Since getting into the murky business of fight previews over the past decade-plus, I've learned how much I don't know. Mainly that there are endless factors to mitigate against feeling confident in most picks.
But a consistent factor in recent years, and one that's probably moved to the top of the list, is what I call the Relative Importance DisparityTM. That's when a match-up shines as a potential career-defining moment for one guy while being a relatively ho-hum assignment for the star he's looking to knock off. A career-boosting opportunity was what was presented before Michael McDonald and Eddie Yagin at UFC 145 last night (Sat., April 21, 2012) in Atlanta, Georgia, and in beating Miguel Torres and Mark Hominick, respectively, they reinforced the validity of factoring RIDTM into pre-fight analysis.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the big-name fighter in this equation is coming in overconfident and under prepared. He's usually not.
But it's incredibly hard to raise your game to its highest level every time out, especially in a career where you've had ups and down aplenty and the guy you're fighting is just another opponent. Whereas for the fighter looking to either take a huge jump in the rankings with a signature win (as McDonald did with his brutal knockout of Torres), or wipe the slate clean (as Yagin did beating Hominick in a "Fight of the Night" performance after losing his UFC debut), that's a huge incentive with no substitute.
I've applied RIDTM to plenty of recent bouts and it holds up very well as a mechanism for making informed picks, even though in my case they aren't always ones I've made. Nick Diaz beat B.J. Penn like a drum, in a fight that fit the RIDTM definition perfectly (and one in which I picked Diaz to win handily).
I didn't pick Ryan Bader over Quinton Jackson, however, which ushers in another element that further reinforces RIDTM: over the timeline of a long career, a fighter gets plenty of experience, along with injuries, hassles in his management and/or personal life, and a general burgeoning dissatisfaction with the game itself. Jackson's weight problems were also a product of a long career and the mileage accrued from big jumps in poundage and training itself, which he is no fan of.
You could also cite examples like Johnny Hendricks vs. Jon Fitch and Jake Ellenberger vs. Jake Shields. Yes, Fitch and Shields got caught and Shields was dealing with the tragic loss of his father coming into the bout, but both cases were serious letdowns from two fighters that were among the most durable and consistent in the game leading into those shocking losses.
And both happened against young, motivated guys who knew they could score a huge win if they brought their "A" game, which Hendricks and Ellenberger certainly did. Shields and Fitch were "caught" in the sense that happens often in MMA, yet against Georges St. Pierre, both went five rounds, precisely because they were so keyed-up to avoid getting caught and were in the fight of their lives, one that could have altered their career trajectory considerably.
Being a fighter is a lot like being married; very few people go into it with the same optimism and expectations they have several years down the road, unless you're very fortunate. I'm not sure a Ryan Bader would ever beat a 100-percent Quinton Jackson, but that's not Bader's fault. Someday, over a long enough timeline, he'll lose to a guy that couldn't have shined his shoes in his prime, either.
That's why in coming fights, it's always a good move to see where one guy is in his career, what opportunities he's had and lost, and where the other guy stands. If it's the fight of his life on one end, and something that's just another day at the office at the other, you might have a betting tip on your hands. That was certainly the case the night of UFC 145, and, I suspect, will be so for many evenings to come.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst or Jason@jasonprobst.com