It's a dark time to be an MMA hipster.
Despite all the exciting prospects coming through the doors of the UFC and thrilling matchups on the horizon, we live in a small and irrepressibly bleak pocket of time, which may (but won't) be known in the future as the era... of the blunderpuncher.
The Marvel comics iteration of the Norse god Thor propels himself through the air by a novel method- he spins his hammer around, then throws it as hard as he can. He catches onto the strap and allows it to drag him through the air by sheer momentum. It's a little odd as a propulsion mechanism... and still odder that something similar has achieved such success in MMA as an attack.
You can find multiple examples of fighters who fling their dominant hand like a fastball, and then allow its momentum to drag them stumbling along the cage floor, hopefully connecting with something related to their opponent on the way.
What is undeniably depressing is the fact that so many of them have had such success of late. Dan Henderson's last performance could only have been more embarrassing if he'd held his index and middle fingers up to his temple to make little horns and bellowed "Mahoooo!" every time he charged...
...and then, tragically, he accidentally finished Shogun on a clinch break, shattering his nose and then attempting to punch his C1 vertebra out through his larynx.
Last week Roy Nelson knocked over a man-sized chew toy, which bore a weird passing resemblance to long-missing submission artist Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira.
The saddening shadow over welterweight
I still contest that the modern 170 pound division is the most exciting collection of fighters there has ever been in MMA, stacked with a dizzying array of prospects and veterans. However, over all the barnburner potential is the dark shadow of poorly-spelled blunderpuncher par excellence Johny Hendricks, who somehow sits atop the division.
Having won his way to contendership with a combination of jumping through the air with his eyes shut and left arm extended / dumb bullshit decisions, he finally won the belt in a contest with Robbie Lawler which was... OK... I guess. Analysts post-fight raved about Lawler's rolling of Hendricks' punches and his beautiful, strategic boxing. Hendricks, despite winning, inspired considerably less ink. Most of what there was centered on how he was able to throw more than one strike in a row. In all fairness, an achievement similar to a dog standing on its hind legs and reciting poetry.
Worse yet, Tyron Woodley beat Carlos Condit when the beloved Jackson's MMA point-fighter blew out his knee. Anyone who watched Woodley in Strikeforce holds a special antipathy in their heart for this man. There's that touch of ice in the spine when you remember him doggedly holding top position and doing precisely dick-all with it, while his mother shrieked soul-cracking ululations from cageside; some dread banshee from a lost and damned plane of existence where Martin Lawrence comedy vehicles are scripted by Lovecraft.
Woodley has evolved since then, breaking out of his boring chrysalis with an overhand right and emerging, blinking in the sun, as a brand new blunderpunching butterfly. Bleeeeuurrr big right hand! Bleeeeeuurr... takedown. Get hype.
So, GSP is gone. Diaz has departed both the UFC and any semblance of sanity. Kampmann is on an extended leave of absence. Condit and possibly Saffiediene have fallen into the Sean Sherk Eternal Injury Vortex(tm), and there is no telling when they will claw their way out.
In this brave new world, jocks are feeling empowered to write mean and untrue posts about how wrestlers are good, and to offer them a direct rebuttal is to potentially invite wet willies, noogies, and perhaps even atomic wedgies in reprisal.
Dark times, dark times.
What for the modern MMA hipster to do, as he enjoys his artisanal bread, organic goats cheese, and parma ham with a craft beer on the side, and writes impassioned defenses of Jake Shields on the internet? In this new welterweight world, where is the technique? Where are the jabs? Where are the leg kicks?
Why should you care about Thiago Alves?
Thiago Alves is a Brazilian Muai Thai fighter, infamous for his brutal leg kicks, knocking out Matt Hughes with a flying knee, and turning Josh Koscheck's lead leg into puree. There was a time when he was considered the perennial #2 or #3 welterweight in the world, and occupied his own spot on the pound-for-pound list. For a while, he and Jon Fitch were the Balrog and Sagat to GSP's Vega.
All that was a long time ago. He hasn't fought for an astonishing 25 months, when he lost by third-round guillotine to Martin Kampmann. Since then, he's been flung back and forth within the deepest bowels of the Injury Vortex. A list of some of Alves' notable surgeries:
- Left knee, ACL and PCL tear
- Pectoral muscle tear
- Nonspecific bicep injury (probably a tear)
- Arteriovenous malformation in the brain
The Injury Vortex is a vicious place, and how any fighter will respond when it eventually spits them out is an unknown. Some can emerge looking almost unscathed, or even put on career-high performances. Some can look awfully diminished. Some, like poor Sean Sherk, whose trapped soul gives the Vortex its name, never escape at all.
