Puzzle fight!


You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of the grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened. I felt lost. The sand crushed my mouth, but I cried out: I cannot be killed by sand that I dream —nor is there any such thing as a dream within a dream.

Big things are made out of small things, by and large. One of the illuminating elements of analysis is the potential for changing the level of detail at which the subject at hand is observed. You can run it broad-scope (big things) or granular (small things). Whether psychological, technical, economical, the cross-section obtained comes down to individual preference.

This analytical slicing can be performed for modern mixed martial arts as well. There’s a clear hierarchy of scale, from the sprawl of the market right down to the individual techniques of the fighters. The strata are linked- the propagation of the butterfly effect can almost be seen with the naked eye, rippling out from little cause to big effect. What if Serra’s punch behind St-Pierre’s ear was shifted by a couple of inches? What if Belfort cranked a few more pounds of pressure on Jones’s arm? How would the sport as a whole be changed?

There are a number of valid ways of visualising how these scalar gradations interact, and how to predict their outcomes. One potential approach is to think of each tier of focus as a puzzle constructed of moving parts. Within this puzzle, and part and parcel of those moving pieces, there is another puzzle at a higher level of detail, and within that in turn is another, nested like matryoshka dolls. At no point can the puzzle be understood completely- the fractal complexity is basically infinite.

Sorry. This is all probably unnecessarily cryptic. But are there better fighters to think of in the context of a puzzle than Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman?

Layer 1: Markets, $$$

So, the gods don't hand out all their gifts at once, not build and brains and flowing speech to all. One man may fail to impress us with his looks but a god can crown his words with beauty, charm, and men look on with delight when he speaks out. Never faltering, filled with winning self-control, he shines forth at assembly grounds and people gaze at him like a god when he walks through the streets. Another man may look like a deathless one on high but there's not a bit of grace to crown his words.

The UFC wants to make money. The puzzle which they have to solve is how to sell their fights. As an one-on-one sport, MMA can’t rely quite so much on tribalism as the team sports which dominate the modern landscape. It has to sell individuals.

Every now and then, you get those who don’t need selling, because they sell themselves. The exemplars in combat sports were guys like Jack Johnson or Muhammad Ali, inflating out larger-than-life personas like puffer fish, and then doing their utmost to live up to and fill them.

These… are not what the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been made from. Not directly at least. Mostly the big bucks in PPVs, merch and tickets have been made off the backs of those who rose through circumstance. Take Chuck Liddell, back in 2004- a muscled, taciturn man with a mohawk, essentially preoccupied with hitting people and partying. On first glance, almost uniquely unsuited to becoming a star. In defiance of these sorts of pre-conceptions, the pay-per-view market for UFC events ballooned around Liddell. A series of charismatic foils threw themselves against him and were roundly defeated. He fell almost accidentally into a kind of heroic blue-collar archetypal image, hailed for stoicism and honesty and the way he just came to fight, dammit.

The differentiation between the self-made and those who drop into an unconscious template of celebrity can be missed: as though he were one of the former, Liddell was tossed into the kind of environments where crossover stars should thrive, and the results were predictably disastrous. He lumbered through Dancing with the Stars, fell asleep in interviews, subjected the UFC camera to his infamous basilisk stare. The kind of popularity which he eponymized wasn’t simply incompatible with modern celebrity- it was virtually defined by its incompatibility.

Skip forward to the present day. In these days of consistent sub-300K buy rates, the UFC has been asking itself, agonized: "Where is the next Chuck?", while the pundits in turn berate the UFC for not being able to create the next Chuck.

So, brief analysis of the money-making puzzle sees that this kind of question misses something: UFC stars have generally been made through tricky, non-replicable assemblages of happenstance and dominance. The "star-building" apparatus of the UFC is not failing in the current climate inasmuch as it never existed in the first place. However.


Layer 2.1: The outline; the perfect champ

Imagine if the UFC did actually have a star-making machine. Not something which grooms and prepares fighters to become pay-per-view stars and ESPN front-page news, but a contraption which could somehow weave together things like muscle and ability and circumstance, in the ways that have been seen to work and make money in the past. Generating a bespoke, UFC-branded ass-kicker from scratch, if you like.

