behind a barrage of punches, none of which land as Saffiedine retreats.
2. Almost as if cued by the sight of logos under his feet, Saffiedine pivots before backing into the cage, and Lim barrels past him.
3. Saffiedine attempts to capitalize on Lim's poor positioning with a Hail Mary right hand...
4. ...which Lim avoids, countering Saffiedine with a left hook-right hook combination. Note the position of Saffiedine's right foot (circled), carried forward from his orthodox stance by the momentum of his overhand punch.
5. Rather than seek to reset, as Lim did in round one, Saffiedine is content to stay in southpaw. He throws his weight forward with a straight left.
6. And finishes with a right hook as Lim, his left foot caught on Saffiedine's right, stumbles backward.
There is an immediate contrast here between Lim who, at least on two judge's scorecards, stole the first round with his power alone and Saffiedine, who refuses to exit striking range even as Lim swings back at him. In fact, the more desperately that Lim throws, the more success Saffiedine finds in countering him. I often write about the techniques of pressure fighting, but there is an element of mental pressure here as well. After staggering Lim, Saffiedine continues the assault.
1. Lim squares up once again in the center of the Octagon.
2. Saffiedine steps into range behind a jab, negating Lim's longer jab by slipping as he throws.
3. Both men attempt to follow up with their right hands. Lim attempts to catch Saffiedine's lowered head with a right uppercut, while Saffiedine himself loads up a straight. Take note of the position of Saffiedine's head.
4. Lim's uppercut misses by a mile as Saffiedine's head moves with his punch, a vicious straight that catches the Korean on the chin and snaps his head back.
Once again, this is an illustration of Tarec's skill against Lim's will. Though not an exceptional boxer, Saffiedine has a firm enough grasp on the fundamentals to stand in the pocket and counter with no fear of retribution. Lim, on the other hand, keeps his head in one place, his feet planted, and his arms wide. He has power, but by the second round Saffiedine has already learned how to negate it.
Round three was the ideal Tarec Saffiedine round. Just as he did against Nate Marquardt a year before, Saffiedine was breaking Lim down with well-placed leg kicks, only this time the effects of his sustained leg attack were showing even earlier, and more profoundly. Lim was limping by the end of the second round. In the third, Saffiedine seemed to have his number.
1. Saffiedine throws a long left hook. This kind of punch is designed to throw the opponent's weight onto their lead leg to leave it vulnerable for a follow-up kick, though Lim readily threw his weight onto his left leg himself with a right uppercut.
2. Lim's uppercut fails to find Saffiedine's ever-moving head, and the Belgian drops his weight down into a brutal low kick that sends Lim, wincing in pain, to the ground.
3. Lim attempts to fend off his foe, but Saffiedine is relentless, kicking his grounded opponent in his tenderized thigh.
4. Saffiedine sprawls onto Lim's flailing legs and engages the Korean on the ground.
There are two stories to this sequence. First, Saffiedine has clearly taken over the fight by this point. Lim throws punches with some logic behind them, attempting to catch Saffiedine ducking with his uppercut, but he can't seem to set those big bombs up, and Saffiedine makes him look like an amateur with well-timed counters.
Second, Saffiedine is content to win rounds. Frame 4 would be the most surprising of this sequence, were it not so typical of Saffiedine's career, a career with 9 of 15 wins coming by way of decision. Saffiedine has not finished an opponent since 2010, and it's not because he isn't capable. In fact, the Belgian was landing the same combinations of punches on Lim that earned him his last stoppage win, a knockout over Nate Moore under the Strikeforce banner. The fact of the matter is that Saffiedine beats his opponents by having more patience than them, and that patience means he is more than willing to ride out a nice, safe decision.
But sometimes the safe decision isn't the safest option.
Before the start of the fourth frame, Lim received some suspect advice from his corner. "You're doing well," they told him. "Do your best."
If two things were clear about Lim Hyun Gyu's performance in the fight up to this point, they were that he was most certainly not doing well, and that he was, sadly, doing his best. It's sad to see a corner offer their fighter no technical advice whatsoever. Perhaps it was the fault of the translator, but Lim's cornermen consistently had nothing to tell their fighter about Saffiedine's strategy, to the point that I actually wonder if his coaches did anything to prepare him for Saffiedine's unique style at all.
Regardless, Lim followed his corner's "advice" as best he could, and Saffiedine continued to dominate.
1. Saffiedine has his exhausted and battered opponent backed against the cage. At the point of breaking from the low kicks, Lim responds by desperately ducking a right hand from Saffiedine, checking a leg kick that never comes.
2. Lim grabs Saffiedine's wrists, keeping him from punching and pushing him away.
3. As Saffiedine steps back into range, he does so with high, extended hands. Lim reaches out to defend against these.
4. Occupied by Saffiedine's hands, Lim never sees the scissor knee coming until, ducking his head again, he is violently introduced to Tarec's femur.
5. As Lim falls, Saffiedine sticks to him, landing in a dummy mount.
6. Aside from a few cursory punches, Saffiedine does nothing to finish his opponent off.
This was the point at which we all realized that, despite the grimace of pain on Lim's face at the mere suggestion of another low kick, and despite Saffiedine's evident ability to knock the big man out, we were in for a five round decision. Saffiedine's skills are unquestionable, but strategically, this approach is less than ideal. I've said the same about Georges St-Pierre, another fighter who, despite an early penchant for finishing, turned into a decision machine in the prime of his career: the longer you spend in the ring with an opponent, the more chances you give him to finish you.
No matter what his corner told him, Lim must have known that he was losing. He came out in the fifth with that knowledge written on his face.
Despite his fatigue, Saffiedine still seemed capable of finishing this fight, once again dropping Lim with his accurate low kicks. Instead, he spent much of the round coasting, knowing that he had the decision in his hands. Lim disagreed.
1. Lim catches Saffiedine on the ear with a wild left hook.
2. And a stiff right hand to the jaw staggers the Belgian.
3. Lim swings a few more punches, but Saffiedine is already on his way down.
4. He turns to receive a flying knee to the chest from Lim, who desperately pursues him until the final horn.
My friend and mentor Luis Monda often separates the ability to box from the ability to "kick someone's ass." In this matchup, Saffiedine was clearly the better boxer, showing crisper technique and better application of strategy in nearly every round. But there is no questioning Lim's ability to kick somebody's ass. Saffiedine failed to finish Lim, but Lim also refused to be finished, even where other fighters would have quit on the stool.
So what is the story of this fight? We are left with Saffiedine as the victor, a technician whose chances of challenging for the UFC welterweight belt look very promising. He was able to outclass Lim in every aspect of the fight in nearly every round, landing the cleaner punches, avoiding Lim's strikes, and even displaying some slick wrestling and BJJ. However Lim, despite the new loss on his record, has gained many new followers. He is the sort of fighter that captures the hearts of fans, not because he is an exceptional athlete, but because he has an exceptional spirit. I can only hope that Lim finds the best training available to him and learns from this loss, because a man with his perseverance and courage deserves to win.
For more MMA analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the study of the finer points of face-punching. Tonight's new episode features a long-awaited interview with Wilson Pitts.