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UFC Manila Post-fight Patterns: Fun

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Some of the patterns from UFC Manila show that you can never quite tell where the entertainment value of a card is coming from.

Anton Tabuena

UFC Manila, headlined by Urijah Faber and Frankie Edgar, was a show which inverted expectations. On paper, it had a solid main card, and a bad preliminary card. In the end, they ended up swapping places when it came to delivering on entertainment value, barring high spots like Mark Munoz's emotional retirement bout. Why?

The preliminaries had some genuine thrillers, including one of the most purely fun throwdowns of the year when Roldan Sangcha'an fought Jon Delos Reyes. The main card, conversely, had a slower pace. This isn't always a coincidence. We like to think that good technique equals fun fights, and largely, of course, we're right. This is something which the MMA sphere doesn't perhaps appreciate as much as it could: it's difficult to imagine, but back in the "glory years" of the UFC of 2009 to 2011, there was a real, pervasive fear among fighters and analysts that the future of MMA was boring: that large top-control wrestlers would dominate the sport and that lay and pray would almost literally drive MMA into the ground. Fitch, GSP, Koscheck, Lesnar(!), Evans(!) and many others were taken as examples of a rising tide which would swamp the future of the sport in uneventful work from guard.

The fear peaked at UFC 125. Gray "Lay Praynard" Maynard was taking on point fighter extraordinaire Frankie Edgar. Maynard had soundly outwrestled Edgar when they had fought prior en route to a unanimous decision victory. To this day, it remains Edgar's only loss in a non-title fight. Maynard had finally, begrudgingly been given a shot at the lightweight belt by the Zuffa brass, and to say that the fight had low expectations was an understatement.

It exploded those expectations. It was and remains an absolute, stone-cold classic, and more than that, even in retrospect, that bout and its rematch feel naturally like the nail in the coffin for the idea that the technical future of MMA was dull. Nowadays, the UFC has a stable of dynamic champions, with a crop of exciting prospects coming up behind them, and the idea that something as simple as top control could be a widespread dominant skillset is dead. There was, of course, little time for celebrating the death of one MMA's great terrors, because it was immediately supplanted by PPV is dying! and its horrifying sibling oversaturation is there too much MMA?!?!

So, modern MMA is pretty fun, and technically far better than it used to be. However, sometimes technical showcases aren't what you want. There's a reason why Griffin-Bonnar I is remembered so fondly, and why Dana White often prioritizes back-and-forth brawls over skilled fights when it comes to time to dish out the bonus cheques. In addition, finishes are far, far more common when the skill level is lower. This is something which anyone who's watched any significant amount of regional MMA will understand.

Frankie Edgar might have served as a literal physical embodiment of the "new" MMA's capacity for excitement back at UFC 125, but this Saturday his fight against Faber was... well, it was what happens when Faber fights opponents which he can't effectively take down. To his credit, "The California Kid" looked increasingly diverse: he threw the jab more than ever, and countered with a left hook, and he now actually launches front kicks rather than feinting with them with the Thai walk. However, at 36 he's just too set in his ways, closing with a solitary step from the outside, and stranded if he can't get in on his opponent's legs. He landed single shots, but Edgar defused them by moving away, and outworked him with volume.

When he's under pressure or behind in a fight, Edgar often shows a birdlike, inquisitive tilt of the head, like he's asking a question of his opponent or himself. In this fight, that tic was almost absent, as he seemed to know what to do right from the start. The fight mirrored Faber's loss to Aldo, his first loss to Barao, and even his rematch with Dominic Cruz (although Cruz's tendency to unbalance himself meant that it at least looked more dramatic when Faber landed his single shots). It's hard to criticize Edgar for not doing much more than those fighters did.

For Faber? It can be frustrating to watch a fighter slowly and steadily lose, but at higher levels it becomes less about landing the single shot than about getting to a position where that shot can be successful. If your game is based around a single penetration step, as Faber's is, and as you bring your foot down for that step you realize that you can't land your punch, then the choice becomes between just missing, or resetting and trying again. Faber feinted, and moved, and he never got to a position where he could land with authority, and then the fight was over.

It's been compared to Mayweather-Pacquiao, and that's fair: it was technically interesting, the kind of thing of contest which is naturally generated by any form of serious 1v1 competition at some point. Two combatants, fighting as optimally as possible given their skillsets, in a way which was almost completely devoid of drama.

Hyun Gyu Lim is too big for welterweight

Lim Hyun Gyu injected his own drama into his fight with Neil Magny when he did not fight optimally, and gassed, and got knocked out. Magny for his part is a skilled and organically developing fighter, who is becoming particularly notable for his brutal ground and pound. With the use of elbows and the increased need to generate leverage in close, I think there's something of a trend towards longer arms being more efficient tools for traditional ground and pound from guard positions- fighters like Hendricks and Sherk are (or were) powerful but were slightly unable to work their strikes around their opponents. Magny has none of these problems- he brings looping, vicious blows down on opponents, maximizing leverage to cut through their defenses.

He almost didn't get the chance. Magny made the critical mistake of backing up against a man whose game is almost entirely predicated on crushing people who back up. Ace Lim is gifted, with a real instinctive feel for which way an opponent is going to move, and he's loaded with power, and speed, and heart and god damn he is just too big for welterweight. As our own Zane Simon has pointed out, Korean fighters are somewhat anomalous in East Asia in that they tend to cut a lot of weight (think Korean Zombie, or Kyung Ho Kang). Ace is their crown jewel. At a broad, strong 6'2 or 6'3, he's undoubtedly the biggest welterweight since Rumble Johnson. He could stay at 170- these kind of flaws will continue to make him a great kill-or-be-killed KO artist, but for the sake of his career and probably his health as well I'd like to see him at middleweight. At least. Still, there's no denying that flaws can make a fun fighter.

The Chinese are coming(?)

To sum up thus far, technical MMA can sometimes not be that fun. Flawed MMA can be fun. Of course, flawed MMA can also be really, really bad.

The TUF China alumni have tended to put out a particularly miserable combination of poor technique and boring fights. However, one of the things about ostensibly weaker MMA scenes is that they often tend to mirror the paths of the stronger ones. The much-maligned Royston Wee has made his way through two UFC wins (including one highly debatable one) with the basics of wrestling and top control, yet as the fight against Ning Guanyou went on, that route was predictably closed off by the better wrestler, and he was eventually knocked out. The drivers towards becoming more skilled and diverse remain constant, even at the lower levels.

It's also important to recognize when someone might not necessarily even be at the lower level which is expected. Li Jingliang's victory slid under the radar for a lot of folks, seeing as it was largely attributed to Dhiego Lima's admittedly terrible defense and chin. However, beyond that, Jingliang shows a solid game: aggressive grappling, and comfortable combination striking in the pocket. It's easy to get dismissive about fighters based on where they come from, but he's legit. Not "legit for a Chinese fighter", but actually legit. Considering what a beast of a division he's in, he'll probably never make it to the upper tiers, but like the entertainment value of any given fight, you can never tell quite how good someone will be from where they're from.