Contests between elite fighters are often decided by adaptation. Winning a fight relies not only on a man's ability to impose himself on his opponent, but also on his ability to prevent the other man doing the same to him.
A fight is a dangerous sort of question-and-answer game. An intelligent, skilled fighter will be constantly asking questions of his adversary: "How do you respond to my jab? What if I feint it? What if I throw it twice in a row?" Likewise, he must answer his opponent's similar questions: "I counter your jab. I don't care about your feint. Throw that jab again and I'll drop you."
Critics of combat sports see only the blood and guts, but it's the fact that these athletes can persevere in having a thoroughly intellectual battle despite all the blood and pain that makes a fight so fascinating.
What better men to prove this notion than Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit? Both Lawler and Condit are intelligent men, though soft-spoken and stoic most of the time. They are also fighters renowned for their violent tendencies. Carlos Condit probably looks unfamiliar to the average MMA fan without his customary mask of blood, while Robbie Lawler is currently riding on the back of one of the most brutal, gut-wrenching fights in MMA championship history.
Condit and Lawler are also very different fighters. What makes their upcoming UFC 195 clash so compelling is the difference in approach. So let's take a quick look at how two of the most dangerous men in the world stay one step ahead of their enemies.
Robbie Lawler has always been a relatively simple fighter, as far as weapons are concerned. The jab, the straight left, the right hook, the uppercut, the round kick. These are the primary tools of his trade, and it's rare to see him unveil something wholly new from one fight to the next. Lawler deliberately eschews the video game-esque mentality of many modern fighters, choosing instead to refine the attacks already in his possession. Year after year, fight after fight, Lawler continues to improve.
That mentality manifests itself even in the midst of Lawler's fights. Given a problematic opponent, he never throws his fundamentals out the window. Instead, he keeps working, probing away and making adjustment after adjustment until . . . well, usually the other man falls down at some point. Take this pair of sequences from Lawler's title defense against Rory MacDonald, for example.
1. MacDonald steps forward behind a pawing jab, and Lawler bounces away.
2. When MacDonald lingers, Lawler bounces right back forward into range . . .
3. . . . and uncorks a left hand, which Rory slips.
4. Lawler gets his left hand back to block MacDonald's counter right . . .
5. . . . and kisses him on the cheek with a right hook as he pulls out of range.
Straight left, right hook. Already in this short sequence we have a clear glimpse of the two weapons that Lawler would employ throughout most of the fight, though neither of those punches landed cleanly here. Instead of viewing his miss as a failure, however, Lawler sees only the opportunity to adapt. He knows that MacDonald wants to counter his left with a right hand. He knows also that he leaves his head in the pocket after throwing it.
Having collected his data, Lawler immediately tries again. Same exact weapons, different intent.
1. As MacDonald attempts to push forward, Lawler once again slides into the pocket.
2. He brings his left hand with him, and again MacDonald slips it . . .
3. . . . before once again shooting the counter right. This time, however, Lawler rolls underneath . . .
4. . . . and pops up on the other side with a short right hook . . .
5. . . . followed by a crushing left hand that snaps MacDonald's head back.
Two seconds after the previous exchange, Lawler jumps right back on MacDonald. There is a tricky rhythm to his entry, but the attack is still the same, still that simple lead left hand. This time, however, Lawler is ready with an adjustment. Almost as if replaying the prior exchange and making corrections as he goes, Lawler goes under the counter right hand, making MacDonald miss entirely and leaving him open for a counter. He knows the right hand is coming because MacDonald hasn't even had time to think between exchanges--he just reacts, and Lawler is ready to react in kind.
For many fighters, two consecutive misses would be an outright failure, particularly when both shots were as well timed as Lawler's. For "Ruthless," however, the miss is an expected possibility, and easily adjusted to. This is how Robbie Lawler fights, always. It seems predictable until it isn't. There are layers upon layers swirling around in Lawler's head, counters to counters into infinity.
But what happens when he fights a man with an infinity of problems to solve?
