Mentality is a tricky subject when it comes to becoming an elite fighter.
Stepping into the cage against similarly prepared and skilled athletes a couple dozen times is not for the faint of heart. There’s a very realistic chance of getting pummeled each time. Long term affects on health are a near guarantee, and every training camp comes with a risk of shredding a knee or bulging a disk.
Committing to that path requires a certain level of delusion. A confidence that despite all the horror stories of brain damage and destitute former fighters — and that even the lucky ones end up as firemen or real estate agents — this fighter will be the one who successfully makes the climb.
Delusion can allow a fighter to overcome tremendous obstacles, whether in the grand scheme of his career or moment-to-moment in fight.
The best fighters also have at least a touch of self-awareness too, as one cannot improve upon their flaws without recognizing them. These two traits are inherently contradictory: how can a fighter believe himself the best in the world while acknowledging all the areas that also need improvement?
Somehow, fighters that ascend the ranks manage that balance. Tyron Woodley managed that balance for years, putting together an incredible win streak to capture and defend the Welterweight title.
On the way up, a couple fighters exposed some flaws in Woodley’s approach, his long-standing habit of putting his back to the fence as his volume dropped off. Rory MacDonald punished him with a sharp jab, keeping him in that low output zone. Jake Shields accomplished the same thing with zero effective offense, merely throwing himself into the clinch repeatedly.
After those losses, Woodley adjusted, proving his self-awareness. He was unable to completely remove himself from the fence or miraculously increase his volume, but Woodley grew trickier with his offensive flurries. He relied less on takedowns and more on the threat of offense to slow opponents and convince them to fight at his pace.
Woodley made himself as efficient as possible ... and it worked.
Until he met Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns. Both fighters steadily walked into the pocket and blocked tight when Woodley swung wide. Their approaches differed from there: Usman punched into the clinch, whereas Burns just punched ... ferociously, while kicking anything available, too.
After the Usman loss, Woodley had to know it was time for another change. He didn’t just move camps, he moved countries! He shipped off to Thailand and undoubtedly worked his ass off with new coaches. Woodley looked noticeably leaner — he took every step possible to improve up on his flaws.
It just didn’t really work.
Woodley was a bit more active than he was against Usman. He threw to the body more often. But, he simply couldn’t break the habit of backing into the fence — which is just terrible position for kickboxing — and Burns was well-prepared to make him pay for it. Over and over, Woodley started with quick movements before slowly sliding into his comfort zone. Even in the fifth, Woodley wasted precious time hanging out in the clinch.
He couldn’t help it.
It’s a conundrum of mixed martial arts (MMA). Even while fully aware of what needs to be done, what needs to change, flaws are rarely fixed. Once a blueprint is revealed and other fighters take notice of this path to victory, it is almost always permanently devastating to that fighter’s career and his ability to win future fights.
Woodley is the latest to find himself in such a miserable situation.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 9: “Woodley vs. Burns” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.