A punchers chance is a lot more than you think (and other rambling thoughts on UFC 239 and MMA strikers)

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Imagine for a second that you are arguably the greatest MMA fighter to have ever been born (at least according to an MMA fan base and media community that tends to be more concerned with consuming the sport rather than learning the art). You’ve been convinced that you pioneered creative ground and pound – that most quintessential component of MMA striking, beyond the obvious standup craziness.

Imagine, if you can, that you are about to go up against a man, with admittedly shorter reach and height than your freakish genetic gifts, but nonetheless a man who seems to have power and fearlessness in equal measure when fighting in a cage. Plus he’s actually seen violence and pain in his life that you couldn’t even imagine. It’s a dangerous fight against a dangerous striker – albeit a fight in which you’re the overwhelming favorite – but a dangerous fight against a dangerous striker nonetheless.

Now imagine you are warming up for your title defense in the locker rooms fitted with large screens broadcasting the fights before your main event. Like all fighters, you’re warming up and getting rid of butterflies (or flying them in formation? Is that what it is?)…all while watching colleagues duke it out on live TV.

You’re probably hitting mitts or whatever, maybe shadow boxing to stay loose and warm. Coaches and cornermen trying to figure out what they think is the physical and mental zone you need to be in. The “people’s main event” is about to start. Then there’s the co-main where you’re good buddy and durable former champion is likely to take the defending women’s bantamweight queen through a five-round war.

You’ve likely got plenty of time, you tell yourself.

All of a sudden, a street-fighting genius nicknamed “Gamebred” decides to dial his adrenalin to somewhere between Madman and Rabid before imposing a vicious flying knee upon one of the greatest MMA wrestlers of all-time (and silver-tongued betting favorite for their fight to boot)…to end up with what?

A 5 fucking second KO victory.

The shortest in the UFC’s short, megalomaniacal, over-compensating history with profit and bloodlust at its core.

A victory that halted the breath and dropped the jaw of every fight fan watching. And that’s not even being hyperbolic or anything.

A sprinting, blasting flying knee as a trash-talking, undefeated, scholastic scholar-wrestler telegraphed a takedown attempt one second into his fight.

Forget the roaring crowds or the scarcely believable shock.

Why the fuck would you care?

You’re fighting far sooner than you thought for starters.

Gotta get your head back in the game after that shock knockout. Still plenty of time before they get Holly out for her fight. And there’s no way that ends in the first round. Amanda might still eke out a decision win, but she’s a boxer right? She’s not yet got that full blown, 8-limb, scrambling, parrying, moving, MMA striking that I have? Amirite?

But now at the back of your head is that flying knee and the knowledge that the only thing standing between you and the proper build up you probably envisioned is your training partner whose challenging the greatest female MMA fighter of all time for one of her titles.

Freeze this speculative moment and think about this now.

And really it’s only those who have been punched, kicked, elbowed, or kneed in the face at some point in time in their lives who might be able to contemplate this question in its entirety.

How hesitant are you going to be about shooting for a takedown?

Against a beast of a man with mad striking power and zero fucks given for your legacy?

When the elite-level-wrestling, betting favorite two fights prior to yours gets knocked the FUCK out by an instinctively brilliant, concussion-inducing move probably only possible in this glorious sport that you see yourself reigning over – childish lion emojis and everything?

Not to mention the fact that, holy shit, the greatest female fighter of all time just knocked your gym mate out with yet another blitz, in the first round, while you’re still warming up?

Only this time with a mad kicking game added to her boxing arsenal?

You gotta hurry up and fight.

You’re likely gonna take the safe way out and try to eke out a decision in a standup battle of wits.

(Probably banking on your history and aura a bit too much for it to be deemed truly honorable).

***end speculative imagination***

MMA striking is different than traditional boxing, kickboxing, TKD, Kyokushin Karate, or Muay Thai…though Muay Thai may come closest to providing a great striking skillset for MMA. I also think some fringe Southeast Asian sports akin to Lethwei or Muay Boran might be even better for MMA than the killer sport that is Muay Thai.

But no matter what we compare it to, and no matter how much coaches and pundits who have deep backgrounds in other striking sports might say that their chosen striking sport is the best, the fact is that MMA striking is in a league and specialty of its own, just like all other striking sports are as well.

MMA is its own fucking combat sport.

In my previous post where I gazed into the crystal ball to predict fights, I said this about MMA striking (minus the italics and bolding)…

“Usually when great MMA strikers are matched against great MMA grapplers, the grapplers have simpler paths to victory, based on grinding your opponent down to the point of tiredness and then getting a submission, TKO, or decision victory (Askren of course incorporates a lot more scrambling than just muscular grinding). Strikers on the other hand usually emerge victorious when they can match volume and power with great defensive wrestling, a slightly more complicated skill combination to master. Grappling cardio also holds up better than striking cardio in the later rounds. In the early years of MMA as a sport, the grapplers ran roughshod through the strikers for this main reason. Over the last decade or so however, one can see the tables turning. That skill combination I mentioned above is now integrated early on into training because people are starting to train from the get-go in MMA (which ultimately at its core, is a striking sport with some grappling, as opposed to the other way around – something grapplers in the early years tried). Indeed, I’d say we’re entering a new era of MMA strikers dominating the sport.”

That was from the heart, especially the last sentence. I still thought the grappling gas tank was going to beat the mercurial striker.  I actually really like both Masvidal and Askren. But from a fighting standpoint, I still thought the grappling gas tank was going to beat the mercurial striking artiste. The simplicity of the grappling path to victory held sway in the early years, and this weighted history to the sport affected my prediction. As the sport has evolved, creative MMA striking is now beginning to hold sway. (There’s a reason why I think Tony beats Khabib more often than not.)

Now, I came up 1-2 with my predictions for the three big fights of UFC 239. I predicted Santos, Nunes, and Askren to come out on top over Jones, Holm, and Masvidal. I was going with the betting favorites in Nunes and Askren, while hoping against hope with Santos. In the end, Jones eked out a very lucky split decision win against a fearless, one-kneed Santos – a decision I obviously disagree with; Nunes out-struck Holm to take a scintillating first round victory while retaining her bantamweight belt;

And of course, “Funky” got obliterated in the ultimate, awe-inducing, flash KO by “Gamebred”.

I’m still glad my prediction for that fight went so awry.

Like I said, my heart went with the striker but my head went with the grappler.

But I’m glad that my head needs to catch up with my heart this one time rather than it always being the other way round.

You see, like so many other athletes who possessed average physical gifts but nonetheless competed hard when they got the chance, I’ve only ever stood a puncher’s chance.

In MMA (and perhaps life) I now understand that’s a lot more than one might think.

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