Even before his lay-off, much of the luster had been taken off Alves. A win over Doomsday Howard actually looks better than it did at the time. The less said about Papy Abedi, the better. Losses to Story and Fitch look particularly bad in retrospect, considering that both men have posted middling records since.
However, I'd go as far as to say that these represent career apex performances from both Fitch and Story (with respectful nods to Erick Silva and Johny Hendricks respectively).
The Fitching was equal parts carelessness from Alves, who missed weight badly and looked leaden, and brilliance from Fitch, who showed a lightness of foot and an ability to strike from the outside then clinch up for the sneaker trip takedown which he never quite achieved in the future.
For the Story fight, I can't offer anything that would compare to the all-time classic Judo Chop from Dallas and Nate here.
What of the Kampmann fight?
So, Alves lost to very good fighters in Story and Fitch, beat a decent fighter in Howard, and lost to another very good fighter in Kampmann.
If he loses to good fighters A, B and C, the logical extrapolation of this trend is to assume that he won't beat other good fighters in the future. One of the many wonderful things our brains do is to extract patterns, but it's important to attempt to correctly parse the relevant information from the patterns we see- the first pattern is not always the correct one.
This may be unclear, so for a comparison, let's take a look at much-maligned 205er Ryan Bader. Not far removed from embarrassing finishes against Tito and Machida, he was thrown in against Glover Teixeira. The general assumption was that he had unassailable disadvantages in chin, striking and ground game, and would lose by knockout in round 1.
And he did!
But he looked surprisingly good. His footwork was vastly improved and Teixeira genuinely struggled to find the range, until Bader clipped him and, smelling blood, ran foolishly into the pocket and winged punches again and again until the Pit representative summarily walloped him into oblivion.
MMA is a horribly unforgiving sport. A fighter can do multiple things right, like poor Ryan Bader, and then commit one mistake and be posterized for eternity. What often seems to get missed is that things like being ridiculously eager-beaver in pursuit of the finish are easily fixable- I would guess it will be a cold day in hell before Bader goes nuts on a dangerous opponent. I'm actually surprisingly interested in seeing him fight upper-tier competition again.
"but phil... bader looks like what you'd get if a mad scientist transformed a popped collar into human form and then pumped it full of chicken breast hormones, and he's a wrestler who wings overhand rights over and over so based on your earlier rant you can't like him, your satire is frankly very uneven and this section hasn't even read like satire at all and I don't know what you're trying to do..."
OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT OVER THERE IS THAT JON JONES KICKING A DISABLED KID DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS? LET'S BE DISTRACTED FOR A SECOND AND FORGET ALL ABOUT THE TONAL INCONSISTENCIES OF THIS FANPOST
My general point is that a single error can eclipse a multitude of improvements within the context of a single fight, but it shouldn't necessarily when looking at the future of that fighter (unless they do it multiple times). Alves, despite lunging face-first into that fateful guillotine against Kampmann, showed a number of key improvements. Let's take a look.
Cardio / Weight management
Alves had a reputation as a monstrous welterweight. In all honesty, he was carrying around a lot of beach muscles. This led to him missing weight fairly badly, once against Hughes and again against Fitch.
As much as Mike Dolce is a punch-line in the community, once Alves started dieting with him he came in noticeably slimmed down. The cardio which quickly flatlined against Fitch actually became an asset- down on the cards against Story, he put out the best round of the fight in the third. It was too little, too late, but he showed again in the Kampmann fight that he was fully capable of fighting a hard 15.
Fighting moving backwards
I've argued before that Rick Story should have taken Jake Ellenberger's "Juggernaut" monicker when he beat him. Going head-to-head with Story has been a losing proposition for anyone, and it was for Alves as well. The Judo Chop above notes how Alves' game is based around coming forward, and meeting the opponent head-on. It's an extension of the central ethos of Muai Thai: to step forward, toe to toe, and battle it out. For a Thai fighter, to move backwards is to lose.
So, when Story's relentless pressure forced Alves backwards, he had no tools to defend it, and Story backed him into the fence time and again.
Kampmann is similarly an extremely strong pressure fighter, yet Alves showed great improvements in his ability to throw crisp punches while moving backwards. In the picture below, look at Alves relative to the black line of the octagon to see his position as he retreats.
1) Alves steps backwards, and Kampmann chases
2) Alves cracks him with a right
3) Continuing to move backwards, Alves jams Kampmann with a jab as Kampmann's jab narrowly misses
4) Alves resets the distance and Kampmann, discouraged, gives up his advance.
