Looking back at the patterns of UFC Fight Night: Mendes vs Lamas in Fairfax, Virginia, and asking what patterns were present.
Mendes vs Lamas was a pretty fun card. Somehow, though, it wasn't quite as much fun as it was expected to be. The way that the more uninteresting contests unfolded didn't feel surprising in any specific bout, however. Heavyweights; a pair of the more grinding women's bantamweights; fighters on the cusp of relevancy- none of these could seriously be expected to provide fireworks, and by and large, they didn't. The event improved by leaps and bounds once the main card kicked off, but this couldn't save it from a slight sense of ennui.
If there's a reason for why, it might be that there wasn't a whole lot in the card in the way of unpredictability. Aside from Justin Jones and Julianna Pena, there weren't many prospects on the card, and it largely featured well-known, relatively well-travelled fighters. Luke Thomas mentioned in the Sherdog Roundtable that the card functioned as something of an audit, which was and is a great way of looking at it. It's a question which almost every fight card asks, but UFN Fairfax seemed more specific than most in asking: "are you who we think you are?"
Maynard, Guida and "Youth"
Clay Guida started his MMA career in 2003. His first foray into marquee MMA competition was when he beat Josh Thomson for the Strikeforce lightweight strap in 2006. Gray Maynard started his career in 2006. He started to fight high level competition in 2007 when he entered the Ultimate Fighter house.
Both men have made careers as physically grinding top control wrestlers, and both fought against opponents in Fairfax which they would normally be expected to beat if unhindered by the ravages of time. Yakovlev is a moderately well-rounded, if historically less successful grinder than Maynard. Robbie Peralta is that fighter who papers over the holes in his approach with athleticism. It's a type which Guida has traditionally feasted on, and that's exactly what he did, mixing in relentless top pressure with a few high amplitude slams, and even an arm triangle attempt, flexing his underrated submission game. If it was boring to a few, it was also an affirmation of just how indefatigable Guida actually is. Maynard, by comparison, started off well, but he was dropped by a hook and almost finished in the second, and remained unable to mount any momentum afterwards.
I wrote on the last event about negative body language. Maynard does not look like he wants to be fighting any more. Partially it's the physical damage (there was some reasonable speculation over on reddit over whether he's slurring, or whether this is the return of a prior speech impediment), and partially he looks worried when he's getting hit, as though something in him is simply saying: enough.
Maynard is a family man, a smart individual who, before his prior fight, was "remodeling [his] house 12 hours a day". Guida, by comparison, has been driving around in the RV which functions as his home, going to gigs, and training around the country. It's more than a little like the kind of nomadic, borderline-juvenile approach which has worked so well for Donald Cerrone.
Fighting is a young man's sport, requiring a strange and obsessive focus which can be effectively crowded out by everyday life. The perennially youthful Guida is still who we thought he was before Fairfax. Maynard is who most of us thought he was as well, because that loss wasn't surprising at all. The UFC interview I linked to mostly had him couching his need for the Yakovlev fight in terms of regret, and that's just not a young man's motivation. The article was called "You can go home," and Maynard can go home, to his family, but his home isn't in the cage any more.
Poirier and Defense
Is Dustin Poirier who we thought he was? The Louisianan looked reinvigorated in fighting at 155 lbs. His power has transitioned up, and he's commented on how much better he feels. This benefit is a little underrated in terms of a young fighter's career: sometimes it's not necessarily about taking the shortest, quickest route to a championship fight. It can be pretty important to just make sure that you're actually enjoying your career. The brain draws associations easily, and one way to end up with that fatal, career-ending look of "oh shit I don't want to be here" where everything apart from the conscious mind is trying to find an exit, is to make the experience as miserable as possible early on.
Poirier looked like the once-contender that many hoped he'd be, admittedly against a lessened level of competition. Against someone even more pathologically aggressive than he is, he even showed shades of some sharp counterpunching. The problem as always remains that his defense taken as a single entity is actually decent (he doesn't back up in a straight line, or stand up tall, or have any of the other particularly deadly flaws which plague many strikers when pressured), but that his defense is not integrated into his offense at all, as his head remains on center at all times when he throws.