At the base level, you might program this machine to come out with something like Chris Weidman. He’s American and patriotic; looks good and fights good; white; finished the legendary champion as a sizable underdog. Coming from New Jersey, he’s close enough to New York to potentially be another subtle lever to persuade the last US holdout against MMA legalization.

The market value of Caucasian, clean-cut figureheads as prospective ratings gold has been affirmed by Bellator, who quickly and remorselessly gutted their own trademark tournament format for a chance to re-establish Pat Curran as featherweight champ. Similarly, Weidman should be invaluable to the UFC as a linchpin of their ongoing expansion. Let’s remember that he has already cracked a million PPV buys.

The issue becomes that at the current time, it’s oddly difficult to appreciate the middleweight champion beyond the sketched out precis. While all the pieces are there for a sellable product, there isn’t quite the organic groundswell of excitement you’d expect. The skeleton of a compelling story is present, with insufficient meat on the bones.

Bluntly, where has the hype been in the run-up?


Layer 3:1: Popularity; support and rivalries

To begin with, Weidman has an issue common to many modern UFC fighters: injuries mean that he just hasn’t fought that often, and without actual cage time, it’s difficult to build up any sense of familiarity.

Second: his victories over Anderson Silva were undeniably dominant, but they were also weird. Not inconclusive, but unsatisfying.

Thirdly: the elevation of a fighter into a star is achieved via support. Individuals come together to lift a celebrant with their cheers and (more importantly) their money. Support requires grip and purchase- flaws to relate to, strengths to admire. Weidman at first glance genuinely makes this a little difficult. He’s confident without being cocky, good-looking without being particularly memorable.

Moving past external impressions and onto the way he approaches his chosen profession, fighting style functions as both a product of and a replacement for personality. You can root for Dan Henderson for his courageous come-forward style and obliterating power, or Anderson for his relaxed kung-fu swagger. What do you like about Chris Weidman? "I like that he is good at MMA"...?

He’s more than competent at each separate combat discipline, yet since he knocked out Silva there’s little which jumps out as especially deadly, a skillset which an opponent needs to avoid. What elevates his game is the elision of techniques and the erosion of boundaries: The middleweight champion is so well-rounded that he’s practically a sphere. The seamless interplay of craft makes him an intriguing technical puzzle for anyone who actually has to fight him, but it also means that support slips away, sliding off the rounded surface.

Last -most importantly- there is one element which other big draws had which Weidman has lacked thus far. He doesn’t have a rival. Polarizing opponents tend to drag fans into support for mild or unknown champions: "I don’t know that much about this guy, but I know for sure that I don’t like the other guy."

The more obvious the disparities, the more interest is generated. GSP was blessed with two counterparts in Diaz and BJ Penn who epitomized shit-talking, unreconstructed fighter’s fighters, defining St-Pierre in turn as the respectful martial artist. Liddell was the straight man to Tito Ortiz. Anderson Silva himself didn’t start to seriously draw until Chael Sonnen barged his way into contention.

Weidman’s path towards popularity has been derailed a little here, as he’s been denied his natural foil in Vitor Belfort. The Brazilian is on a tear of vicious knockout victories, all accomplished while taking testosterone replacement treatment of geographically and temporally variable legality. Increasingly irrational and boisterous; rocking ever-more gruesome haircuts; thin-skinned in both the physical and the mental sense, he would have been the perfect marketable antagonist.

"I don’t know that much about this guy, but I know for sure…"

With Belfort’s dismissal from the title picture, the UFC has been forced to go with their perennial second choice.


Layer 2:2: The outline; the puzzle box

Lyoto Machida had his time when he was considered to be the insoluble mystery. He was fundamentally different to Weidman, though. The New Jersey fighter’s style can be taken as a culmination of modern scientific MMA. Like machine-fitted chrome, the difficulty in taking it apart lies in finding the hairline cracks.

Machida represented something closer to a puzzle box. One of the very first things that the UFC accomplished when it was founded to kill the popular image of many traditional martial arts as basically being efficient methods of fighting other people. Mysticism was stripped away and the elements of what worked and what didn’t were parsed and boxed up into neat divisions. Muai Thai, boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu: useful. Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu: not useful. The Dim Mak death touches and nerve cluster strikes, the hand parries, they all vanished into the dustbin of disproved myths.

