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UFC Rio Post-fight patterns: What brought you to the dance

Talking about specialists, well-rounded fighters, athleticism and trying to parse personality traits in prospects

Jason da Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Following UFC in Rio, where Demian Maia decisioned Ryan LaFlare, Phil Mackenzie breaks down some of the patterns that cropped up in the main event and throughout the card.

The Rio card on Saturday was an entertaining night of fights, full of fun finishes and concluding with a technical grappling showcase in the main event. If there was any kind of problem beyond the overall lack of relevance of most of the fighters, it was with the crushingly brutal pacing of the event. In something of a Catch-22, stoppage wins provided bursts of excitement, but also made the interminable breaks between bouts even longer as the ratio of "fight time" to "ad time" lengthened. A number of MMA media and fans had been skeptical at the idea of a six-fight main card, and those fears were more than justified as the event somehow overran its three hour slot despite showing just under an hour of actual fighting.

It re-emphasized something that we've known for a while: the structure of cable television does not make for a good way to consume fights. For a lot of us, the time when the product can be viewed almost entirely through something like Fight Pass can't come soon enough.

However, there are many obvious reasons why cable isn't going anywhere soon, and why any kind of change will be difficult to implement. The past doesn't always go gentle into that good night, and it often takes a surprisingly long time for the future to overtake it.

The decline and rise(?) of the specialist

The future stumbled in the main event when Demian Maia took a fairly dominant decision over Ryan LaFlare. If he's not exactly a spring chicken at 30, the American wrestler was considered a representative of the next generation of mixed martial artists who are climbing the ranks, whereas Maia stood as one of the old guard.

A small running theme in the media beforehand had been the decline of the specialist in MMA. On one level, at least, there are still some rebuttals to the idea that specialization is a hard barrier to success walking around the UFC. Khabib Nurmagomedov, for example, isn't running roughshod through the lightweight division using his crisp striking or his deadly guard. Regardless, there's certainly a broader trend towards being skilled in many areas.

For some, like LaFlare, this well-roundedness becomes almost an approach in and of itself. His success is built on his ability to move from wrestling to striking to grappling and back to wrestling again, keeping their opponents off balance and unsure of what is coming next. In fighting a specialist like Maia, this becomes (and became) inherently problematic, because they can stop the cycle dead in the grappling phase.

LaFlare's game is constructed around light, constant offense. He bounces on his feet, but when he comes in he tends to off-balance himself. As Maia's team clearly picked up on, he leans on leg kicks and superman punches in his striking repertoire, in a style which is superficially a little similar to GSP's. However, the welterweight champ's low, smooth wave of weight transfer and superb footwork made him astonishingly difficult to take down and LaFlare's deficiencies in those areas mean that he is not. Up until this fight, LaFlare could outscramble those who could capitalize on the holes in his defensive wrestling, but he couldn't do that to Maia. Not even close.

This left him in a quandary. Either stick to his three-dimensional gameplan as usual and risk running headfirst into Maia's lethal ground game, or try and stop takedowns, and risk fighting in a much weaker version of his optimal style. He appeared to choose the second option... and subsequently got repeatedly taken down and mounted.

Whether this was a strategic mistake or not is impossible to tell. There's a strong tendency to armchair quarterback in sports analysis, where we confidently point out where fighters went wrong and say exactly how they could have won the fight. Perhaps sticking with what he was best at and challenging Maia in the ground game would have discomfited the BJJ black belt and tired him out earlier. Then again, perhaps it wouldn't. We saw the flipside of LaFlare's approach when Zach Makovsky fought Jussier Formiga. Fun-size fought his normal fight and got his back taken repeatedly in scrambles, and was subsequently derided for his poor fight IQ. There's a distinct possibility that given the way the two matched up, LaFlare simply couldn't have done anything to beat Maia.

Last week I wrote about fighters being instilled with confidence in their own games. The flip-side is the idea that sometimes opponents are too specifically strong to be able to do this completely, that there is a fine and difficult line to walk between executing a gameplan and just going ride-or-die with the approach that brought you to the dance in the first place. LaFlare's sketchy takedown defense hadn't been a fight-losing weakness in eleven fights, until suddenly it was, and changing it would involve dramatically retuning his entire striking game.

