Something was different about Johnny Walker during his recent UFC Vegas 38 main event contest against Thiago Santos. We’re a few weeks removed from that fight, which Walker lost via decision, and I’m still not sure if what we saw at the UFC Apex was good or bad for Walker.
Prior to the contest, Walker, who has been training with John Kavanagh at SBG Ireland, raved about the help Kavanagh was giving him.
“I think he wants to make a project with me,” Walker, who is living in the home of Kavanagh’s parents, said. “He wants to make another project, so I’m betting on him the same way he’s betting on me. It will work out.”
Walker added that “everybody believes” he has the talent to have the upside of Kavanagh’s most successful project to date former two-division UFC champion, Conor McGregor.
The Santos fight did not go well for Walker. In fact, the approach his team cobbled together for the light heavyweight matchup was the antithesis of what made Walker an instant fan favorite in the UFC.
Walker was much more controlled against Santos when compared to his previous octagon missions. He wasn’t reckless. He didn’t put himself in bad positions. He didn’t give Santos the opportunity to exploit his tendencies to throw caution to the wind and rush in blindly with his chin wide open.
Walker showed he is coachable and willing to put his trust in his coaching staff and follow their instructions throughout a 25-minute fight.
He showed he could fight a technical battle that showcased his skills over his raw power and craziness.
The downside of the fight was Walker seemed to fight himself at times. Where in the past he would have rushed in with his striking and trusted his athletic abilities to get him out of trouble before a counter could come back at him, against Santos he waited and waited and waited. It was as if the spontaneity had been coached out of him and he had become an automaton. He did what he was trained to do. Nothing more or nothing less.
Social media, where fans and pundits are unafraid and all too willing to offer unsolicited advice during fight night, was overwhelming against what it saw from Walker.
Walker has a decision to make. Does he stick with SBG Ireland for his next fight and make tweaks to what the team has started, or does he revert to the crowd-pleasing style that made him wildly popular?
That will not be a simple decision for Walker.
Walker’s devil my care attitude, while fun and exciting, isn’t likely to allow him to rise above middle of the pack contender status. Sure, it’ll make him popular with the fans, but it’s not likely to earn him a title shot.
The approach Walker used in the Santos fight won’t move him up the rankings either. That style will also cost him fans, and some of those fans might work inside the UFC corporate offices and that could have a negative effect on his bank account.
I think Santos will be torn. He tasted the adoration of the crowds early in his UFC career and he seemed to love it. It’s hard to believe he won’t take the fan criticism — that he fought a boring and safe style — against Santos to heart. He’ll need to weigh those feelings against the admiration and trust he has built with Kavanagh and SBG Ireland and make a decision. It won’t be an easy thing for Walker.
If I were in Walker’s position, I would give Kavanagh and the team another shot and I would insist it be a full camp against a highly ranked opponent. With that, I would then sit down with the coaching staff and try to put together an approach and game plan that combined the best of both worlds.
Walker is going to need to be a technical fighter to rise to the top, but he’s also going to need the freedom to be Johnny Walker and occasionally, when the time is right, do crazy Johnny Walker stuff — but just crazy enough to keep himself from getting starched. That’s the balancing act, and that’s what Kavanagh is going to have to deal with if he wants Walker to succeed with SBG.
Is Walker as talented as McGregor? No, I don’t think anyone would ever say he is, but he is talented and he has shown he is coachable and that he can put absolute trust in his team. Kavanagh and SBG, if they get another chance to corner Walker, need to reward his trust in them by giving him the best possible chance to win and succeed. They didn’t do that at UFC Vegas 38, but that doesn’t mean they can’t right their wrong in Walker’s next outing.