Looking back at how dos Anjos, Jedrzejczyk and others performed at UFC 185 in the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, and asking: what does it really mean to execute?
Many of us tuned into UFC 185 expecting to see something incredible. Anthony Pettis has given us the showtime kick and jumping knees off the cage. He holds the record for head kick knockouts in the UFC. He tapped out both the rubber limbed Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez, a man who hung out in Shinya Aoki's guard with no ill effects.
Well... we saw something incredible happen in the American Airlines Center. In genuine, conceptually disruptive ways it was more unbelievable than almost any kind of flashy finish.
We watched Showtime get steamrolled by the perennial overachiever of the lightweight division, shut utterly out of the fight, and beaten from pillar to post.
Let's take a step back, and look at the card as a whole, because this was a great event in a very particular kind of way. Sometimes, the entertainment value of fights comes from the back-and-forth of honest competition and the interplay of opposing will and technique. UFC 185 wasn't exactly replete with bouts like that. Most of the match-ups weren't so much "fights" as they were performances- showcases where the pleasure gained in watching them was from the simple joy of watching athletes do extremely difficult things really, really well. If there's a watchword which summarizes the event then it might be "execution."
Execution is "a carrying out; a putting into effect; enforcement; performance." Rather than developing new skills, execution is the art of the assemblage and deployment of those skills. It's about polish, and approach, and doing it right. It's a simple thing to think of, and sometimes watching these kind of showcases it's easy to think of fighters just rolling down tracks pre-defined by their skillsets, cruising to victories. On the undercard, Sergio Pettis stood alone in reminding us of the dangers of this kind of thinking. Dominating the fight, he stepped into an exchange of hooks and was blasted by Ryan Benoit, demonstrating that fighting is almost always closer to walking on a tightrope than moving along rails.
The main card, conversely, largely showcased masterpieces in consistent execution. Henry Cejudo and Johny Hendricks both put their weight woes behind them and displayed sharp, disciplined and aggressive performances where they returned to their core skillset of wrestling. Hendricks's performance was not exciting, but it addressed the fundamental weakness which cost him his belt- his general inactivity in ground exchanges. He didn't lay down earthshaking GnP on Matt Brown, but his pace has undeniably increased. As we saw later on in the card, sometimes it's not necessary to make gigantic improvements every time out. Baby steps for Bigg Rigg.
Overeem-Nelson must have looked absolutely puzzling to anyone who didn't have an intimate understanding of the history of both fighters. Seeing the comical physical disparity between the two and hearing the meaty cracks and thumps whenever Overeem landed a knee or twisted Nelson's leg around with a calf kick, anyone who used that fight as some kind of introduction to the two would have been wondering why on earth Overeem didn't just up the volume and crush his overmatched opponent.
It's the historical context that gives an understanding of what a strategic performance this was, because in recent years we've been given an unprecedentedly rich view of all the ways in which Overeem fights can go horribly wrong. Low volume, defensive approach against Fabricio Werdum? A close and crushingly boring split decision. Work the takedowns and keep a middling pace against Bigfoot Silva? Out of puff and annihilated in the third round. Throw caution to the wind and try to blow Travis Browne out of the water? A sitting duck immediately after the tactic failed. Even a semi-conservative striking performance against Ben Rothwell went sour when Overeem threw a mistimed punch and got hit in the temple whilst over-extended. Offensively and physically powerful, and yet incredibly fragile and unable to sustain output, Overeem is at risk against any decent puncher.
Jackson and Winkeljohn have obtained reputations for training unconventional strikers, and for clever gameplanning. These combined for a little piece of counterintuitive strategic genius, where they seemingly constructed an approach which endeavoured to keep Overeem safe from Nelson's big right hand by using something as incredibly risky as a step knee. These are vulnerable against straight punches, counter takedowns, and just moving out of the way. None of these counters are things which Roy Nelson is likely to do. Overeem kept his hands up to parry as he stepped in, and just moved past the arc of Nelson's hand every time he came inside. He was floored by an unexpected Nelson left hook late in the fight, but otherwise the Dutchman did a beautiful job of executing an extremely esoteric and smart gameplan, one which looked as though it took a good amount of skill and sheer faith in his coaches to pull off.
