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When Cody Garbrandt was a coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 25, he confidently proclaimed perhaps the most definitive Garbrandt-esque sentiment imaginable: “[T.J. Dillashaw] said his fight IQ is higher than mine. Don’t matter,” he said, holding up a closed fist. “The right hand is my IQ.” There is an ironic beauty that such a dumb thing could be said about intelligence.
However, that concept isn’t all that uncommon in MMA circles. Most of us remember hearing some version of “take X athlete from their sport, train them in boxing and how to sprawl for six months and you got yourself a UFC heavyweight champ.” Sure, sometimes physical talent is all it takes to win -- just ask Johnny Walker -- but rarely at the highest levels of the sport. Prove me wrong, Johnny. Garbrandt is proof of that. He’s one of the most athletically gifted fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and he has been knocked out three times in a row since becoming bantamweight champion in 2016. Though the official record states his losses were due to punches and knees, it would be more accurate to list them as “TKO (Fought Like an Idiot).” Garbrandt was right; there’s about as much cognition going on in his hand as there is in his head.
Don’t get me wrong, the fight between Garbrandt and Pedro Munhoz at UFC 235 on Saturday was awesome. It deserved “Fight of the Night” honors, and we should be appreciative that both combatants were willing to throw caution to the wind for our entertainment. Still, there is no denying that it was Garbrandt’s fight to win or lose, and he opted for the latter. No disrespect to Munhoz, who is a fine fighter in his own right, but Garbrandt is more athletic and more technically skilled. With the right game plan -- or any game plan for that matter -- it should have been a rebound back into the title picture for the former champ. Instead, he rolled the dice, went Rock-’Em-Sock-’Em Robots and wound up getting rocked and socked in the first round.
Theirs wasn’t the only bout where fight IQ was the defining difference. The co-main event showcased the same dynamic: a more skilled opponent fighting dumb and getting dominated. True, it’s hard to say either Tyron Woodley or Kamaru Usman had an athletic advantage over the other. They’re both strong, fast, powerful men. Yet coming into the fight, few questioned who had the advantage in terms of technical skill. Woodley was a Division I wrestler with solid boxing technique and some limited but effective kicks in his arsenal. Usman was a Division II wrestler with boxing that could most generously be described as “satisfactory.”
Woodley had as many finishes in five UFC title fights as Usman had in nine of his Octagon appearances combined, and they came against better competition. Din Thomas said, “I just don’t think he’s as good as Tyron in any area.” Colby Covington said Woodley would “smoke” Usman. At the pre-fight press conference, Woodley asked Usman, “What are you gonna do better than me? ... I will kick your ass in wrestling, flat out. When it comes to striking, I will knock you out, flat out. When it comes down to grappling, I will break your arm, flat out. There’s nothing you can beat me in.” While Woodley reeled off all the areas in which he believed he had an advantage, Usman repeatedly answered the first question about what he would do better than the champ: “Everything.” Both of them were right.
Woodley is almost certainly better at every individual skill than Usman, though I accept that there is some room for debating that claim. However, Usman didn’t need the individual skills because the gestalt of his fighting ability was enabled by Woodley’s mindless strategy. Usman is a pressure fighter who throws significantly more volume than Woodley, so the defending champ … reversed into the fence and let Usman play to his strengths? It sounds as sensible as it was in practice. By doing what he has always done, backing up against the cage and waiting patiently to uncork a crushing right hand, Woodley played right into what Usman does best. Woodley has superior skills and at the very least comparable physical tools, but he was blown out of the water after 25 minutes. The 50-45 scorecard was far too generous, and to be honest, so were the two 50-44 tallies. The story of the fight was simple: bad game plan vs. good game plan.
The main event, in its own way, also testified to this dynamic. Of course, fight IQ wasn’t the primary differentiating factor between Jon Jones and Anthony Smith. Jones is perhaps the most remarkable offensive combatant you could concoct in a lab. He’s a sniper at range, a wood chipper in the clinch and an avalanche from top position. Smith, on the other hand, is pretty durable, has good hands and, well, that’s about it. The skill gap is ridiculous.
Still, there are winning strategies even for sizable underdogs. Smith did not employ such a strategy. He fought conservatively and defensively, letting Jones choose his shots and dictate the terms of the fight. Whenever anyone has found success against Jones, it was when they pushed the action with a diverse and unexpected combination of attacks. When Smith did initiate offense, he was predictable and linear. It was a game plan that ensured the moral victory of making it to the final bell, but it was incompatible with winning. A better game plan may very well have resulted in getting finished, but at least it would have allowed some opportunity to shock the world.
One of the main allures of MMA is the idea that technique trumps size and strength. While that’s true, it’s not complete. Strategy allows lesser fighters, whether technically or athletically, to compete at a level above the sum of their individual abilities. More than anything, that was on display at UFC 235.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.