Everyone knew by this point that karate didn’t work… until Machida fought and won using a style which, although informed by other disciplines, was undeniably karate. His numbers on striking defense were untouchably good. His takedown defense considered some of the best in the sport. A small 205-pounder who barely cut weight, he even brought back the idea of martial arts as the weapon of the smaller man.

Throughout his brief rule, it was like watching the Voynich Manuscript being played out in an unknown language of muscle and bone; as though the old was presented to the new and remained defiantly closed off and undeciphered. Some loved it. The repurposing of the lost and the discarded has a powerful pull. He never generated much love from the UFC brass though.


Layer 3.2: Popularity; Frustrater

A punch should stay like a treasure in the sleeve. It should not be used indiscrimately Chotoku Kyan

Machida has had three title shots in his UFC tenure. In every one, he’s been a replacement. He stepped in for Rampage Jackson against Rashad Evans, for Rashad Evans against Jon Jones. Now he replaces Vitor Belfort. When he knocked out Ryan Bader, it was supposedly for a title shot, yet the UFC backed up on their word. They just plain don’t like him very much.

The UFC President Dana White is always stressing that the fighters should try and finish the fight. Lyoto Machida has 12 knockdowns, 5 KOs, and remains steadfastly unpopular with UFC management. It’s largely because his style is (or was) almost entirely focused on the knockout.

It’s a central tenet of karate that a single strike should be enough to finish the fight. Further down, it’s at the heart of martial arts, as opposed to just "fighting". They are rarely about inflicting suffering, and the epitome of technique is to down the opponent with the clean anaesthesia of the killshot.

The UFC generally prides itself on other elements. It’s red-blooded athletic competition. The focus on painless and perfect victory takes second place to watching people tear away at each other until something fundamental is hopefully revealed under the surface.


Layer 4.2: Style; Sen no sen

So, when Machida fought, he would carefully manage the space of the octagon. He’d rigorously maintain distance while refusing to be drawn in to engage. If an opponent was similarly patient, like Rashad Evans when the Dragon fought him for the belt, then Machida would use delicate, probing kicks to build just enough advantage to frustrate them, and cause them to rush forward.

When they did, he’d suddenly lunge forward with his trademark ramrod left straight. A sudden switch from retreat to attack.


Layer 4.1: Style; Offensive defense

As well as blurring the lines between the dissolute MMA disciplines, Weidman muddies the waters between offense and defense. Fighting to take the belt from Anderson Silva, the American would stalk forward, and as Silva threw pawing jabs Weidman would tilt his head down to catch the punches on the crown of his head: the idea behind the old trick is to break the metacarpals in the striking fist against the sturdiest part of the skull. Then he nodded Silva on.


In the rematch, Weidman raised his leg to catch one of Silva’s kicks on the upper part of his own shin.

Silva’s tibia snapped in two, of course.


Layer 4.2 The past; the knot and the dead man

... fastened with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree, which whosoever should untie, the inhabitants had a tradition, that for him was reserved the empire of the world...

Shogun Rua solved Machida first, at UFC 104. In the apocryphal story above, the Gordian knot was a complex tangle of ropes which was impossible to untie. Alexander the Great drew his sword and cut it in two.


Shogun is an underrated tactical fighter, but with none of the careful stepwise maneuvering from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 which informs Machida’s strategies. As such, his solution for the riddle became the judicious application of raw force: If there was no way to catch the champion without getting hit, then Rua would get hit. He engaged with a flurry of punches, and then threw himself fearlessly after the retreating Machida while shaking off strikes, lashing kicks into the champion’s ribcage and trailing lead leg.

The early rounds were closely contested. The later frames, as Machida’s battered body struggled to haul in air and his legs stalled, were not, and he escaped with the win in name only. He kept his belt, but there was no more talk of the Machida era.

Before the rematch, Machida was the one who had to solve the puzzle. He had to devise a way to avoid exchanging, get inside and avoid the dreadful attritional kicking game which left him limping out of the octagon.