CONDIT'S PROCESS OF ELIMINATION
Both of these men speak softly, but if Robbie Lawler carries a big stick, then Carlos Condit carries a bundle of switches, each less impactful and more specific in their use. Rather than endlessly refining the same attacks, Condit's approach is to throw question after question at his target until something comes back positive. When Condit faced Thiago Alves in May, the stocky Brazilian seemed to be making headway with a counter striking strategy. Each time Condit attacked, Alves was ready with a counter, and Condit couldn't seem to get away often enough to win the first round. But unlike Robbie Lawler, Condit wasn't overly concerned with getting away--he was wholly focused on getting in, and he kept throwing until something landed.
1. Condit prepares to lunge in after Thiago Alves.
2. Leading with a throwaway straight left . . .
3. . . . Condit steps in to uppercut the body.
4. But Alves smashes a counter left hook into his jaw.
5. Carried forward by his momentum, Condit's next attack, a shift left hook, goes wide.
6. He cuffs Alves with an awkward right hook . . .
7. . . . before stumbling out of the way of another left from Alves.
That's not particularly pretty to look at. Where Robbie Lawler sifts through possibilities and adjusts his attacks accordingly, Condit tends to plan out a whole attack ahead of time. When the opponent doesn't react as expected--in this case, Alves stands his ground and counters instead of retreating on the end of Condit's punches--then Condit ends up out of position and open for a counter.
But this is how Carlos Condit learns, and adapts. Thirty seconds later, he tries a similar attack, but with one notable change.
1. Again, Condit prepares to lunge in from long range.
2. Now in orthodox instead of southpaw, he leads with a throwaway right hand . . .
3. . . . and shifts to land a short elbow right across the bridge of Alves' nose.
4. Alves goes down, and Condit swarms him.
Condit likes these shifting, forward-marching combinations, but they don't always work when the other man refuses to back up. Condit ends up running right into his opponent and smothering his punches. But instead of changing tack and finding a new way to get that left hook in, Condit removes the left hook entirely, subbing in a short elbow that will land even if Alves doesn't retreat. Condit lands up in more or less the same position as before--perilously close to eating a counter left once again--but the new weapon changes things entirely.
Bruce Lee famously quipped that he feared the man who trained one kick ten thousand times, not the man who trained ten thousand kicks once apiece. It sounds nice, and there is an essential truth to the quote, but Carlos Condit exemplifies the value of a diverse skillset. Presumably, Bruce didn't consider how dangerous a man with ten thousand strikes could be, armed with an iron chin, an unbreakable will, and a keen eye for openings.
And, by the way, this isn't to say that Carlos Condit's preparation is lacking. His skillset is perhaps broader and more shallow than Lawler's, but he is an intelligent fighter with a supremely intelligent team behind him. Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn, and--more often these days--Brandon Gibson comprise one of the best corners in all of MMA, and Condit's consistent, long-term success testifies to that fact. It's hard to ignore the man with ten thousand kicks when he's finished all but 10 of his 38 opponents.
There are limitations to both Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit's styles. Lawler is perhaps a little too stubborn in his rigid adherence to a few specific attacks. Despite his excellent kicks and knees, he failed to kick Johny Hendricks at all after the first round of their first fight, instead honing in on the boxing battle that Hendricks prompted. Lawler is also happy to give away rounds while he works his openings, an admirable but risky gambit that has landed him some tough scorecards over the years. Condit, on the other hand, is nowhere near as safe as Lawler. His refusal to give rounds away makes him perpetually dangerous, but it also makes him vulnerable. He is more than happy to run into punch after punch, as if by putting himself through the ringer he can divine the best way to land a strike.
When these two meet at UFC 195, it will be a fascinating clash of styles. The matchup promises extreme violence, but no mere barroom brawl. Because Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit are not normal men, nor are they normal fighters. These are two of the very best on earth. When one asks, the other will answer.
For more on the beautiful mayhem that is Robbie Lawler vs Carlos Condit, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.