For me, he's an interesting example of a fighter with fixable flaws, one who is only a slight twist in approach away from being very, very good. It's worth remembering that although he lost to Conor McGregor, he is still younger in both age and career than the Irishman. Is he going to fix his flaws? Honestly, I'm doubtful, but even in his current incarnation, where we know what we're getting, The Diamond remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The limits of approach
John Crouch's MMA Lab has been on something of a tear in the UFC of late. Wins by Bryan Barberena, Rick Story, Ben Henderson, Efrain Escudero John Moraga etc. have been piling up. This came to an end in Fairfax, as the team went 0-2. Once again, neither of these losses were exactly surprising given what we knew: Mitch Clarke and Lauren Murphy were both battling uphill against sizable differentials in pure athleticism. There were little moments of surprise in the fights, like Clarke taking it to Chiesa on the feet at isolated points, most notably in the third, and the fact that Murphy was able to flip the script on Carmouche by being the aggressor and the grinder. These moments are a credit to the fighters, and to their team's tuition. Unfortunately for everyone watching in the Murphy / Carmouche fight the inverted script was pretty much as unexciting as the normal script would have been.
Athleticism is, eventually, a hard barrier for almost all fighters. Training, approach, and even technique can all be overcome just by the other fighter being stronger, faster and tougher. Ricardo Lamas's painstakingly constructed patchwork MMA game seemed to be having some effect on Chad Mendes: he landed some leg kicks, and an absolute peach of an uppercut. One really solid attack is normally all Lamas has ever really needed, but Mendes shrugged it off, and shortly accordioned him with a punch to the top of the head. The Lamas patchwork split at the seams, and Mendes spent the next minute or so repeatedly knocking him out while Dan Miragliotta hemmed and hawed about whether to stop it.
Lamas had a good plan, and he was even able to put it into effect to some extent, but he was also fighting an infinitely faster fighter who was able to functionally knock him out by donking him on the skull, a punch which normally does little apart from breaking the attacker's fist. This at 145, and with MMA gloves on, no less. The fight showed the limits of approach, and it mostly confirmed what everyone knew already, albeit in an utterly terrifying way: that Chad Mendes is much better than Ricardo Lamas.
The limits of lexicon, and the most Iaquinta-Masvidal fight ever
If we're talking expectations, then Al Iaquinta and Jorge Masvidal had the most Al Iaquinta and Jorge Masvidal fight ever. It was wild and technical and fun, and Jorge Masvidal threw it away, and Al Iaquinta lost his shit.
Just to clarify: saying that Jorge Masvidal threw it away is a wild over-exaggeration. The fight was extremely close, and I personally scored it for Masvidal. That being said, I'm not utterly outraged by the Iaquinta win. At least part of why there's so much outrage is that Iaquinta missed a lot of strikes and got stuffed on his takedowns. It looks... bad, particularly coupled with the bloody mask that Iaquinta was wearing (hence a few ill-informed Sanchez and Garcia comparisons). However, I don't really care about missed strikes or blocked takedowns one way or the other. Offense is offense, and there's a reason why the old Willie Pep story of "winning a round without throwing a punch" is apocryphal.
Masvidal's leg started troubling him from sometime in the second round, as he started bending down and rubbing it. Iaquinta, largely outclassed up until that point, clearly picked up on his opponent's discomfort almost immediately. He upped the volume of leg kicks, went for an ankle pick, and at one point even dived for a hilarious scissor sweep into leg lock attempt. Meanwhile, Masvidal's output planed off dramatically.
Discussing why Jorge Masvidal never seems to get over into the elite is very difficult. To me, it is in part literally a lexical problem. There are words like "lazy", or "unmotivated" or even phrases like "wanting it" which are drastically unsuited to purpose. Masvidal is a career fighter, fighting at an astonishingly high level despite many years in the sport. He clearly works tremendously hard on his technique and his strength and conditioning. These blunt words fail so drastically because they immediately blot out the years and the thousands of hours of work he's put in. I hope there are languages which can capture some of the nuance of being incredibly good at something, yet just a fraction away from the top, because English can't (or at least my English can't).
That said, there's undeniably something there. A little nagging pebble in the shoe. Subtler than being a front-runner like BJ Penn, and harder to pin down than being a flake like Melvin Guillard. If I had to take an armchair psych swing (something which I do a lot) it's that Masvidal seems like he's OK with pushing himself hard, but that once he's been given something which can explicate a loss, then he's a tiny bit too content with taking that explanation. The damaged hand against Melendez, the close decisions against Melendez, Daley and Khabilov, and now against Iaquinta.
At the end, even if you thought he won all three rounds by a landslide, it's undeniable that the Long Islander was fighting much harder than Masvidal was. Even if you thought he got robbed, it's hard not to look at Masvidal and think: " that guy is who we thought he was."