What he couldn’t know was that he was game-planning for a dead man.The Rua who had literally sprinted after him and ripped away his movement in painful strips was gone, vanished quietly and unobtrusively into the MMA record books. His long-suffering knees had deteriorated to the point where he just couldn’t mount the offensive he’d used in their first fight.

The fighter left behind was -and is- a tricky yet deliberate brawler. When Babalu Sobral talked about the modern Shogun, he said that he was more dangerous than he had been in his prime because he had grown into his "man strength." Whether it’s perhaps a little debatable that the modern incarnation of the Pride 2005 GP winner is more dangerous, it’s true that he garners more knockdowns and one-punch knockouts than his younger self did.

He’s also stiff, and slow. When Machida closed the pocket to get inside kicks that probably wouldn’t ever come, he entered one of the few areas where Rua was as potent as he ever was. Shogun cracked Machida with a cross counter, then mounted him and rained down punches for the stoppage to claim the light heavyweight strap. It remains Rua’s last great win.

In the years since then, Machida has bobbed around the top of the 205 division, clinging to his position as one of the elite. His one definitive loss came when he was crushed by Jon Jones.

Fighters learned not to over-commit against him. In contests with Dan Henderson, Quinton Jackson and Phil Davis the clean and sharp strikes he’d land would be weighed against handfuls of clinch blows, a few desultory leg kicks, a takedown. Sometimes he won. Sometimes he lost. The time he spent in no-man’s land has, as unbelievable as it seems, encompassed Weidman’s entire UFC career.


Layer 3.1: The past; the underwhelming prospect; investment

Back when he joined the UFC, Weidman was considered the top middleweight prospect in the world. His debut fight against the veteran Alessio Sakara was one-sided, gruelling and bloody as Weidman split his opponent open with short elbows from top position and proceeded to drag and smear him over the canvas. Sakara survived to the final bell. The fight was ticked off on the prospect checklist, but it in no way set the world afire.

Context helps here- the debut happened near the pinnacle of Jon Jones’ 3-year meteoric ascent at 205 lbs: The New Yorker would crush Shogun Rua in the Brazilian’s only UFC title defense a few months later. To this day, Jones continues to cast a long shadow over the expectations of what is possible for any prospect.

Weidman’s win over Sakara showed no pizzazz in comparison. He threw no spinning back elbows or 3-point german suplexes. However, he was fighting on less than two weeks notice, with fractured ribs.

If the concept of "support" is what builds a fan base, then what gets a fan to tune in to the development of a fighter in the first place is "investment"- the confidence that improvement will be shown down the road and that attention shown will be rewarded. The tendency to look for flashy and explosive action from UFC debutants is widespread and understandable. You want to see something special and otherworldly, and what Weidman showed was... different.

Investment is normally thought of in terms of finance, and there’s an interesting parallel here- In the stock market, there are two different measures of performance which investors look for. The more common one is "alpha" or "positive alpha"- broadly defined, this is the extent to which an entity will outperform its benchmark index, making money in the market in good times.

When a prospect flashes spinning back elbows or headkick knockouts, they are showing that they have positive alpha- they’re performing above the expectations of their marketplace: When things are going well, they’re performing amazingly.

There is another, less well-used measure of performance, which is "negative beta"- this is the tendency to provide value when the market is going badly.

To continue with the metaphor of fighters as stocks and the MMA world as the markets marks it out as a volatile environ to be an investor. With an array of ways to instantaneously end a fight inside the cage, and dozens of factors which can go wrong outside it (illness, injury, bad camps), underdog victories are commonplace. Fighters are always going to have bad days at the office. The difference between the good ones and the great ones, is that the great ones can win anyway.

Think of a bloodied Georges St-Pierre running back the takedowns on BJ Penn; fighting through a pulled groin or a blinded eye against Thiago Alves and Jake Shields. Anderson Silva pulling out the comeback against Sonnen, Jon Jones battling his way back into the fight against Alexander Gustafsson. Weidman showed in the Sakara fight that even when the deck was stacked against him by injury and time, he’d still manage to pull through. He showed "negative beta." It wasn’t pretty. It rarely is, almost by definition.

