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The dawning of a new year is an opportunity to reminisce and reflect upon the past one. There is much to say about 12 months during which most high-level MMA was fought in near-empty buildings with no fans, but I've always preferred to focus on the development of the martial arts themselves. Despite many fighters being distracted by the pandemic, struggling to complete full, normal training camps, and dealing with a rash of last-second cancellations and rebookings, MMA still evolved and improved. A dynamite young talent in A.J. McKee showcased a submission no one had ever seen in high-level MMA before, and not against just anyone, but an excellent grappler in Darrion Caldwell. Joaquin Buckley displayed a knockout straight out of a kung fu film, portending what we might see more of in the future as better athletes enter the sport. Israel Adesanya had one of the most technically masterful performances ever against Paulo Costa, completely shutting down Costa’s game and possibly signaling the beginning of the end for overly muscular sluggers at the championship level. Deiveson Figueiredo displayed a frightening mix of power and agility, technique and athleticism, striking and grappling that may be the hallmark of a new breed of champion.
For me, however, there was something equally memorable in 2020: a reminder that as MMA grows more complex, simplicity will always have its place; that mastering the fundamentals is the most dangerous, useful skill of all. And no one displayed that better than Marvin Vettori.
Vettori has had plenty of success in the UFC and 2020 was his best year yet, utterly dominating and neutralizing a very good striker in Karl Roberson before beating up a world-class opponent and one of the most dangerous, clever fighters at any weight, Jack Hermansson. Vettori is 4-1 in his last five UFC fights, and the lone loss was via split decision to reigning champion Adesanya. While I think the right man won, it was a very close affair where Vettori clearly won the third round. Both men have improved a lot since then, but the Italian has certainly proven himself an intriguing contender for the UFC middleweight title in 2021, whether that be a rematch against Adesanya or someone else. And yet, looking at Vettori's game, what's amazing is how straightforward it all is!
In terms of grappling, Vettori is very good, even managing to get Adesanya down and keep him there. Did he accomplish this with a gorgeous lateral drop or a cool ankle-pick? Nope, Vettori relies on the simple double-leg. He has thoroughly mastered this, with textbook technique, and plenty of strength and agility, but the move itself is one taught to any beginning wrestler. Still, when one practices and refines it enough, it becomes a weapon against virtually anyone. Additionally, Vettori is great at timing his shot when an opponent is coming forward or throwing strikes. This is a skill that doesn't come up in amateur wrestling, but is vital in MMA. Without it, an elite amateur wrestler can look surprisingly ordinary with his takedowns, while a merely decent amateur wrestler possessing it can look amazing.
Vettori's submission game doesn't feature anything exotic, but rather, a guillotine with a very tight squeeze and a rear-naked choke with little possibility of escape. His ground-and-pound is bruising and effective, with fine, old-school body to head punches, and a dangerous, powerful elbow. All of this looks ordinary enough at first glance, but it's flawless, without any mechanical faults. In terms of top control, Vettori does a good job of controlling the wrists—a basic tactic, but one that many fighters neglect.
Perhaps most impressive is how effective Vettori's striking game has been, despite its simplicity. In an era where fighters can throw every punch there is, including both hooks, the overhand from their dominant side, uppercuts from both hands, and can string together combinations to make a good pro boxer jealous, to say nothing of the kicking game, Vettori's offense mainly consists of a jab, a left cross, and a solid kick he can aim to either the leg or body. Just the basic straight punches that every beginning boxer learns in their first few months, and a decent kick. Yet again, however, he has practiced all of these to perfection. They are technical, being wonderfully straight, with little extraneous movement, and sudden, with no telegraph that they're coming. He also throws them together as combinations whenever possible. It's only a series of one-twos with the occasional kick chained to the end, but it's simply better than when other fighters do it. Recently, Vettori has added a third punch, a short right hook—he is a southpaw—which has a nice, tight arc and good rotation. That might not seem special, but many fighters, even at a ranked UFC level, throw hooks that are wide, or don't fully and properly rotate their bodies into them. Along with his good straight punches and dangerous kicks, Vettori has all he really needs.
I could go on and on about more aspects of Vettori's game, like his movement, defense, or bottom game, but I hope the point is clear. Certainly, natural ability plays a part in his effectiveness. For instance, despite being very strong and muscular, he has surprisingly fast hands. And his chin is tough, not being hurt a single time by Adesanya and weathering a great many clean connects from Hermansson, who has very solid offensive striking of his own. However, Vettori is a shining illustration of my favorite Bruce Lee quote: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Is such a basic game enough to possibly win a world title? In my opinion, yes. Vettori is still relatively young at 27 and capable of a good deal of further improvement. With such an excellent base, he can seamlessly add new skills that are in harmony with his current abilities, as he did with the short right hook. Without any significant flaws to be found in Vettori's game, and every area simple but effective, the Italian is a hard opponent for anyone, no matter how skilled.
Moreover, his approach should make for a long and fruitful career, if he stays in good shape. A fighter who relies on explosiveness or fancy, exotic techniques will often find him or herself struggling as they age and their speed and agility wane. But a fighter with solid, textbook skills can be effective for many years, since this is minimally hampered by the ravages of time.
“The Italian Dream” is a reminder for everyone that even as MMA grows more complex, mastering its basic elements will bring success.
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