On the wider scale of his career, Maia himself is a great example of sticking to his strengths. He had a brief time in his career where he largely focused on his striking, and while it's something which has reaped him subtle, invaluable benefits, his boxing has subsequently returned to being a secondary weapon to his groundwork. He's a specialist, and he works best as a specialist, focusing on his roots. I'm ashamed to admit that this is the second main event in a row where I picked superior athleticism over a fighter who I thought possessed a clear technical path to victory, but at least my buddy and compatriot David Castillo picked correctly.


Another twinned story of athleticism and returning to one's strengths came to light in the match-up between Gilbert Burns and Alex "Cowboy" Oliveira. Several of us were interested to see Alex Cowboy in the UFC- as mentioned in the excellent MMA Prospectus series, he's a fun fighter with a tangible athleticism in the cage. Almost everyone agreed that he had little chance against the blue-chip potential of Durinho, a top-shelf grappler and rapidly improving striker, largely considered one of the best prospects in the UFC.

It didn't take Alex Cowboy long to completely flip the script. Within a few minutes, a growing realization took root that he's not just a good athlete. He's something really quite impressive. Most specifically, he is goddamn strong as hell. Burns would lock up with or even take Oliveira down with the kind of grappler's strength that only comes with a lot of training and a lot of athleticism, and Alex Cowboy would effortlessly shuck him off. At one point he bodily shoved Durinho into the cage like a playground bully.

I think this is the first time that Burns has really been significantly athletically challenged in the cage, and he quickly began to look... concerned. He checked the clock and the distance to the cage at his back. After a minute working on a body lock near the cage, he got Oliveira down, who promptly stood up and reversed him back into the fence, and it looked as though Burns shook his head briefly, like he literally could not believe how insanely strong this guy was. Worse, whether he was uncomfortable or whether he just was just showing a bad habit, Durinho started overusing the ear-muffs defense in every exchange. Cowboy would send out a lancing jab, and then when Burns put his hands up, Oliveira would split the high guard with an upper, over and over, regular as clockwork, until Durinho's face was bleeding and swollen.

Henri Hooft did not mince words with Burns between the second and final round. It looked like the chewing out worked because Burns came out like a house on fire, determined to take it straight back into his wheelhouse, with no more of the tentative distance kickboxing. He closed the distance, hit a beautiful outside trip straight into mount, and worked into an omoplata when Oliveira tried to wall-walk out. Cowboy once more showcased his astonishing physical strength by practically lifting Burns out of the omoplata, but Burns worked his way back into mount, changed a mounted triangle to a belly-down armbar to a straight armbar, and elicited the tap in a beautiful display of jiu-jitsu. Oliveira should take absolutely no shame in the short-notice loss, and is immediately announced as the kind of unexpected Ray Borg-type diamond in the rough which is such a thrill to find in the modern UFC.

The fight showed a few interesting things about Burns. They are overall extremely positive, but there are insights which can't be fully unpacked until we see more of his career. He showed heart, chin, and endurance which are all invaluable, but he also showed that he can be badly disconcerted if he gets outmatched (a counter example of a would be, for example, Pedro Munhoz who remained utterly fearless throughout a 15-minute beating at the hands of Raphael Assuncao). If Durinho's grappling had been slightly less ferocious, or if Oliveira's defense had been a bit better, we'd be talking about how Burns had put out a last-ditch, desperate, and ultimately doomed effort. Fundamentally, it's not the kind of comeback which is all that replicable.

However, it would be absurdly harsh to hold this against Burns. I still remember how some people would claim that GSP couldn't be a long-term champion because he had tapped so quickly to Hughes' armbar in his first title shot, proving somehow that he didn't have the mentality of a champion. The ways in which fighters assemble and reinforce their approaches over time are always dramatically different. The only thing to say about Burns is that he has already shown a large number of the necessary pieces to make something great of himself. Pushed to the brink, he forced the fight back to his roots, his grappling; what brought him to the dance in the first place. He looked like he was about to stumble, but there's still a strong chance that he's a big part of the future of lightweight.

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