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Post-fight patterns: UFC Goiana & NOLA - Stable dynamism

Condit-Alves! Ortega-Tavares! Hendo-Boetsch! What a couple of weeks of fights we've had.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back at some of the patterns from the last two Fight Nights in a double-header.

Two straight Fight Night cards have more than delivered on expectations. In Goiana the fights which were expected to be bad were... well, they were really bad, but the fights which were expected to be good were absolutely great. The Louisiana card in the following week had zero duds and produced wall-to-wall excitement as perhaps the most purely entertaining card of the year thus far.

I've written about stability before, but there were a number of fights in both cards where dynamism went up against stability and came out on top. In part this is because dynamism can, of course, be its own form of stability.

Exchanges, process and finishes

What's dynamism? What's a finish? What's "process"? Finishes were talked about on Connor and Pat's latest Heavy Hands podcast (which I'd fully recommend checking out), but one way of thinking as a finish is as something which occurs on a given grappling or striking exchange as a defined probability. The odds are dependent on intent, speed, power, technique, durability and a load of other shifting factors, but the chances of any particular exchange landing in a finish are probably fairly low. A dramatically simplified version of potential outcomes might look something like the below picture.

Phil exchange pic

Note here that green arrows indicate "success" and red arrows indicate "failure." Of course, just like the probabilities, the outcomes range far beyond just damage. Still, rather than complicating it further let's simplify it down into winning and losing exchanges. A few exchanges from the perspective of one fighter, one entirely focused on winning exchanges (but not necessarily finishing), might look something like this:

Phil exchange pic 2

What we think of as "good process" is going along the green arrows, going into areas and exchanges where the fighter is more likely to win, and moving upwards, and winning more exchanges. "Bad process" is going to be losing exchanges and moving downwards.

But... what if we have someone who doesn't care about process? Imagine someone dynamic. A hypothetical (and massively exaggerated) fighter who doesn't try to maximize his chances at all, some kind of Carl Condiveira who just tries to knock his opponent dead or tap them out every time. It might look something like this:

Phil exchange 3

The advantages are obvious- when you hit a finish, the fight is done. Every possibility is immediately excised from the tree of outcomes, which might include one where you yourself get finished. People often speak of going to decision victories as being "safe" but obviously the safest fight is the one where the opponent is taken out of the equation. More than this, the odds of a finish start to stack up. It might be a relatively unlikely outcome taken alone, but a die rolled many times is going to come up with a six eventually.

Building a finished-focused approach like this which gets results with any kind of reliability normally requires a few things: for the fighter in question to be on the higher end of the durability and power equation than their opponent, and for them not to be discouraged by losing exchanges. There are many finish-focused fighters who wilt after their offense fails, like Rousimar Palhares or Vitor Belfort; or who aren't durable enough withstand the inherent risks of their styles, like Shinya Aoki.

When they're durable enough and fearless and determined enough? Well, you can get fights like some of the ones we saw for the last couple of UFC events.

Charles Oliveira and Brian Ortega

Nik Lentz and Charles Oliveira was a contest of offense. Neither man really knows how to take a step back, and so the two would exchange a few strikes before they clashed together in the clinch. Lentz is focused on pressure, and he would take the shorter man's approach, burying his head into Oliveira's chest and working the body and the body. When Oliveira's hands came up to defend, Lentz would clasp his hands to go for the bodylock, aiming for a takedown into half-guard or better. This is a good, stable, reliable approach, and it worked to an extent. Lentz landed several clean punches, and spent a good portion of the fight in top control.

Oliveira's process, conversely, is focused almost entirely on fight-ending attacks, with little focus on active control- he'll march behind punches into the clinch, he'll throw knees as hard as he can, he'll get taken down, and then he'll fight from guard. He'll "fall" through the phases of the fight, trading positioning for the chance to inflict as much damage as possible, with his jiu jitsu functioning as a net of sorts. When fighting in the clinch with Lentz he threw knees from the double collar and went incessantly for guillotines and front headlocks. It's not as stable as what Lentz was doing, but the main difference came in the sheer quality of the offense being thrown. Each strike from Oliveira visibly did more damage, each Oliveira came within inches of finishing the Carny with a knee to the body in the first round, and eventually locked up the fight-ending choke in the third.

Similarly, when Brian Ortega  fought Thiago Tavares, I picked Ortega. In retrospect it was probably a badly chosen pick where I lucked out, as the fight became a match of good process stacked up against low-percentage offense. In an absolute thriller where the two men punched, kicked, and rolled around the cage, Tavares was the one with longer periods of top control, landing far more strikes, and occasionally picking up dominant positions like mount. Conversely, Ortega's success came from traditionally unlikely places. He dropped Tavares with a spinning elbow, landed hard upkicks from the floor, busted Tavares up from the bottom, and incessantly threw up submissions which would be broken by the Brazilian. This kind of approach can win fights, but... it isn't generally reliable.

