MMA, Lies and Videotape

By Jordan Breen Aug 31, 2009
In his epic strategy-and-swordsmanship treatise “The Book of Five Rings,” Musashi Miyamoto writes, "You can become a master of strategy by training alone with a sword, so that you can understand the enemy's stratagems, his strength and resources, and come to appreciate how to apply strategy to beat ten thousand enemies. And you should always watch videotape."

Clearly, Nate Marquardt and Thiago Silva know the martial way.

Although I may have fabricated one of the sentences above, the point remains. No matter how you view MMA -- as pure martial arts, as sport or even as business -- these are all realms where the adage of "know thy enemy" are foundational. Yet, it's only in the very recent past that the concepts of actual strategy and planning have crept into this sport. This is why I am so ecstatic for Marquardt and Silva to have dominated Saturday night. More importantly, it's not that they won but rather how they won.

It took Marquardt just 21 seconds to completely nuke Demian Maia, as he countered an ill-conceived Maia kick with a flush right cross. Instead of tucking his head and keeping his left hand up to protect his chin, Maia's head was rigid and upright, and his left hand aimlessly drifted toward Marquardt's face. The counter was reflexive and instantaneous, because it had already become muscle memory.

"I had watched tape on him and had kind of noticed how he telegraphs when he kicks," Marquardt said at the post-fight presser. "I have a lot of counters for kicks and stuff … . It's crazy how it worked so easily."

It's not that the counter itself was special. It is that Marquardt focused on a specific technical flaw in his opponent, and the instant it appeared, he sent him flying at the canvas forehead-first. Yet for as obvious and effective as this kind of hyper-specific stratagem seems, it is a rarity in this game. Even with major money now at stake, MMA is still a sport where lines like "It's a fight" and "We'll see where it goes" are familiar phraseology.

Just a few months back, Josh Koscheck commented that he never watches his opponents before he fights them and almost seemed to brag that he had no idea what Paulo Thiago looked like. I imagine he might have liked to have at least a gander at some fight tape now. Likewise, talented middleweight Dan Miller admits to not watching his opponents beforehand, but after being completely dominated by a one-dimensional Chael Sonnen for 15 minutes, hopefully he realizes that a bit of time watching tape may have helped him find an opening for a submission against a fighter far less skilled in that department than himself.

Part of the reason these attitudes persist is that MMA is still reliant on crippling generalities. We still discuss the sport in terms of "strikers" and "grapplers" and throw out adjectives like "unorthodox" and "world-class" without much thought to individual skills and technique. However, it isn't 1999 anymore, and fighters have become generally, if not perfectly, well rounded. In 2009, these oversimplifications are lies, as fights are more often won and lost on the very specific and unique wrinkles -- both positive and negative -- in a fighter's game.

If you want a more concrete example, look at Lyoto Machida's destruction of Rashad Evans. Any strategy Evans had for Machida relied on the shallow buzzwords that had been attached to him ("karate base," "elusive," "counterfighter") rather than study of his tried-and-true tactics: the lead cross he throws to close distance, his leg kick feint to set up the body kick and the short tsuki-style punch that follows. Evans had hoped that he could simply bounce around, force Machida to strike first and counter with his hands. Instead, Machida blew his doors off with the exact same techniques he had used against all of his prior victims.

Dave Mandel/

Marquardt knows the martial way.
Evans' teammate Keith Jardine couldn't hide his deficiencies against Thiago Silva. Jardine is normally lauded as being "awkward" and "unorthodox" for doing the kinds of things that make coaches cringe. Typically, great prizefighters who are championed for their unorthodoxy are those with the fundamental mastery and reflexes to atone for it, like Machida and Anderson Silva in the cage and Ray Leonard and Roy Jones in the ring. Courtesy of film study, Silva showed why moving your back foot first to move forward and throwing mechanically poor punches without protecting yourself is nothing but a shortcut to queer street.

Throw on the tape, and it's easy to see Jardine fails at keeping his right hand up. Though Houston Alexander clobbered him with right hands, when Jardine dropped him with a left early in their fight, his right hand was literally at his waist. A left hook is what got the ball rolling on Wanderlei Silva's butchery of Jardine. "Rampage" dropped him with a left hook after Jardine had failed to protect himself with his right hand. It's all right there on video, which Silva had four months to watch.

And so Silva knew exactly how to handle business. In spite of Jardine's vaunted leg kicks, the right-handed Silva was putting considerable weight on his lead leg to set up the lead left hook, knowing a flailing Jardine would be wide open. Watch 1:23 into the bout, as Jardine looks to rush, and Silva just whiffs on a left hook. Seven seconds later, Jardine rushes him again, throwing a horrific “Mortal Kombat”-influenced uppercut, his left leg swinging out behind him, leaving just his right foot on the ground. His right hand is about four galaxies from his face. Silva easily landed his second left hook, and five seconds later, Jardine was toast.

"[I] studied Keith a lot, about the way he fights, his style. That was a combination of training and coaching," Silva told reporters at the post-fight pow-wow.

These are hardly the only recent happenings to reflect the importance of knowing your opponent inside-out. Randy Couture, who is celebrated for his meticulous fight preparation, admitted after his knockout loss to Brock Lesnar that he hadn't really considered his opponent's massive reach advantage, which led directly to the right hand that smashed him. In the polar opposite circumstance of inexperience-versus-veteranship, a complete MMA neophyte (albeit Greco-Roman world champ) in Joe Warren based his entire strategy against Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto on tape. Warren used clinch control and set up headlocks to use knees, and the far more experienced Yamamoto, notoriously slack in his preparation habits, had no way to counter what Warren had devised specifically for him.

Even fighters with a history of lacking strategy are coming around. Dan Henderson is infamous for undermining himself in fights with aimless windmilling, yet after watching Michael Bisping on tape, he noticed the Brit's fatal flaw of constantly circling to his left. Henderson spent their entire bout trying to get Bisping to move into an atomic right hand, and brutally succeeded.

The only game plan Gilbert Melendez ever used was reckless abandon until his recent rematch with Mitsuhiro Ishida, in which he punches straight, never left himself out of position to sprawl and methodically broke Ishida down. Melendez admitted after the bout it was the first time he had ever really watched tape and planned for a fight, and it led directly to the best performance of his career.

It's not even imperative you watch the tape yourself. While Fedor Emelianenko prefers not to watch fights in his spare time, his chief trainer, Vladimir Voronov, is exacting in watching fight film. Emelianenko's M-1 cohort Gegard Mousasi doesn't like watching his opponents on film -- he feels he starts to respect their skill too much -- and so he leaves the task to his training partners, who have come up with brilliant tactics for his K-1 smashing of Musashi and MMA dismantling of Renato "Babalu" Sobral.

In the ever-improving climate of modern MMA, preparedness goes far beyond the deception and empty lies of phrases like "slick jiu-jitsu," "counterstriker" or "a fight's a fight." In the “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu writes, "If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a thousand battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself. So turn on your DVD player, and always keep YouTube open."

I may have invented part of that passage, but again, it doesn't make it any less true.
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