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The Epidemic Failure of MMA

I've been meaning to write this for weeks, but haven't had the opportunity. Luckily, I currently have two things I lacked until now:

1. Time.

2. Alcohol.

This is the official Patrick L. Stumberg Tao of MMA. After four years of following the sport to a degree most would deem "unhealthy," this is my Master's thesis. It has nothing to do with my official position of writing about the prelims and the boxing and the other things you lot skip in favor of snorting weed or having sex or all the other things you whippersnappers get up to these days. It's just something I was meaning to write.

For fun, I'm not going to delete anything except for the purposes of wording it better.

Also, I'm probably going to quote Moneyball a lot, because Moneyball is a fucking awesome movie. Anyway, let's get started.

There is an epidemic failure in the sport to understand what's really going on in the game. It reveals itself every time a striker gets submitted and decides to focus his efforts on submission defense, or when a grappler gets knocked out and knuckles down on his striking. It's even infected the media; the symptoms include picking a fighter for having "more ways to win" or watching a guy throw up fifty failed submissions from his back and calling it a "dangerous guard."

This failure is this perception of MMA as a continuum. People treat MMA like it's a pentathlon, like it's okay to suck at the shooting as long as you can run and swim.

That's not what MMA is. MMA is a bunch of guys going up to the Olympic grounds and arguing over which event to compete in. Winning isn't about being better at everything, it's about being better in the one event that matters.

Let me clarify: picture a contest between two guys named Bill and Ted. Bill's been training for twenty years at everything; he can run pretty well, swim pretty well, shoot and throw and play pretty well. Ted's also been training for twenty years, but all he's trained is badminton and debate.

Bill challenges Ted to prove who the better athlete is. They pick a committee and plead their cases; naturally, Ted wins, and they play badminton. Ted kicks Bill's ass.

You don't need to be better than your opponent at everything in MMA. You need two skills:

1. One area in which you are superior to your opponent.

2. The ability to ensure that this is the only area that matters.

The thing is, the area can be anything. You don't need to be better in the striking; maybe you're only better at mid-range trading hooks. Maybe you're better at point-blank range. As long as that's the deciding factor, you will win the fight.

This ability to dictate the nature of the fight is the difference between a good fighter and a great fighter. There's a cliche among fighters that states: brawl the boxer, box the brawler. This is wrong. It should read: "make the boxer brawl. make the brawler box." This is a massive distinction; it's why some brawlers win championships and some languish on the undercard.

The same is true for striking and grappling; an athletic man with two months of grappling training will do better on his back than Giorgio Petrosyan. It all boils down to whether you can make this the situation.

When most people look at some hotshot prospect with half his wins by knockout and the other half by subs off his back, they see a future champion. When I look at a guy like that, I see an imperfect understanding of where wins come from.

Why will Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit never win championships? That's why. When you're fighting an overpowering wrestler like Johny Hendricks, you have to have better striking than him and be better off your back than he is on top. When you're fighting someone like Nick or Carlos, who relies on work from his back to offset weak wrestling, that "and" turns into an "or."

Did Carlos have "more ways to win" than Georges? You bet. Did it matter? No. GSP realized his top control was better than Carlos' guard work and ensured that this difference decided the fight. Hendricks realized the same thing. When Nick Diaz enters the cage, he has to be better than his opponent everywhere. They just have to find one place where they're stronger.

The guard is not dead. The guard as a primary method of attack is dead; the only people who are going to go into your guard are people who are better there than you are or are worried about your striking. In both cases, you are better served getting up or not getting taken down to begin with.

This is why wrestling is the most important skill to have: this ability to dictate which area decides the fight is built-in. Wrestling/BJJ and wrestling/striking will beat striking/BJJ every time. People ragged on Junior Dos Santos for being "one-dimensional" since almost all his wins are knockouts. Because of his takedown defense (against everyone but Cain), though, his ground game is literally irrelevant. His fight with Frank Mir would have been exactly the same whether Junior was a brown belt or white belt.

Basically, what I'm saying is is that Mark Hunt is a better mixed-martial artist than Stefan Struve. The "complete fighter" and the "better overall fighter" are myths. Having more ways to win is worthless if you have to go toe-to-toe with the other guy's one way to win.

MMA isn't kickboxing and jiu-jitsu all mashed up together; it's a series of countless discrete situations. Every aspect of the standup and ground can be boiled down to a set of unique circumstances. Saying someone is "better on the feet" or "better on the ground" says nothing.

MMA isn't the pentathlon. It's the pentathlon where the competitors are constantly arguing and beating each other up over which event to do, where the guy losing in the pistol shooting can glass the guy who's beating him and drag him over to the track. Really, this is true of every competitive sport. With mixed martial arts being such a Frankensteinian monstrosity, it's just more obvious.

You can keep your "elite" guard. I'll take the guy who never has to go into it.

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