Humans have an interesting tendency when it comes to risk and reward. If we like the reward of an approach, we underestimate the risk. If we dislike the outcome, we overestimate the risk. It’s a phenomenon called associative coherence, where our intuition lumps things together to make choices easier without having to calculate the probability manually each time we make a decision.
Fights inherently have a lot of risk and reward, the (more or less) binary outcome making them fascinating studies in behavior attempting to minimize risk and maximize reward. There is an element of risk that can’t be eliminated from fights, because all fights contain a healthy dose of randomness. Lorenz Larkin and Paul Daley illustrated this for us last night at Bellator 183; Daley’s fights are a great example of the “puncher’s chance”, the opportunity for a knockout against someone with overall greater skill. In Daley’s case, those odds are much higher than with most fighters because he packs organic power. Sure enough, after losing the first round to Larkin, Daley threw a spinning backfist in the second. Larkin ducked, but walked right into the follow-up hook, and Daley capitalized immediately to put him down.
There is a “safe” way to fight Daley that minimizes risk, and that is the approach Rory McDonald took in Daley’s last fight- he took Daley down and outgrappled him to a submission win. It would be natural to assume that also maximized reward- but that’s not quite true. While the outcome in MMA is usually the binary win/loss, not all wins or losses are created equal. Rory won a somewhat “boring” fight, which means not as many people will tune in to his title fight against Andre Lima, even though they should, because Rory gives off that serial killer vibe and posts stuff like this:
That’s some creepy ground and pound. Lima probably should be concerned.
The way to maximize reward would be the way Nick Diaz fought Paul Daley- an all out war that would never have neither man accused of being safe, but helped put the Diaz brothers on the map. That kind of fight, along with Nick’s eccentric pot-smoking realist personality, helped put him on the cultural MMA map, and win him million-dollar paydays against the likes of Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. No one who watched his one-round barnburner with Daley will ever forget it.
Last night at Bellator 183, we saw two ends of the risk-reward spectrum. Uber-prospect Aaron Pico, who lost his last fight, came out like a 19-year-old house on fire and knocked out Justin Linn with a picture-perfect left hook. “Cutting the strings on a puppet. That’s what that looks like.” said the commentator in awe.
This approach was far from risk-free. In his professional debut, Pico lost badly to another veteran, Zach Freeman. Freeman rocked him as he threw a right hand and caught him in a guillotine choke. Pico didn’t change his aggressive approach however, and it paid off handsomely in this fight. The highlight-reel knockout will begin to make a dent in the mass consciousness of MMA fandom, and go far towards erasing the memory of his prospect loss the first time out.
Benson Henderson represents the opposite of Aaron Pico in more ways than one. He’s at the other end of the bell curve in terms of age, at 33. While Pico has all the potential still in front of him, Benson has already accomplished almost everything you could wish for in MMA- he’s held both the UFC and WEC lightweight titles, and tied the record for most UFC lightweight title defenses in UFC history. His reign was controversial, though, because Henderson was known for his habit of winning split decisions. From the time he first fought Frankie Edgar, he developed a habit of barely doing more than the other guy in the cage. He was savvy or lucky enough to make that approach work for a long time. It minimized the in-cage risk- Henderson rarely took damage as champion. However, it also minimized the reward of winning- not as many cared to watch Henderson fight, capping his mass appeal and his paychecks. Henderson didn’t seem to care: he was winning fights, fighting “smart”, and saving brain cells for a possible future career in the military.
Last night, he saw the (somewhat hidden) risk of a risk-averse strategy: losing. Henderson’s spell over the judges almost worked against the other Pitbull brother, but didn’t- he lost a split decision, his second in a row. It was a typical Henderson fight, one of those- he was in it to the end, but neither man could quite put their stamp on it. Like the Chandler fight before it, Henderson had gas in the tank, but never put his foot on the pedal to use it.
Whose approach was actually safer? Pico raised the risk of getting knocked out, but maxed out his reward. Henderson lowered his risk of getting finished- but also raised the risk of losing a fight. The random chance that affects fighters isn’t just what happens in the cage- what the judges see is just as unpredictable. Roll those dice enough times, and you are sure to lose. Henderson’s approach masqueraded as the safer option, and he had years of evidence to back it up, but this time, it was not. Pico’s approach seemed riskier, and he had just experienced what could go wrong- but this time, as it turns out, he made the correct call.
It is probably the case that neither fighter is fully in control of their choices. Pico wasn’t making a rational call based on an algorithmic analysis of risk and reward. His fighting style is a natural outgrowth of his personality, and as such, it would be incredibly difficult to change it. Fighting brings out what is underneath the veneer, and often those fighting instincts don’t lend themselves to adaptability. (Rory MacDonald is a rare exception to this, infinitely mold-able to fit the situation) Ben Henderson is a smart fighter, but he couldn’t bring himself to fight against ingrained habit and personality.
In this sport, that will cost you sooner or later.