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My friend and I used to cruise at his grandparents’ house as teenagers. Mostly, it had a secluded garden next to a canal, making it an ideal place for smoking, drinking and hanging out. It also had his grandpa, though, the chairman of the physical sciences department at the university and a PhD in chemistry from Harvard University.
Although I only understood a fraction of what he told us -- I would ask him ridiculous questions about who would win in a battle between quicksand and a black hole and he would answer with deep, legitimate knowledge on both -- I will never forget the jokes he told. They weren’t funny, so much as eye-opening. Apparently, in the world of academia, the equivalent of “dumb blonde jokes” was “dumb social scientist jokes.” They started with something along the lines of “a physicist, a mathematician and an economist/psychologist/sociologist walk into a bar …” and end, invariably, with the punchline pointing out the stupidity of the social sciences.
The jokes were more goofy than mean, but the point still stood. Math, physics and chemistry, it was explained, are the real sciences, the math-based sciences. They were precise and concrete compared to the softness of the social sciences.
This type of thinking applies to fight analysis, too. There’s a tendency to view statistics as flatly superior analytical tools, especially compared to psychological assessment. One is observable and measurable and concrete, while the other is purely speculative; we can see what a fighter has done in the cage, but we can’t actually know what’s going on in his or her head. Good fight analysts will include both to varying degrees, but usually the latter is a footnote that qualifies the former in some way.
It’s true that statistics are superior, if only in a self-reinforcing way. If absolute measurability is your sole rubric for analysis, then obviously the more measurable thing is better. However, if you change the frame of analysis, from measurement to something broader like accounting or documentation, then a different picture emerges.
With the return of Ronda Rousey announced, there have basically been two narratives. On the one hand, we have the very real, factual evidence of her three-year, eight-fight reign as the most dominant female in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. On the other hand, there is the equally real yet unknowable state of mind she has been in since losing to Holly Holm at UFC 193 in November.
If we look purely at the stats for the UFC 207 matchup between Rousey and current women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, then we get one idea of how the fight will happen. Nunes is an aggressive, high-volume striker with ferocious power and athleticism to boot. The same could be said of Rousey, only with devastating submissions instead of striking power. In a vacuum, the fight could be dissected in a number of ways, but this fight is not taking place in a vacuum.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the mindset required to compete at a high level. It’s harder still to appreciate how difficult it can be to recover from a huge loss. Since losing to Holm, we’ve seen very little of Rousey, and what we have seen has not been reassuring. She publically opened up about having suicidal thoughts post-UFC 193 -- which is courageous but it does not evoke confidence in her mental state -- and had some hilariously bad training footage surface; that’s about it. This is to say nothing of the fact that she is still inexplicably training with Edmond Tarverdyan, the consensus worst high-level coach in the game. She did have some injuries that kept her sidelined for a bit, but much of the layoff has been self-imposed. This is not a normal way for professional fighters to cope with a loss.
We’ve seen psychological aspects manifest in different ways for a great deal of other fighters, too. The likes of Vitor Belfort, Alistair Overeem and Anthony Johnson are all prototypical frontrunners, fighters who are scary good when they are in control of a fight but quickly wilt once the tide starts to turn. Just recently, we watched Michael Bisping, coming off a dominant win against a much better opponent in Luke Rockhold, struggle against a plodding Dan Henderson. With all respect to “Hendo,” it should not have been as competitive as it was, but in the post-fight interview, Bisping himself admitted how hard it was to psychologically get over their first fight, where Henderson knocked him senseless. That was seven years prior to the rematch, and its residue still lingered.
The fact is you can’t separate the fighter in the cage from the person outside of it. As easy as it is to see them as robotic professionals and two-dimensional characters on a screen, fighters are subject to heightened stressors and levels of pressure that few people can truly comprehend. It’s easy for me to say that I’d gladly get my head kicked off my shoulders on pay-per-view for a seven-figure payday, but that’s why I’ll never be in that position in the first place. The determination and grit and consistency to become not only a professional fighter but the best fighter -- which Rousey was for six years and still possibly could be -- is inaccessible for the average person. Though Rousey is definitely not average, she is still governed by the same limits the rest of us are. We all have breaking points.
This is not a call for everyone to sympathize with Rousey. Criticize away; it comes with the territory of fame. This is for documentation purposes, something to put away for now but revisit when she comes back against Nunes. If she loses, it will be all the more understandable, on both a technical and professional level. Besides, Nunes is a beast in her own right and could very well knock off Rousey’s block in a psychological vacuum. If Rousey wins, however, it will be that much more extraordinary.
There is an immediate practicality of statistics, and by no means am I saying they should take a backseat to armchair psychology. However, if precision is the ultimate aim, then perhaps it’s best to not limit our view of a fight and instead account for whatever else might affect it. After all, a wider lens allows us to see more of the landscape. If a mathematician, a physicist and a psychologist walk into a bar to watch UFC 207 together, they would all see things differently, and that doesn’t mean any of them would be incorrect. That’s just the chaotic beauty of the fight game.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.