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UFC Vegas Post-fight Patterns - Do you want to do this?

In a ridiculously late PFP, looking at one of the more important issues in MMA- the fundamental question of motivation, and how fighters can go into the cage with or without it.

Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Wonderboy took Johny Hendricks apart at UFC Vegas. It's the highest point of a UFC career which some of us thought might never amount to more than a diversion for the kickboxing champion.

When the rhythm's gone

In extremophile careers, there's an intense sense of camaraderie, or something close to it, anyway- the feeling of being part of a group separate from normal people. Fighters can get into the UFC because hitting people is probably the single thing they're best at. Once they're a professional, though, they're buoyed and insulated by the environment and by those around them.

The everyday for a fighter is a constant repetition of rituals, superstition and habit: pounding the pavement for roadwork; the smell of the gym; winding the wraps around the hands and the wrists, the buzzer at the end of the period; the grunts of the other fighters and the hum of words from the trainers; snaps of leather on leather and skin. It's all a rhythm designed to be driven as deep as possible, and for a lot of people the echoes take a long time to die away.

Even if a pro has the impression -maybe reinforced by a bad patch of losses- that they might just not have what it takes any more, they can still get pulled along with a cadence which gets louder and more insistent in the buildup to a fight. More training and more roadwork, and here even the bad, painful parts like cutting weight tend to reinforce rather than repel. As the fighter suffers the team pulls around them, cajoling, reinforcing, bullying and encouraging. In a kind of mental dolly zoom, the world simultaneously pulls away and narrows down. Just get to the fight.

Closer in there's the fans, the interviews, the weigh-ins, the relief of rehydration. More rituals and more superstitions. Waiting backstage with all the other fighters, and then making the walk out to the cage.

When the door clicks shut, these external rhythms are all abruptly cut off. It's up to the fighter to carry the beat on their own... and sometimes they can't any more. They look for whatever internal pulse used to drive them, whether it's the chip on their shoulder, or a need for self-improvement, or sheer competitiveness, and it's gone. You can see it on their face.

Down the burrow

Feijao Cavalcante has been fighting like that for a minute now, but the bout against Ovince Saint-Preux was undoubtedly his worst and most troubling showing. OSP busted his foot in the first round, and after landing two hard leg kicks on his visibly limping opponent, Feijao just backed away and stared at him. Eventually Saint-Preux started to work through the pain enough to beat Cavalcante up. At the few points in which Feijao threw, it looked stilted and desperately unconvincing- a conscious mind aware that it was supposed to be doing something, anything, battling a rebellious subconscious which wanted nothing to do with what was happening in the cage.

Like Feijao, KJ Noons has been looking terrible for a while, and had his worst showing yet. As Connor and Zane have pointed out, he has increasingly looked uninterested in anything which isn't a small-gloves boxing match. Aside from this, however, he's at least been a semi-reliable action fighter, until last week anyway. Against Josh Burkman, he didn't throw a single strike in the first four minutes of the fight. Years of committing to punches and getting taken down left him wedged inside his speciality like an animal in a burrow, refusing to be budged. Years of only really wanting to compete in one aspect of the sport eventually split apart his capacity to compete at all.

Aside from serious physical injury or degradation, this is the biggest potential problem for any pro: do you really want to do this? Because you have to. If you half-ass this sport, you're in serious trouble.

Test the weird karate guy

A few years back, whether Wonderboy Thompson really wanted to do MMA was an open question. There are any number of successful professionals from other careers who take a shot at MMA just to test themselves, to say that it was something that they did. Herschel Walker, Ray Sefo, even CM Punk. They have no real need to make it to the top of the sport. Instead it's a personal trial in the way that running a marathon might be for a regular person.

Thompson wasn't old when he entered the UFC, but he wasn't all that young either, and he already had a good career behind him. Getting upset by Matt Brown (then an uninspiring 6-5 in the UFC) in a grimy, vicious and characteristically Matt Brown fight might have convinced others that the MMA experiment had gone as far as it could. He'd always have the Stittgen KO and the rad somersault gif to look back on if he quit now.

