Gerald Meerschaert closed as the biggest underdog on last weekend’s UFC Vegas 35/TUF Finale card. Most sportsbooks had him at about four-to-one odds to beat the Money Team’s Makhmud Muradov, some as steep as six-to-one.
And there was sound reasoning to back up those lines. Muradov was on a 14-fight win streak; Meerschart was 8-6 over the same number of bouts. Meerschaert is a submission specialist; Muradov hadn’t been submitted since 2013. But probably the most telling distinction lay in the realm of athletic ability: Gerald Meerschaert is very slow, and Muradov is anything but.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the fight, then all this front-loading may have already telegraphed the result. Meerschaert won. It wasn’t easy, most of the fight marked by that gulf between Muradov’s speed and Meerschaert’s lack thereof, but Meerschaert pulled it off. And whether incidental or predetermined, the path to victory was a logical one.
So today we’re going to take a quick look at one way a fighter can beat a better athlete at his own game before dragging him into theirs. What does a fighter do if they’re pitted against a speed demon like Muradov, but they’re slow as molasses?
Why, drown him in sap, of course.
Seizing the initiative
Ever heard an MMA corner shouting ‘Be first!’ at their fighter? Watch more than a handful of fights and you’ll hear it a dozen times. It’s one of those phrases that gets repeated over and over, like ‘Hands up’ or ‘Get back in the sauna, kid, you still have 11 pounds to lose.’ Well, initiative is what those cornermen are asking for. And while the battle for initiative can be a lot more complex than ‘being first,’ often that’s all that really matters.
Being first was clearly at the top of Gerald Meerschaert’s list on Saturday; he said himself that, in order to beat Muradov, he needed to “make it a dogfight.” With that in mind, Meerschaert charged Muradov into the fence, forced him into a hectic exchange, landed a savage kick to the body, and poked him in the eye–all in the first 20 seconds of the bout.
Pretty it was not. In fact, the strategy seemed at first to play right into Muradov’s considerably quicker hands. Meerschaert got himself stunned, staggered, and thrown to the ground, where any fighter with a lesser guard might have been finished outright.
1. Meerschaert pressures after Muradov.
2. Meerschaert telegraphs a right hand...
3. ...which is instantly countered by a solid Muradov jab.
4. Meerschaert continues stumbling after Muradov, who lines him up with a throwaway left hook...
5. ...before sending an overhand right straight through Meerschaert’s unguarded chin.
6. Meerschaert stumbles, and goes down.
But as soon as Meerschaert returned to his feet, he got right back to pressuring. And Muradov wasn’t any more comfortable after the knockdown.
For all of his success, the fact was that Muradov was stinging Meerschaert because he had to, not because he wanted to. Don’t get me wrong: dropping Meerschaert was absolutely a tactical success on Muradov’s part. But the larger, strategic shape of the fight was being dictated by Meerschaert, who used his insane pressure to draw those shots out of his opponent.
This is the importance of initiative. When a fighter is facing a faster striker, the worst thing they can do is to give him the freedom of time and space. Charging into the fire is dangerous, but giving Muradov endless opportunities to work his superior athleticism as he saw fit would have been suicidal.
If the other guy is faster, don’t let him use his speed; make him.
Using the initiative
Of course, making Muradov throw (and land) fast, hard punches was not a victory in and of itself. Far from it. Initiative is about setting the terms of engagement: one fighter dictates and the other reacts. Putting the opponent on the reactive is only half the battle, however.
Now Meerschaert had to put the rewards of that risky gamble to use. He had put Muradov on the reactive; now he had to test his reactions—preferably without eating every single punch that came his way. He did that using (relatively) safe attacks: namely, jabs and feints.
Raw speed is most effective in a vacuum. When lightning flashes out of a clear sky, you don’t hear the thunder till well after the bolt has struck. So Meerschaert’s initial attacks acted as a sort of lightning rod.
By probing Muradov’s hair trigger with safe, non-commital leads, Meerschaert was more easily able to time those lightning strikes and defend them. Even if the defense wasn’t pretty (it wasn’t), the fact that Meerschaert deliberately provoked the attacks made it far more effective than it would have been otherwise. Suddenly Muradov wasn’t just fighting on Meerschaert’s initiative, he was throwing when Meerschaert wanted him to throw.
All that remained was to punish him.
Swimming in deeper waters
‘Deep waters’ is another one of those phrases you just can’t get away from in this sport. Veteran fighters love threatening their opponents with swimming lessons, and they usually count stamina and willpower chief among their qualifications.
Make no mistake, stamina and willpower did play their parts in Meerschaert’s victory last weekend. A man in worse condition couldn’t have absorbed as much punishment as ‘GM3’ did without slowing down, and one less attuned to the stress of a dogfight might have taken his foot off the gas no matter how much he had left in the tank. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct that only long experience can temper.
But there are other kinds of deep waters, and Meerschaert’s weren’t waiting ‘til the back half of the final round to be explored. They swilled and swelled on either side of each and every exchange, like two channels surrounding a narrow spit of sand, waiting to swallow one of Muradov’s agile feet each time Meerschaert managed to push him past the first strike of an exchange.
What I’m talking about are layers, the kind that confront a fighter in that anxious instant just after the first punch is thrown. Whether or not that punch lands, the beat that follows is a crucial one, and dangerous—especially for a man like Muradov, all too accustomed to using the flash of that first layer to shut opponents out of the second.
Raw speed is difficult to time, but rhythm isn’t. No matter how fast the tempo, most people only need to hear the first two beats of a song to anticipate the rest of the bar. That is, of course, provided that the beats are regularly spaced. Broken rhythm is another animal altogether. But thanks to that heavy pressure Meerschaert established early on, Muradov did not have the presence of mind to try anything so tricky as syncopation.
1. Meerschaert pressures Muradov into the fence.
2. A snapping jab interrupts Muradov’s own telegraphed attempt.
3. And with that safe, successful entry, Meerschaert is able to time and evade the right hand that comes rocketing back at him.
4. Muradov tries to create an angle; Meerschaert pivots on his back foot and stays right on top of him...
5. and interrupts Muradov’s next jab with a crushing left hand. The beginning of the end.
So Meerschaert started catching Muradov with clean strikes in the latter layers of each exchange. By drawing out the first strike with a feint, Meerschaert got a feel for Muradov’s natural rhythm, enabling him to interrupt the rest of whatever combination Muradov threw.
If the faster man is countering you, you make him counter and then counter him right back. After only a few of these exchanges, Meerschaert was able to hurt Muradov—and that’s all a veteran submission artist like Meerschaert needed to find the choke.
Athleticism is immensely important in fighting. It breaks the rules of technique and strategy, sometimes undoing even the most carefully drawn plans. Even veteran fighters as crafty as Gerald Meerschaert cannot immunize themselves against speed, power, and strength. Some might even call athleticism… cheating.
But what can anyone do against such an unfair advantage, except prepare for the worst and plan for the best? Few things in combat sports are as satisfying as the successful execution of a sound strategy in the face of overwhelming odds, and Gerald Meerschaert used all the powers at his disposal to deliver such a result last weekend.
It doesn’t always work. MMA, like life, is anything but fair. But, boy is it ever lovely when a plan comes together.
For more on last weekend’s Barboza-Chikadze card and the upcoming middlingweight battle between Darren Till and Derek Brunson, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.