Still, Tavares is a man who has been knocked out by fighters who have no other standing knockouts on their records. His durability is always a question mark, and when he was blinded by blood Ortega landed a two-piece combination and then dropped him and pounded him out from mount.

Condit and knots of probability

Like almost everyone else, I picked Carlos Condit to beat Thiago Alves in Goiana. I woke up on the day of the fight convinced that I was wrong. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Condit was going to wear down Alves and pick up the stoppage, and I couldn't shake one thought: "Carlos Condit has no real ways to wear down Thiago Alves." This, as it turned out, was probably true.

Condit normally supplants his spotty boxing by being an excellent, rangy kicker, but Alves represented perhaps the first time that Condit was fighting a man who was both a better boxer and a sharper kicker than him, someone equally comfortable with 8 point (or perhaps as it transpired just 6 point) Muai Thai. Condit's reach was one of the major advantages he held over the stumpy Pitbull, but he couldn't capitalize on it in the same way that Jordan Mein did, because he's simply not that kind of boxer. Mein carved up Alves with jabs and half-beat counters. Condit just can't do that. So, for the first round, Alves was winning relatively clearly. He'd close combinations with leg kicks, and would punish Condit for things like his aimless-seeming spinning kick attempts.

An aside: I have a friend who I've introduced to MMA. Occasionally I have to field questions from him which leave me a bit stumped, like I'm a Dad with an inquisitive toddler.

Q: "Why does everyone throw spin kicks?"
A: "Well... I reckon maybe they think it makes them look cool, son."
Q: "Why are heavyweights?"

While spinning attacks are surprisingly difficult to effectively punish if missed, they're vulnerable to getting snuffed before they come out. Alves would dart in inside the arc of the kick and clip Condit with a left hand. An advantage of clean technique is in its broad utility (a jab has many uses, a spinning kick has very few), but Alves began to "solve" Condit's strikes the same way- the spinning kick, the right hand, were all attacked with a stepping left hook. Thus, Condit stepped over, landed the elbow to the face as Alves came in, and the fight was essentially over.

Alves fought his fight with what was probably the better process and the more consistent technique, but all it took was a single knot of probability, a moment of perfectly placed dynamism, and the bout was done. It's easy to feel bad for Pitbull, who battled back courageously even after his nose was viciously re-located on his head as though he were Daffy Duck after a bomb went off, but all's fair in love and MMA, and it's not a dissimilar outcome to what he himself did to Mein.

For Condit, we just have to appreciate what a special, dynamic fighter he is. At many years in the sport, he still has a boundless creativity, an almost endless bag of fight-ending tricks. The durability, and the cardio and that very specific and terrifying in-fight curiosity which drives his style forward are still very much a constant. He remains the Natural Born Killer for a reason.

Dan Henderson

I didn't think that Dan Henderson was going to win against Tim Boetsch. It goes to show: don't ever underestimate the power of dynamism. This is, to be fair, a dynamism that comes at the opposite end of the spectrum to that we've looked at so far. Condit, Oliveira and Ortega win by overwhelming their opponents with endless guesses and creativity. Conversely, Henderson has boiled down his game and reduced it down to the simplest of questions.

Phil exchange 4

Every fight is simply him waiting, wading through exchanges until he can ask this question. It's very, very smart considering his age. Power is the last thing to go, and an ageing fighter should normally recognize that. Hendo has, and so every extraneous element of his game has vanished apart from this one last scrap of dynamism and fight-ending offense. He doesn't mess around with offensive wrestling that'll drain his gas tank. Just this final tool, and never think that he doesn't tape study, or carefully consider how to land it. To this day, it's one which still serves him well.

Reliable fun

These were only some of the great fights we saw in the last two weeks. Shawn Jordan flashed his own dynamism to close out his fight with Derrick Lewis with a hook kick. Jordan's mini-me Dustin Poirier has leavened his offense with increasingly clean defensive fundamentals in the pocket, to great results. Mirsad Bektic beat the snot out of Lucas Martins in one of the scariest physical and technical displays we've seen for a minute.

It wasn't all victories for aggressive or wild fighters, which is as it should be: there's no guaranteed recipe for success in MMA. There were some contests where people recklessly went outside of what their round-winning process was and got punished. Christos Giagos decided to go repeatedly into grappling exchanges with Chris Wade, and was exhausted by the more skilful and experienced wrestler. Matt Mitrione answered the "why heavyweights?" question when he dove in and got tapped by Ben Rothwell, with the best of all answers: "because sometimes they're hilarious".

Even if a focus on the knockout or a submission doesn't always lead to victory, if jumping into and out of phases of the fight in a constant hunt for the finish doesn't guarantee success, then the one stable outcome you can rely on is that it's going to be a lot of fun.