The Tristar Elite: GSP, Faris Zhabi, and Rory MacDonald
At some point, while watching Rory McDonald thoroughly dismantle Tyron Woodley at UFC 174 this weekend, striking at will, backing him against the cage and toying with him all cat vs. mouse, you probably thought, Jesus, just finish the guy already.
But that’s not Rory’s style. Although he’s the #2 Welterweight in the UFC, he hasn’t finished a fight since 2012. Benson Henderson is the #1 ranked Lightweight, and during his tenure in the UFC he’s logged eight decisions, one loss, and just a single finish, two weeks ago, versus Rustam Khabilov. Even GSP’s last seven fights went to the scorecards.
Welcome to the new world. These are three of the most complete fighters to ever enter the Octagon. And they’re the genetic blueprint for what’s to come: masters of both striking and grappling, adhering to highly-disciplined fight strategies.
Jon Jones, on-deck
No doubt, this is the year of the coach. Not taking away anything from Greg Jackson, or Faris Zhabi, as they’ve proved themselves year after year—but dropping Duane Ludwig into the petri dish that is Alpha Male, and witnessing that camp’s mind-blowing turnaround, capped by TJ Dillashaw’s implausible defeat of Renan Barrao—there’s no denying, a world-class coach is the new edge.
And what does a world-class coach do? He crafts disciplined fight strategy, and between rounds tells his fighters, Stick to the plan, stick to the plan, stick to the plan.
Demetrious Johnson, Jon Jones, and Jose Aldo can all finish a fight, but never at the expense of losing. Which, if you analyze the sport from an objective, rational position, is the only correct strategy.
Now I don't think that's a problem, but if you’re unhappy with the lack of finishes, there’s really just one solution—change the scoring criteria. There’s a revered business essay that most first year MBA students digest, called, On The Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B. In short: if you want A, reward A. If you want B, reward B. But don’t whine about getting B, when the criteria rewards B.
Rory MacDonald, training
So, yeah, now we’re back to the judging. Which rewards technical striking and damage evasion. Which is about how you’d judge a street fight. Submissions and KOs are gravy, but the real question is, Did you dish out more than you took?
No one can deny the excitement of the Gilbert Melendez vs Diego Sanchez fight last year, just as you can’t deny that Gilbert succumbed to the moment. I was cage-side. Knuckles white as Gilbert dropped his highly-technical strategy and stood flat-footed, trading blow after blow with Diego. The crowd screaming on its feet. Then Gilbert ate a hook, dropped and nearly lost a fight that was his from the get. You can only imagine how long such a loss would’ve haunted him. Never, ever should’ve happened.
Let’s not forget, this is Mixed Martial Arts. And one of the foremost tenets of any martial art is discipline. Ignore all distractions, and in the mayhem of battle, revert to your rigorous training. As per Bushido philosophy: 無心の心, or mind without mind.
Jose Aldo and his coach, Andre Pederneiras
Myles Jury learned from Gilbert’s mistake, and in his fight with Diego he stuck to the plan crafted at Alliance MMA—home to other highly-technical fighters, Alexander Gustafson and Dominic Cruz—and as a result, he netted his fourteenth straight win. As in, 14-0. That’s how you earn a title shot. That’s how fans forget your less flashy fights.
As I stated above, I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, we’re just watching the natural evolution of the sport: small increments, equating to nuances that casual viewers just don’t appreciate it. Hence, sport jiu jitsu tournaments. And surfing comps. And skateboard contests. And just about every other sport governed by a set of rules. Which the smartest competitors learn to game.
So I say fuck the finishes. There’s undeniable beauty in watching a high-level MMA fighter stand before a vicious opponent and Matrix-like dodge every coming blow. And when two high-level fighters, both employing high-level fight strategies, meet, well, that’s when we get our insanely technical and exciting bouts, ala Jones vs Gustafsson, and Dillashaw vs Barao. So wait we must. At least until more coaches achieve this new standard.
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