His followup fight against Nah-Shon Burrell was again full of clinching and grinding against the cage. Another rough bout against a tough, undersold fighter who's unfortunately been typecast into the role of "test the weird karate guy", and another that might have had Thompson reconsidering his place in the sport. If he continued, it's conceivable to think that it would have been ever-closer to the KJ Noons mould: backing up, desperately fighting off clinches, refusing to really engage outside his speciality, eventually drifting away from the sport altogether.

It was his next fight against Chris Clements that was the interesting one, because although there were the exciting moments (Clements hitting a Mortal Kombat sweep, the finish), it was notable because Wonderboy actively went for and hit his own takedowns. There was none of the kind of sourness you can sometimes get from a specialist who crosses over. Wonderboy was looking like an MMA fighter. He was still kept away from big fights, though, and that was likely all to the good. He was training with Firas Zahabi and the team at Tristar, and down at Serra-Longo, and quietly getting better and better.

Kickboxing impressions

The fight against Hendricks was the coming out party. Much has been made of the role of karate and stance-switching, but one of the keys to the fight was an old kickboxing trick. It was something that we'd seen the previous event, when Tarec Saffiedine kept Jake Ellenberger's overhand right shelved by repeatedly using his left high kick- moving forward, Ellenberger was forced to raise his right arm to block the strike. Similarly, Thompson threw the high right into Hendricks' guard repeatedly in the first couple of minutes of the fight. Like Ellenberger, Bigg Rigg was blocking successfully, but it also kept his primary distance-covering strike (the left straight) from coming out. Without inflicting significant damage, it allowed Thompson to strand Hendricks at distance and repeatedly drive through a single impression- "right head kick."

Getting an impression forced on you by an opponent is almost always a a bad thing. The ability or inclination to adapt to opponents is traditionally overrated in combat sports, and given a choice between adaptability and sheer cussedness in a fighter, I'd take the latter almost every time. However, Hendricks' approximate mirror in the UFC has always been Robbie Lawler, and like Lawler, Hendricks is stubborn, and hard to convince that what his opponent is doing has much value. Like Lawler, his stubbornness can sometimes corrode into something close to petulance.

Wonderboy instantly used the hesitation from the kick to land short flurries, and to take a brief moment to drive Hendricks back with risky but painful side kicks from southpaw. The high round kick never landed, but it kept Hendricks fighting behind his jab and hook, and Wonderboy hammered his own right hand down the center at will. Unlike Saffiedine against Ellenberger, he was merciless in exploiting every single moment of hesitation which Hendricks showed.

The last key moment was when Hendricks seemed like he was close to trapping Thompson against the cage, and then Wonderboy circled off.  Hendricks dropped his stance, and his body language was somewhere between resigned and incredulous at the bullshit he was being forced to deal with. He practically rolled his eyes, and as he did Thompson took the center. Stubbornness is great, but for a brief moment, it was fatal. It looked like Hendricks still thought this might be the fight he wanted rather than the one he was in, one where he'd have the luxury of figuring his opponent out rather than a life-and-death struggle where he needed to claw for every scrap of space.

Then Wonderboy massacred him. He dug a right kick underneath Hendricks' floating rib, stunned him with a right hook. The spinning back kick and flurry of punches which left Bigg Rigg slumped into the cage were almost academic.

No more doubts / one more question

It's easy for fighters to be lured by money and the memory of the rush of winning, to take a step into a steady whirlpool of gym life which can funnel them into a place where they don't belong any more. I don't think many people want to see BJ Penn, Chris Leben or Mayhem Miller step back into the cage... but that's what's going to happen.

For Thompson, there aren't any questions any more about whether he belongs, about whether he wants to do this. He's the breakout star at welterweight and this time it's certain that he's not a fun novelty or someone doing it to prove a point. No doubts that he's there because he genuinely wants to be, and that the internal rhythm which drives him is as strong or stronger than it was in his kickboxing career. Whether it's enough to send him to the top of the sport is the next question, but now it's one we're likely to see answered soon.