Sunday, March 20, 2011

UFC 128

I am a broad minded martial follower.  From big battles like Actium to Waterloo, and Normandy and Midway, to personal skirmishes like Ali-Frazer, Tyson, de la Hoya, Mayweather, Pacquiao, Couture, Liddell, GSP, Silva.  I really don't see the difference.  It's all kinda the same.  The scale and the stakes may be different.  But at the core is one objective (victory), two opponents, strategy, tactics and execution.  At the core is honesty.  Two sides trying their best with the tools they have.

Honesty is the bedrock principle of the combat disciplines.  Training for the unknown and unknowable means that you really, REALLY can't afford to delude yourself about the few considerations that are reasonably predictable.  If someone really wanted to hurt you, they would attack from behind.  If someone wanted to knife you, you probably won't see the blade.  True honesty about our expectations is what moves martial study to martial practice: from hobby to Way.

I raise this principle of honesty in regards to something I saw last night.  Two men, Mauricio Rua and Jon Jones fought in Newark NJ for the UFC's light heavyweight (LHW) title.  I started following this division with interest about 4 years ago, watching a MMA stylist named Lyoto Machida fight Tito Ortiz.  In that fight, I was surprised and pleased to find that Machida (who has a background in Karate and Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ)) executing an effective counter-punching strategy against the pressing and aggressive Ortiz. It was a marvelous display of contrasting strategy, tactics and execution that stood out from the simple athleticism of striking and wrestling typical of most MMA bouts.

I held out hope that the fight, which put Machida on a path towards the LHW title, would signal a change from the simple strategies of forward-pressing ring generalship that I see in the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce, and other MMA promotions to a more nuanced, daring and sophisticated approach to physically engaging with the opponent.  Those hopes were reinforced a few matches later when Machida - who had began to settle into a reputation for counter-punching - defeated Rashad Evans by making a strong, calculated blitzkrieg flurry of punches to KO the champ and take the title.  A fighter who could win by giving ground or pushing forward - I had hoped that Machida's reign would cause other fighters to broaden their tactics to include more legerdemain in the MMA approach.

I haven't seen this to be the case, however.  Machida's title defense against Rua was the opposite of everything that I'd been hoping for.  Rather than being fluid and diverse in strategy - adapting to his opponent - Machida again settled into a counter-punching strategy that, while brilliant against the plodding and direct Ortiz, was wholly inappropriate against the much more dangerous and dynamic Rua.  Instead of wrestling, or using angles or targeting legs to slow his opponent, Machida did exactly what Rua was expecting -- backing up and trying to counter -- for 5 rounds.  In the end, a battered and bruised Machida was quite surprised to have won a very controversial decision (I would have preferred that he lost as a reminder of his strategic failure, but I would have also preferred for a belt to be exchanged on a knockout or submission).

The Machida experiment was all but put to rest with Rua's revenge at the rematch a few months later.  Rua's strategy remained the same: press forward.  Machida's strategy never really became clear because he got knocked out before it could be formed.  With that loss, the triumph of athletic attributes over strategic vision in MMA had been firmly established once again: the man in the Octagon with better endurance, better range, better speed, better power or more aggressiveness always wins.  Might as well put the numbers into a computer.  Thinking has nothing to do with the outcome.  When the athletic attributes are evenly matched, the fighter that wins was simply luckier.

It is this lack of strategic acumen and tactical execution that I feel is the reason why no man has defended a LHW belt in 3 years.  Fighters have specific strengths which they are expected to play to, they do what is expected and someone ends up winning.  This is what I saw, to a tee, last night at UFC 128.  On one side, stood Rua, 29 years, coming off of two knee surgeries, hasn't fought in 10 months, 76 in. reach, strengths in Thai striking and BJJ.  On the other stood Jones, 23 years, 13-1 (with his one loss coming by disqualification), last fought 5 weeks earlier and winning without being touched, 84 in. reach.  Long, lanky, unconventional striker, array of knees and spinning elbow and high-calibur wrestler with two brothers who are professional football players.

On paper, what was to happen was obvious.  It was obvious.  I say that twice because I know all about Black Swans and how much more predictable things look in hindsight.  But, on paper?  It goes back to honesty.  Martial artists need to be honest about their expectations, to inspect what they expect. On paper, it would have been nice if someone in Shogun's camp said that his opponent is younger, stronger, with more reach, more rhythm and timing, more recent fight experience, more conditioning and a high class wrestler.  It would have been nice if someone had been honest and said that Shogun would have to outsmart him because he can't outclass him. But it didn't seem that anyone said that because Shogun came out as if he was fighting anyone, not the man in front of him.  He fought as if the man in front of him didn't matter.

But that was all that mattered.  Rua couldn't traverse Jones' reach.  He couldn't outlast him.  He couldn't get him on the ground.  He couldn't fight him off from his back.  He couldn't do any of the things that everyone knows Shogun does well.  And it seemed obvious that Jon Jones knew what everyone else knew.  That's why the man was trying flying knees and spinning back kicks.  He wasn't concerned at all.  He knew what to expect and since there was no strategy to Rua at all, all that was left was what his opponent is expected to do, what he's done before.

None of that would have worked against Jones, even if Jones hadn't known it was coming.  Rua is a Muay Thai striker.  But Jones has more devastating knees and elbows and is taller making the delivery that much easier.  Rua is a BJJ black belt.  Jones is a collegiate wrestler with long flexible limbs that gives him the luxury of seeing the submission hold coming from a mile away.

Watching the utterly one-sided annihilation of a defending champion who employed no strategy at all and who got that championship by what to my mind was a 'fortunate' punch in a fight that employed no strategy at all, was a depressing sight to say the least.  Rogan was quick to call Jones the future of MMA.  But it doesn't seem like the future to me at all.  It just seems like more of the past.  Jones isn't winning through training or coaching.  He isn't winning because he's outsmarting his opponents.  He's winning because he's an athletic freak who, more often than not, can do the predictable things his opponents will do twice as well.  Much as Chuck Liddell didn't revolutionize anything.  If you traded with Chuck, he was just better at knocking you out than you were.  Once that went away, so did Liddell.

Jon Jones will revolutionize MMA when he's getting beat the way that he beat on Mauricio Rua last night, and lures his opponent into a triangle.  When he has to outsmart his opponent.  When he does something no one knew he could do, something no one could have fathomed, least of all his opponent, to steal a win through subterfuge.  That will be a revolution.  MMA continues to lack this mental dimension, which is why I feel that the discipline as it now stands would be better served being called MFA, mixed fighting arts.  A martial art by definition employs thought and strategy.  It means being sensitive to your opponent's strengths and unbalancing (kuzushi) them, both physically and mentally, forcing them out of their comfort zone, attacking their expectations, forcing them to adapt.

But I'm not seeing much adapting in MMA.  I'm not being surprised.  Though it is a sport; it simply isn't a thinking man's sport as yet.  Just more of the toughest guy in the room getting beat up by the guy who's tougher.

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