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On Hector Lombard and playing it safe

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Patrick Wyman argues in favor of Hector Lombard's conservative strategy against Jake Shields at UFC 171.

Matt Roberts

Hector Lombard is a terrifying man, a fighter with jaw-dropping speed, ridiculous go-to-sleep power in his hands, and some of the slickest takedowns and high-amplitude throws in all of MMA. Unfortunately, he also owns a relatively limited gas tank, a problem that seems to afflict the vast majority of stocky, explosive fighters, from Jose Aldo to Jake Ellenberger to Robbie Lawler (Saturday's performance aside) to Dan Henderson and many others in between.

We can prove this empirically: Ellenberger attempts 6.1 significant strikes per minute, Aldo 7, Erick Silva 4.71, Tyron Woodley 4.52, Henderson 5.13, and Lombard himself 5.48. All of these numbers are well below the average for top-10 fighters in their divisions, and we could go on, but the point is fairly straightforward: these guys simply don't throw many strikes. Whatever you think of statistics in MMA, this is a neat empirical proof of a trend that we can see anecdotally.

This limited output is partially a product of the draining weight cuts to which men with this body type are subject, and it likely has something to do with the fact that they're generally giving up height and reach to their opponent, but it's also a function of the simple point that it takes a great deal of energy to move in a fashion more often associated with artillery shells than human beings. Conserving energy, then, is paramount for fighters with this body type and this kind of capacity for doing untold harm to their opponents. This isn't a matter of saying, "Well, that guy needs to spend less time lifting weights and more time doing cardio." It's endemic to their body type, and while I'm not a sports scientist, I'd reason that it probably has something to do with the prevalence of fast-twitch versus slow-twitch muscle fibers.

This brings us back to Hector Lombard and how he fought against Jake Shields at UFC 171. There are two prevailing lines of reasoning regarding his performance Saturday. First, some would emphasize his long periods of inactivity in top position and the time he spent at range without throwing much of anything, and call it underwhelming and unworthy of a guy who could well be fighting for the title in the near future. The second perspective, and the one in whose favor I'll be arguing, focuses on the brutal strikes and fantastic throws and trips he landed on a tough opponent. Hector Lombard fought smart, and as a result, he walked away with a victory against one of the toughest guys in a stacked division.

Shields may not be the world's most dangerous striker, but as the Akiyama and Woodley bouts demonstrate, he is perfectly capable of winning a fight on the feet with sheer volume and willingness to engage. On the ground, his top control is reminiscent of the world's heaviest and wettest blanket; he rode Dan Henderson like an Olympic equestrian for the better part of five rounds, and even Demian Maia, one of the best BJJ practitioners in the history of MMA, couldn't get anything meaningful going against him on the mat. Moreover, Shields is ridiculously tough, with a chin that's the envy of granite quarries and cast-iron sinks everywhere, and the only fighter to knock him out in the last thirteen years is the aforementioned Jake Ellenberger.

To sum up, Shields is one of the best in MMA history at winning rounds both on the feet and on the ground, he's impossible to put away, and his awkward style makes it incredibly difficult to look good beating him. Lombard had him hurt in the first, but if he'd jumped on him and hadn't gotten the finish, it's almost certain that he'd have gassed out. How did that work out for Dan Henderson? For that matter, how did it work out for Lombard against Yushin Okami? When a fighter like Lombard gets tired, his power - in other words, his best asset on the feet - is the first thing to go, and the second is his takedown defense.

That's a tailor-made recipe for losing a decision to Jake Shields, and losing that fight would take him back to square one in an absolutely loaded division. Given Lombard's age (36) and experience, it would be very difficult for him to work his way back to the top, even in the wide-open landscape at welterweight, before time starts to diminish his remarkable physical gifts. Instead of going out and blowing his gas tank against a guy that he probably wouldn't have finished, Lombard took what Shields gave him - namely, the opportunity to hit some awesome, gravity-defying throws that reminded us all of how freakin' good Lombard's Judo is - and then controlled one of the best grapplers in the division from top position. It may not have been the world's most exciting performance, but against Jake Shields, winning ugly is just about all you can do. Could he have done more from top position? Maybe, but not without creating some kind of opening for Shields. At the end of the day, with Father Time knocking on the door and your future in your hands, it's better to win ugly than to lose in an equally unentertaining fashion. Lombard fought smart, and chose the former.