Photo of Josh Thomson by Scott Peterson via MMA Weekly.
Before his upset knockout loss to Johny Hendricks just 12 seconds into their UFC 141 bout, Jon Fitch had only been defeated once inside the Octagon and it was at the hands of the most dominant welterweight the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has ever known.
In the six-plus years Fitch has been employed by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), he's bested the likes of Thiago Alves, Diego Sanchez and Paulo Thiago. He did so by employing a dominating style of wrestling, grinding away at his opponents over the course of 15 minutes and imposing his will on them.
It wasn't flashy, but it was effective.
Having 13 victories inside the Octagon puts him on par with greats like Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva and Royce Gracie. It's an accomplishment even Fitch's most hardened of doubters have to give him credit for. It's the nine decisions out of those 13 victories he's won which earn him the scorn of countless MMA fans across the globe.
Some of that scorn transferred over to Josh Thomson after last night's fight (March 3, 2012) in the co-main event of Strikeforce: "Tate vs. Rousey." In his title eliminator bout against K.J. Noons, "Punk" ditched his usual strike-heavy offense in favor of one more wrestling-based to ensure victory in Columbus.
The fight was universally reviled, even by the usual St. Pierre and Fitch apologists.
So what was the difference between what Thomson did and what the UFC welterweights do when they step inside the Octagon?
When describing the French-Canadian and his American counterpart, terms like "boring" have been thrown around and phrases like "lay and pray" have been bandied about. "Unrelenting" and "intelligent" have also been used. But by the time "Rush" notched up his fourth consecutive decision win against Jake Shields, the criticisms had reached a fever pitch.
The performances St. Pierre and Fitch put on were polarizing. One portion of the fanbase hated the determined (if plodding) style they employed while the second appreciated the skill and technique needed to dominate opponent after opponent. Their argument was, if someone didn't want to fight off their back, they would need to learn how to defend against a takedown.
While the former group of fans decried the lack of action, the latter lauded the gameplanning set forth.
For some reason, Thomson wasn't afforded the same courtesy. Over the course of 15 minutes, "Punk" used takedowns to keep his opponent on his back and off his feet where the former boxer would be more comfortable and thus, have a better chance of winning.
All the former Strikeforce champion did was avoid Noons' strengths while exploiting his weaknesses. That seems like a great gameplan, does it not? And when one considers the oft-injured California native hasn't stepped inside the cage in over a year, one can't crucify "Punk" for wanting to play it somewhat safe to ensure the easiest route to victory.
Boos rained down on the two fighters last night inside the Nationwide Arena, enough to cause Thomson to essentially disown his performance more than once during the post-fight interview. Digital boos were prevalent across MMA sites and Twitter as well, echoing the sentiment from Columbus.
So when is a performance like the one "Punk" put on last night excellent gameplanning and when is it boring? MMA -- much like the world -- isn't black and white, it's painted in shades of grey and the question falls smack dab in the middle of one such section.
More often than not, a fighter following an opponent-specific gameplan will result in a less than thrilling affair. We saw it last night with Thomson and Noon and we saw it a month ago at UFC 143 when Carlos Condit outpointed Nick Diaz.
We see it every time St. Pierre steps inside the Octagon.
With the level of competition Strikeforce and the UFC have at their disposal, it's not uncommon to see fighters take this route. Unless you get a piece of the sweet pay-per-view (PPV) pie, an injury can be detrimental to a lower or mid-level fighter and their bank account. Even those at the top of their respective weight divisions will employ a "safety first" approach to ensure victory and by proxy, employment.
Is it smart? Yes. Is it boring? Yes. It's absolutely both. Admitting such doesn't make you any less of a fan. But some fighters shouldn't get free passes while others are vilified. Reaction should be uniform and universal.
Gameplanning is part of the sport, like it or lump it.