After all, it'd be easy to remember that other frail Jackson's heavyweight who tried to throw a knee.
The contest between Esparza and Jedrzejczyk was one defined by asymmetry, with Jedrzejczyk as the striker, and Esparza as the wrestler. Asymmetry, by its nature, does not tend to lend itself to competitive fights. This is in part why early MMA fights tended to be far more one-sided than they are nowadays, because the fight itself could be boiled down to a few simple questions. In this case the question was "can Esparza get Jedrzejczyk down?" and the answer was "not really," and so the fight became very lopsided, very fast.
The assumption for many of us who picked Esparza to win was that the chain wrestling would be the difference. The guess was that, like Frankie Edgar vs Cub Swanson, even if Jedrzejczyk could stuff the initial shot, then Esparza could simply shift position until she got the Pole to a position where she hadn't trained defense. Esparza's takedowns did indeed come off chaining multiple attempts together- attacking single legs to move to the back, then coming back to the front and running the pipe. However, Jedrzejczyk got up almost immediately, started pivoting off and driving away and landing slapping push-off elbows, and it became immediately obvious that takedowns were taking far more out of Esparza than they were the challenger.
As Jedrzejczyk stalked her opponent around the cage and started to cut her up with sharp jabs and right hands, the only question was whether this would be a long, painfully drawn out decision, or a mercifully quick stoppage. A fusillade of punches against the cage put an end to it.
There was some criticism for how Esparza looked, but I'm not sure if it's warranted. She's still a great fighter, just one who was completely cut off from her key skillset. It was brutal to watch, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. Jedrzejczyk for her part displayed an almost flawless performance, to the extent that her win felt like a very different kind of execution.
Rafael dos Anjos's victory over Anthony Pettis was perhaps the greatest upset I've seen in MMA. Not the biggest, or the most surprising, but maybe the greatest in terms of what it represented, as something more than a brief moment of glory or the sudden realization of dormant potential.
Take a step back again, and let's think of the fight itself, and how it unfolded. Taken on the surface, it was nothing more than a pressure gameplan against a mobile striker, but to really appreciate successful execution, it's important to look at how it can go wrong. So let's think about Gilbert Melendez's failed title bid against Pettis. He's been described as laying the blueprint which dos Anjos executed. What were the differences?
When Melendez fought the champ, he pressured him up against the cage, and worked takedowns and boxing. Whenever he managed to push Melendez back to the mid-range, Pettis would immediately snap out a spinning kick, or a front kick to the face, or a body kick. These visibly discomfited Melendez, and it became quickly apparent that he could not (or would not) stand at that distance, and he became so desperate to close in past Pettis's kicking that he ran into Pettis's flurries of punches. The takedowns changed from being something to pressure and unbalance the champion, to being a kind of safehouse for Melendez. Even while his gameplan was nominally working, you could see that there was a great impression being left on him by Pettis, driving Melendez inexorably towards grappling as a method of escape, a place where he could gulp down air to recover from the crushing pressure exerted by the champion's dynamism. Then, El Nino was stunned by a punch, and went straight for the safe zone for the fateful takedown which got him tapped.
This concept of "impressions" is important. It's something we also saw when John Lineker fought Ian McCall. Everyone remembers McCall dominating the grappling in the first round, but what they forget is that there was a long period spent on the feet before McCall's takedown, meaning that when he finally drove in, he managed to catch Lineker off-guard. In the second round, both fighters were fighting under the powerful impression of that takedown, and so when McCall was stung by a punch, he dove straight back into the place where he had been winning the fight, right into a guillotine. From then on, his rhythm was destroyed and he found himself desperately struggling to make up widening deficits in sheer offensive potential.