Note how Alves never compromises his stance, by dint of quick, shuffling backsteps.
One of Alves' most devastating weapons is the leg kick. As with all powerful leg kickers, the question becomes how to set it up.
Jose Aldo is probably the most well-known leg-kicker in MMA, and his leg kicks are set up with both hip feints and his hands. Connor's post-fight breakdown of Aldo's last fight shows how "Scarface" uses the power and threat of his techniques to force opponents out of position, and then smashes them when they are compromised. The advantage of this approach is that it implants fear in the opponent. "I know what he's going to do, but I can't stop it."
Alves' tendency to throw full-power with everything got him into trouble numerous times in the past, particularly against GSP, who would jam him with a leaping punch or a takedown whenever he committed to his leg kicks. His solution, therefore, was a little different to Aldo's: He began switching up the weighting of his kicks. In the Kampmann fight, together with the meaty muscle-shredders he was famous for, he'd throw light, testing kicks to the inside and the outside of Kampmann's legs. The advantage of this approach is that it implants confusion: "I don't know when these leg kicks matter."
Sometimes the kicks were merely testing. At other times, he would be throwing them as bait, utilizing them to shift weight onto his lead foot to set up for a punch. Below:
1) Alves throws a probing leg kick. Kampmann starts to check, then realizes there's nothing on it.
2) Alves puts his weight down and uses the forward momentum as a step to spear a jab through Kampmann's guard
3) As Kampmann shells, Alves rotates his hips through from his leading foot and boots him as hard as possible
4) The Danish kickboxer visibly recoils from the impact
Aside from the ill-advised takedown at the end of the fight, Alves' grappling looked massively improved. He stuffed almost every takedown from Kampmann, who is an underrated wrestler. Perhaps more impressively, he hit his own inside trip on Kampmann, and actually worked his way into mount. Twice. Kampmann's grappling is extremely strong- look no further than his fight against Paulo Thiago. Thiago's star has fallen a little in recent times, but he is a powerful grappler and a legitimate black belt, and Kampmann was able to cut his guard to pieces.
That Alves was able to mount him (something which has only otherwise been achieved by Jake Shields, if I recall correctly), was honestly the most surprising development in their fight.
Since then: American Top Team
Alves is a long-time ATT fighter, and has always been very vocal about how much he owes to his training partners. The state of camps is always interesting to look at, and American Top Team has really put on the jets of late. In no division is this more apparent than welterweight, with Hector Lombard, Tyron Woodley, and Robbie Lawler all firmly ensconced in the top 10. This bodes well for two basic reasons:
1) The "Iron sharpens iron" element, in which fighters push each other to get better
2) The confidence of a successful gym: when everything is clicking and firing on all cylinders, it's infectious.
The days of Alves being the sole successful ATT representative at 170 are long-gone. In particular, I hope he can spend some time with Robbie Lawler, so that Lawler can advise him about gentle sparring and career longevity, so that he doesn't get injured so fucking much.
Disclaimer and conclusion
I'm actually surprised and pleased to see the amount of love for Alves on BE. It's nice to see people enthused to see the return of Pitbull. However, it is worth noting that he still retains some of his weaknesses, and some of them will probably never go away:
1) He still backs up in a straight line too much
2) He repeatedly drops his head in the same way when he throws punches
3) He relies on the "universal defense" of shelling up a little too much- the combination of this and dropping his head when punching makes him a little vulnerable to upward strikes: Kampmann nailed him with a front kick which was very similar to the one which Travis Browne would later use to knock out Alistair Overeem.
4) He has little offense from the clinch apart from his trip game.
Seth Baczynski is a powerful, perennially underrated bruiser. A giant welterweight, he's considerably bigger than Alves, even in his heyday, and is notably powerful in the clinch, with nasty knees and a brutal front headlock series. In addition, of course, Alves is coming off an absolutely Swicktacular layoff. There are no guarantees, at all.
However, I like to think that Alves still has time to put it together. He's only 30, and there are more than enough MMA rebirth stories of late (Lawler, Belfort) that it wouldn't even be that surprising. These are grim times, where there is a real possibility that one of the most prestigious titles in the sport will be contested by Woodley and Hendricks galloping blindly around the octagon with their lead hands like grown men attempting to play at Quidditch.
Here, then, optimism is a must. I like to think that Alves can make a run. Before his lay-off, he had developed and fine-tuned his game into something special. Powerful Muai Thai, complemented by a ground game good enough to give Martin Kampmann fits. Improved boxing. Solid cardio.
I hope he can make something of it and I, for one, will be watching nervously, clutching my microfoam flat white coffee hard enough to very slightly bend the cardboard.