He demonstrated it again against Demian Maia, taking the fight on ten days notice and stepping in for an injured Michael Bisping. He was taking a leap in competition and a brutal weight cut. Streaming with sweat, he dragged out the win without dropping a round. That Weidman pulled out a victory in adverse circumstances became obscured beneath the spectacle of just how ugly the fight had been.

When he finally showcased a destructive, gory dismantling of Mark Munoz, it was almost too late to overcome earlier preconceptions. It was a stoppage win over a top ten opponent in which he barely got touched, but it seemed such an improbable gear shift that external explanations had to be found.

Then he beat Anderson Silva, and the rest was history.


Layer 5.1; Weight

As unpleasant as it sounds, a lot of trainers in boxing or MMA try to determine whether their fighters were beaten when they were younger. As it transpires, it's actually an advantage. It makes you more comfortable with punches being thrown at you. Less likely to flinch and turn away.

In an interview filmed by Bobby Razak, Weidman talked about how his brother would physically abuse him growing up. It's discomfiting to see the middleweight champion gaze off into the distance:

"He made sure I was getting beat up as much as possible growing up. If he wasn't beating me up, he was making his friends beat me up. He threw a 10 pound weight on my head because I wouldn't get him a cookie. [It] split my forehead open pretty good."


It didn’t seem to matter what sport it was–in a straight-ahead, long-distant race, I could beat anybody. If it was a suffer-fest, I was good at it. - Lance Armstrong

Weidman beat the man whom many have held up as the greatest of all time, and fairly easily at that. Before the rematch, there were very, very faint rumblings that perhaps he hadn't been taking training as seriously as he might. Regardless, he won the rematch easily as well.

Machida had his own struggles with hubris. When he held the belt, he talked about defending it "four or five times" before he'd move up to challenge the heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. It seems sad in retrospect. Any overconfidence of that ilk has almost certainly been scrubbed from his psyche by cold reality by this point.

The crucible of Machida’s UFC career has changed him. Constant, gruelling fights at the peak of the sport burned away imaginary invincibility and defined edges, limitations and strengths. He has gained more than he lost in the forging, however. No longer the small man in the octagon. Down at middleweight, his game has gained a lean and physical muscularity. The single-minded focus on the knockout has been tempered with a powerful attritional game- the strikes he throws in the early going aren’t bait. They’re designed to hurt. The risky and strobing rush of straight karate punches which blinds the opponent and disrupts their rhythm has been left by the wayside.

None of this was more apparent than in Machida's fight against Gegard Mousasi. Another transcendentally talented contemporary, he had not had the same never-ending schedule of dangerous opponents. When they fought, Machida grasped the fight from the start, firmly took it from the droll Armenian, and simply never gave it back. Flares of technique and explosions of violence from Mousasi were met by Machida with a focus as strong and flexible as steel wire. It was as though he was saying:

"I understand. You are fast, you are talented, you want to fight a certain way. But...this is what I have learned. This is how hard I have worked. This is who I have become. You cannot beat me. I understand."

What of Weidman? In the cracks between the neatly interlocking techniques which make up his game, there are glimpses of something darker and more bloody. Savagery is one thing, but this perhaps steps further, beyond even what the UFC asks for, closing into a masochism.

From the young boy who was brutalized by his brother, to the prospect who would shoulder his way sweating and bleeding and bone-broken through fights he shouldn't have taken. The contender who, fighting the most deadly striker to ever grace the sport, threw himself into Silva's strikes to break them against his own body. This is not simply fearlessness. This is fuck-you, do-your-worst defiance, cloaked in beautifully integrated technique. Easy prediction: It will be hard to put this man away.

There are things we cannot understand about this fight until we watch it. At the technical level we can guess that it will hinge on Weidman's cutting of the cage against the Dragon's movement, on Machida's ability to survive in Weidman's clinch or on the mat. Higher up the layers, we can see a man fighting to become only the third to ever win belts in two weight classes, another fighting to establish himself as a worthy successor to one of the greatest of all time.

Keep an eye out for that moment in the fight which will propagate and leap up through the strata, as the enigma who burned away his own mystery takes on the seamless fighter with blood beneath the surface, and each tries to solve the puzzle.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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