Dos Anjos is probably Rafael Cordeiro's greatest pupil at this point. Cordeiro's training is all about training confidence. It is about not allowing the opponent to make any kind of impression, and to enforce the idea that all you have to do is play your game, do everything right, execute, and you will win. In an interview with Sherdog's Patrick Wyman, Cordeiro said:
"I talk about my fighter's quality, make my fighters more confident. Everything you say to your fighter he's going to try to do. All fighters trust their coach a lot. Everything you say he is going to absorb. If you say something to make him not so comfortable, when he starts the fight, he's going to be afraid to do something because you say, "Take care, don't do this because if you do, [the opponent] is going to hit you, put you on the floor." So I talk to my fighters about confidence, just about how hard they train here in the gym, how good they are, and that makes a lot of difference. Encourage them, this is the deal."
The virtue to build upon is courage. Guts. You'll get hit, but you can deal with it if you just hit the opponent harder. The strike which typifies King's MMA fighters is the left body kick, a blow which is difficult to throw without getting hit in return, but one which crushes the liver, tears away at the opponent's guts.
Anthony "Showtime" Pettis, one of the greatest offensive fighters MMA has ever seen, made zero impression on Rafael dos Anjos. RDA forced the champ to the cage, and then just held the mid-range. The Brazilian bit down and punched through the flurries which Pettis threw, knowing that there was no magic to any opponent's striking, confident that if you just do it right, if you execute, in this situation they can only hurt so much. When kicked, he just kicked Pettis back. Right in the guts.
When RDA went for the takedowns, there was nothing telling Pettis when they were coming. No impressions or slide in the rhythm, no reaction from the Brazilian to the champion's dynamic attacks. Worn and beaten, Pettis lost the physical and mental edge necessary to pounce on fight-ending submissions. The impression which came strongly upon everyone was that he just didn't know where to go. The moment which stuck with me was when Pettis was taken down in the the fourth round, his arms forced skywards by dos Anjos's tight grip around his body, when he sank slowly to the mat like he was being drowned.
The long upset
There were none of the sudden shocking moments which normally illuminate upsets. In small portions, I believed dos Anjos could do what he did on Saturday, but I just didn't believe he could do it for five whole rounds. What made it so purely incredible was how methodical it was; how he didn't really show anything we had never seen before and still blindsided almost every analyst out there. It wasn't just execution in the cage, it was execution outside of it, and not just an upset which took place over 25 minutes, but one which took place over seven years.
RDA started his UFC career 0-2, and if he subsequently proved he was better than that, then he still settled into a perception as a good-not-great athlete, one who could only ascend so high before falling back down, like a frog in a well. Wins over Benson Henderson ("flash knockdown" / "early stoppage") and Donald Cerrone ("Cowboy came out flat") could be rationalized as the glimmers of over-performance which sometimes come to diligent fighters, and a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov represented a reassuring return to the mean.
We were wrong about Rafael dos Anjos. Dead wrong, utterly wrong, and yet there's genuine inspiration to be had in this inaccuracy. Joe Rogan talks about how often we see the "best version" of a fighter in the cage, but there's almost always a law of diminishing returns in effect. To improve as much as dos Anjos has, and then to come out and improve again, and keep doing it over, and over, and over, until the frog is out of the well, is... well, it's something that I would have thought almost impossible.
RDA is now the champion of the modern lightweight division. Not just the deepest division in the sport, but almost inarguably most dangerous and skilled collection of fighters we've ever seen. Undeterred by the times that he fell off, he has walked the hardest tightrope in the sport's history simply via carrying out; putting into effect; enforcement; performance.
He's not charismatic. He's not going to jump off the cage, and I doubt he'll end up on Wheaties boxes. Yet still, we must bend our knees to the master of execution. Take the crown of the lightweight division, and hammer it from a ring into a square for his coronation.
Hail to the king.