Another of the UFC's recent crop of journeyman champions fell on Saturday when Eddie Alvarez was knocked out by Conor McGregor in Madison Square Garden
One of the more compelling elements that MMA offers is the chance to see and briefly put a value on things which are essentially unquantifiable. You can see how much something like courage or willpower can change a matchup, or a career. Alternatively, you can see how there are certain scenarios when it isn't worth anything.
Alvarez vs Griffin
Conor McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez in two short rounds. He was a horror for the lightweight champ: this much, if not widely accepted beforehand, is obvious in the aftermath. One potential analogue would be Forrest Griffin against Anderson Silva. Although remembered as perhaps MMA's greatest blowout, back before UFC 101 the lines were close, and pundits were split: for some Griffin was too big and too gritty and was going to grind on Silva with his wrestling and conditioning. This might sound familiar.
Before we get carried away with condescending 20/20 hindsight at all the greybeards who thought that a sloppy TUF winner could take out the greatest middleweight ever (and my dismal picks on Saturday leave me in no position to be smug), it has to be said that there were cases for a Griffin win. He ground out and finished Shogun Rua back when Rua was considered one of the brightest talents in the sport, and Silva's recent performances had been uninspiring. It was well understood that Brazilians, like Europeans, couldn't wrestle.
Similarly, there were arguments for Alvarez to win at 205. McGregor had struggled with the larger Nate Diaz. He'd struggled with Chad Mendes' wrestling. Combine the two in a tough lightweight with excellent grappling and boxing and... maybe? Alvarez is far more skilled than Griffin was, but he also fights in an incomparably more skilled division. These things are relative, yet within the context of the lightweight and featherweight division, he was just wrong for McGregor.
While more comfortable on the counter, Eddie's offensive style rests on a kind of truncated blitz- a shifting step into range, then standing his ground and flurrying, and then angling off and a return to the outside. The dash has always been where he's most vulnerable to strikes, and the way that he stops on it to fire has meant that his wrestling never developed a piercing penetration step.
He was able to outwrestle Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis, but he also had to walk through their punches to do it, and then work hard to take them down from the fence. He's been viewed more recently as a wrestler, and sometimes as a brawler, but he is more accurately an anti-wrestler, an anti-brawler, built to counter those styles but take his licks along the way. His tendency to bite down on the mouthpiece and swing when in trouble has largely been worked out of his game by experience, but it's likely still something which pulled him back into a boxing game as soon as he was tagged.
Unfortunately for Alvarez, McGregor was neither a wrestler or a brawler. Throughout his career, Alvarez has struggled with being put on the outside by long kickers. He's been hittable on the entry. This did not add up to a recipe for a good night against a tall kicker, and a murderously precise counterpuncher.
McGregor overcame his own style clash - a longer, tougher southpaw - in Nate Diaz, and by comparison, this must have felt like coming home. The painstaking work on his lead hand and the development of a more efficient style were able to bed down into a match with a shorter, hittable and hurtable orthodox fighter, a match as comforting and familiar as a well-worn blanket.
Maybe Alvarez could have beaten the pre-Diaz version of McGregor, but this incarnation of the Irishman was a different animal. Before Diaz, McGregor might have fearlessly walked forward into Alvarez' counter shots instead of forcing him to lead. After Diaz, the silly jinga steps, cartwheel kicks and wheel kicks were gone.
Alvarez is a brave fighter. He's been in at least two first-ballot Fight of the Year contenders, at the most conservative estimate. He's been able to win fights with blood'n'guts refusal to quit, and by sticking to a gameplan. These are very different forms of courage and self-belief, and it's rare to find both in the same fighter. Yet in the McGregor fight Alvarez' courage was worth virtually nothing. As with Diego Sanchez against BJ Penn, bravery was effectively boxed away. As with Griffin against Silva, the ref putting an end to the fight was a mercy.
End of the road for the comeback queen
Courage or willpower has its limit within the context of a fight, but also within a career. Miesha Tate fought Raquel Pennington, and the former champion lost a one-sided decision. The loss wasn't hugely surprising -Pennington is eternally underrated-but the shut-out was. Tate never really looked like she was in it. Afterwards, she retired.
I wasn't much of a fan of Miesha Tate in her Strikeforce or early UFC days. The rivalry with Rousey seemed annoying; the relationship with her slightly obsessed fans wasn't my thing.
Her introduction to the wider MMA public included two shockingly brutal championship losses, including Rousey shredding the ligaments in her arm like ripping the wing off a chicken. Added to her knockout loss to Cat Zingano, and she was clearly destined for Rich Franklin territory. Still the second-most popular fighter in the division, but also an outdated relic of an earlier era of MMA.
Then she started to battle her way back. It seemed improbable at the start; and became moreso at every step along the way. Every single fight was hard. She came back to beat Jessica Eye, and Liz Carmouche. Sarah McMann fractured her skull with a punch, breaking her orbital bone in two places, and she came back again to win the next two rounds. Almost always undersized; often technically outskilled in some key area, Tate would win on sheer adaptability and guts.
Like Alvarez in Bellator, she wasn't favoured by the higher ups. Dana White suggested she might as well retire when he denied her a third title shot and gave it to Holly Holm. When Holm won the belt in her stead, Tate was on tap as a between-fight Rousey stopgap. In classic Tate fashion she sprung the upset, somehow tearing a rear-naked choke out of nowhere in the final round.
The run to the belt is always different than keeping it. A lot of fighters get used to the journey to the top, but end up carrying themselves over the peak when they have to just maintain and defend. I think winning the bantamweight belt unbalanced Tate; was the end of her astonishing drive. She looked unfocused in her subsequent loss to Nunes; despite being one of the smallest women in the division she had bad trouble with her weight cut. On Saturday, she lost to Pennington.
“I had a lot more to give, but I couldn’t pull it out of myself. It’s been a long time. I’ve taken a lot of punishment. I still love this sport. I love you guys so much, thank you, but that’s it for me.”
I wasn't before, but I am most definitely a Miesha Tate fan now. However, if her drive in the sport truly has gone, then I'm glad that she's retiring. I can't think of a fighter who was more purely dependent on being mentally unbreakable, and it seems more than disrespectful to ask of someone who gave so much in every fight to give more.
There doesn't seem to be much more to say than: happy trails champ. Thanks for the great fights. Thanks for showing us what willpower could do.