Aljamain Sterling. Pedro Munhoz. Mirsad Bektic. Jim Alers. Alex Garcia. Albert Tumenov. Mike Rhodes. Rashid Magomedov. Justin Scoggins. Sergio Pettis. These are just a few of the enormously talented prospects the UFC has signed over the last eight months as part of a massive wave of new talent. Some of them immediately impressed - Garcia and Scoggins especially - while others, including Rhodes, Munhoz, and Tumenov, experienced rough introductions to a higher level of competition.
It's important to bear in mind, however, that even the most talented fighters don't arrive in the UFC as finished products. We tend to talk about prospect development in this sport as an abstract, ephemeral concept, and understandably so: MMA doesn't have the data-driven methods of baseball, the scouting combines and readily available video and statistical measures of American football, or the relatively small talent pool and highly-developed analytical tools of basketball. There's no set of concrete guidelines or easy-to-examine aging curves that give us baselines for comparing fighters at various stages of development.
That's what we're going to do here, at least on a small, anecdotal scale. I thought that it would be instructive to examine a few current greats to see exactly what they looked like at various points in their early careers; hopefully, this will give us a better idea of what to expect from young fighters moving forward. We're going to take a look at Georges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo, and Chris Weidman, complete with GIFs, video, and analysis.
So let's start at the beginning. Here's GSP in his fourth professional fight, a year into his career, fighting the much more experienced Thomas Denny:
While we can already see flashes of GSP's dominant wrestling (his chained takedown attempts were already gorgeous) and punishing top game, along with his stunning athleticism, it's clear that he hadn't yet developed the preternatural timing on his takedowns, the full range of his striking, or the pure strength that he'd show later on. With that said, how sick was this superman punch to double leg sequence? Phase-shifting has always been the heart of GSP's game, and we can already see it here.
Somebody hold me. Now let's take a look at an 18-year old Jose Aldo in his fifth professional fight, just under a year after his professional debut, against the unheralded Anderson Silverio.
There are a few interesting things to note here. First, his takedown defense is already outstanding; it isn't as highly developed as it will eventually become, of course, but it's still there. Second, he spends a lot more time on/slightly above the ground than we're used to seeing. Finally, while his striking is powerful and fast here, he's nowhere close to the level of technical brilliance he displayed during his early career in the WEC, much less the kind of skill he displays now. Most notably, his command of angles and distance is still lacking; for perhaps the best defensive fighter in the UFC today, it's quite odd to see him getting hit as much and as cleanly as he was here. Still, combinations like this one hint at his future potential:
Well, that was just lovely. To finish up our first round of fights, let's take a look at Chris Weidman's bout against current UFC middleweight Uriah Hall. This was about a year and a half into Weidman's career, and it was his third professional fight.
Weidman is obviously still pretty raw here. His first two takedown attempts had no setup, relying on raw explosiveness and drive to get onto Hall's hips, and he was stuffed pretty easily. The third wasn't much better, but he chained his attempts together to eventually force Hall to the mat. His top game was a work in progress as well: it's hard to imagine Weidman getting shucked off with something as basic as a butterfly guard today. The striking, on the other hand, was coming along nicely. He showed aggressiveness, willingness to engage, and hard if basic combination punching. The hook with which he floored Hall was gorgeous, and capitalized on his opponent's tendency to disengage with his hands down. It's hard not to see this as a premonition of the left hook he used to knock out Anderson Silva in their first bout.
With these three fights, we have a basis for examining development over time. For comparison, let's now take a look at each of these fighters' final bouts before their debuts in the UFC, or in Aldo's case, the WEC.
First up is Georges St-Pierre against Pete Spratt. GSP hadn't fought since defeating Thomas Denny in the first video we examined, but the growth in his game during the ten-month interval is obvious.
His top game looks even smoother than it did in his first fight against Denny: note how easily he passes the guard, and the heavy base he maintains from side control and half-guard. We don't see much of his striking here, but the brief flash at the beginning of the fight shows improvement as well. The real development here, I think, lies in his wrestling. Check out the the timing on his first takedown attempt (around the 6:30 mark): it's extraordinary, and it presages the reactive double-legs he used to such great effect in his later career. Here's the GIF:
Gorgeous stuff here from the future welterweight champion. Now let's check back in with Jose Aldo for his bout with Shoji Maruyama, his last before debuting in the WEC. Aldo had five fights and nearly two years in between the two contests we're examining here, so we should expect to see a great deal of development. Lo and behold, that's exactly what we find.
The first thing to note is how much cleaner and more technical Aldo's striking game is as compared to the first fight we examined. He's feinting more, taking angles, and showing flashes of the high-level pivots that we tend to associate with him today. His defense is also much better, though he still eats a few shots, largely as a result of the improvements I just mentioned. The biggest difference, however, is in Aldo's timing. The way he builds off his feints to land his low kicks is already impressive:
And what about this ridiculous explosion of violence? Serious shades of future Aldo right here:
Of course, we can also mention that Aldo hit some gorgeous takedowns, including a suplex (!?!?), and that his top control looked as good as ever. In short, we can see massive improvement in the two years between the fights we examined.
Finally, here's Weidman's last fight before his short-notice UFC debut against Alessio Sakara. Only three months had passed since the Uriah Hall fight we examined earlier, but there were still some real improvements in Weidman's game.
Given that it goes to decision, there's a lot we can unpack here, but let's focus on the essentials. The first point is how much better Weidman is at judging distance and timing on his takedown attempts. The second is the improvement in his striking. He was solid against Hall, but the 1-2 combinations, angles, and movement all look much better here. The third is the development of his clinch game; he only landed a few big shots, but he showed that he knew how to stay busy, grind, and win rounds against the fence if need be. This is a consistent characteristic of Ray Longo-trained fighters in general. The fourth is the further development of his submission game: obviously he didn't succeed in completing a sub attempt, but he looked for the guillotine a number of times. Note here how he transitions from the double collar tie and a barrage of knees to the standing guillotine at the very end:
That's beautiful phase-shifting, and marks something that has continued to show up in Weidman's game years after the fact.
This brings our examination of development to a close. It should be clear by now that we need to temper our expectations of young prospects, even those as talented as the three fighters we examined here. Georges St-Pierre in 2003, Jose Aldo in 2005, and Chris Weidman in 2010 were nowhere close to being the fighters they would eventually become, and that's no less true for today's crop of explosive youngsters than it was for these gentlemen.
Thoughts? Concerns? Fighters you'd like me to examine in a follow-up piece? Sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter, @Patrick_Wyman.