Following UFC Fight Night 60 at Broomfield, Colorado, where Benson Henderson defeated Brandon Thatch in the main event, what patterns were visible? In a contest between an elite fighter and someone who might be on a journey towards becoming one of the elite, what were the differences?
Brandon Thatch put out a strong losing performance against a top-level competitor on Saturday. If there's some disappointment in how he did, it should be tempered with some kind of understanding of just how sizable a leap in competition Henderson represented for the Colorado native. Justin Edwards and modern-era Paulo Thiago are (or were) the absolute bottom rung of what is considered UFC welterweight talent, and Thatch had undoubtedly faced better competition on the regional circuit when he fought Mike Rhodes and Chidi Njokuani. He still put on an impressive performance, and had Henderson in trouble multiple times. If the two rematched sometime down the road, there's no certainty at all that Henderson would come out the victor.
The respectful destroyer
Thatch's most obvious problems in the fight, including the fight-ending choke, came from Henderson's dangerous top game. Submission grappling is often one of the easiest things to fix for a fighter, so it's not a damning knock on "Rukus" that he gave up his back twice against Bendo. Essentially this is fixable, and not necessarily a long-term problem. However, if you look back on his fights, I do think there is a missing element, and which I hope to see more of from Thatch. Something which I would define as playfulness. Exploratory tendencies. A kind of sadism, even.
Much of the time in his MMA career thus far, Thatch would be fighting people who are worse than him in terms of both athleticism and skill. Quite literally punching down, and when he did, he would roll straight through his opponent.
If you watch him in the cage, he bows to the crowd and his opponent before the fight. On Saturday, Thatch stopped punching in order to let Bendo fix his hair. He fundamentally seems like an incredibly nice guy. To see Thatch's opponents get blown away by knees and punches within a round, the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily kindness... but there's a distinct kind of honour to his approach. It implies that he's offering his opponent the respect of trying as hard as possible and doing his very best to take them out, no matter who they are
The problem is that this is not always how elite-level fighters deal with their opponents.
Cats and orcas: just bastards... or something more?
Everyone knows the stories of cats playing with mice by trapping them between their paws. They often let the mouse briefly escape before stopping it and bringing it back to start the cycle over again. Similarly, killer whales often "play" with seals before killing them, by trapping them in front of the shore and repeatedly flipping them back with their tails when they make for the open sea.
The explanation for why these animals do this is often given as "cats are bastards", which is certainly true to some extent, but there's also a clear survival advantage. The cat or the orca is practising. It is learning how a mouse or a seal reacts in a particular situation, training in these situations in a closed environment, where the risks of what can go wrong -namely the mouse or seal escaping- are minimized.
Elite fighters often take a similar approach. Combat in general is a massively complex undertaking, and the very best fighters are by nature hungry to understand that complexity. When faced with overmatched opponents, they do not necessarily go out of their way to crush them utterly.
Patrick Wyman on the Heavy Hands podcast said that Firas Zahabi talked of how Georges St. Pierre, when faced with a striker, would initially go to the wrestling. After dominating his opponent on the mat, GSP would take the unfortunate fighter back into the striking realm, where he was strongest, and beat him there as well. This may seem like something of a dick move, but it's not pointless sadism, or even an attempt to break the opponent. It was GSP trying to understand the opponent, to test what made them strong and what made them threatening and to build an instinctive understanding of the nuances of their approach. Then, in future, he'd be able to defend against it if it came against him in a stronger or more unavoidable form. Essentially vaccinating himself against that kind of fighter.
Jon Jones does this as well, when he out-strikes strikers and out-wrestles wrestlers. It's not pride or hubris but a way of enclosing opponents, using technique and athleticism to box them in like a seal between an orca and the shore, or a mouse between the paws of a cat.
The three elements of winning a fight
'The victory was good, it was the same as all my other victories inside the UFC Octagon, I bust my butt, opened my heart and soul, not just in this cage, but every single day at my gym at practice. I open my heart and soul. I put myself beyond what my body can take.You guys don't understand how hard you have to push your body. So when I get a chance to open my heart and soul in the Octagon for you guys, yeah I don't do a lot of talking, but I do a lot of talking in here. I don't need talking out there. I talk in here.' - Benson Henderson at UFC Fight Night 42
MMA is hard. It is really, really hard, and it doesn't have the long, slow prospect-development paths of boxing. These are often derided, but many forget just how useful it is for a fighter to come up against a variety of approaches, and to have to adapt to fighters who are decent in very specific areas.
All too often in MMA, an athletically gifted fighter will find himself suddenly transported into the upper-level cycle, fighting quality opponents once every six months or more. At this point attempting to develop their skillset in the cage becomes increasingly dangerous, and they have less opportunities, and it involves significant risk. I wrote about this a long, long time ago, before I ever became a staff writer for Bloody Elbow, way back in the good ol' days of 2013. Stagnation at these upper levels is therefore common, and often fatal. Even if a fighter is successful in improving, fans do not look kindly upon the painful and difficult expansion of skillsets. The first showings of Rory Macdonald's infamous jab were not looked kindly upon. There probably isn't a better example of this kind of disappointment than Benson "Smooth" Henderson.
'Why isn't he using his wrestling?' fans would bleat in unison as he won another close decision. 'I miss WEC Bendo!'
Henderson might well have won some of his close decisions more convincingly if he had concentrated entirely on his grappling and top game. He might not have. Instead he made the hard and risky choice to become a more complete MMA fighter.
On Saturday, I think everyone finally truly saw the fruits of that choice, when he made another hard and risky choice to fight Brandon Thatch. If his original key skillset was what finally won him the contest, it was undeniably made possible by a confidence built layer upon painstaking layer by standing with a murderers row of elite strikers and holding his own. It was accomplished by wearing down Thatch with the body shots he used on Thomson,slowing him with the leg kicks he used against Edgar, and blinding him with the jab he used against Cerrone. If Henderson had remained an aggressive wrestler and had somehow still ended up fighting the gigantic welterweight he would have been forced to run into the bigger, stronger fighter while Thatch was still fresh, likely getting tossed aside and eating knees until he was finished.
Instead, fighting constantly at the elite level and yet still slowly, steadily eking out improvements, Henderson seems to instinctively known what few fighters do: that there are three quantifiable elements around how you win a fight.
Firstly there's the binary expression of win or loss which goes into the record books, regardless of how close it was.
Secondly there's how impressive the win was. A KO? A tap? Do fans want to watch again?
Thirdly, and the least addressed, there's how well the fight itself prepares the fighter for the future.
Brandon Thatch has been knocking the first two out of the park, with a long win streak of incredibly destructive finishes. However, I do worry that the straightforward way that he obliterates his opponents has left him ill-prepared for the leap in competition which he's just been forced to make. He may encounter some of the same problems as Erick Silva, another extraordinarily athletic and just plain nice fighter who tears straight through opponents rather than dissecting them and immunizing himself against their approaches.
However, even if Thatch's chances to develop his game against lower level opposition may be drifting away, as he is established as a main card fighter in a deep division, he still has the opportunity to improve. We often talk of fights as being learning experiences, and more than anything I think Thatch can learn from Henderson that it is possible to round out your game and get better, no matter what level you're fighting at.
It's just really damn hard. The fans often won't appreciate you much for it, but one day, maybe, you'll pick up a win, and they won't look at you and wish that you were some long-vanished version of yourself. Maybe they'll admit that WEC Bendo (or, perhaps, "RFA Thatch") is long gone, but they'll also finally admit that the guy who replaced him is actually pretty awesome.