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Ideas become cliché for the simple reason that they are, in essence, obvious, so while phrases like “you either win or you learn” or “it’s only a loss if you don’t learn anything” are rightfully met with yawning indifference, they are still basically true. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, whether in the cage or the cubicle. What matters is not avoiding those failures but squeezing them for whatever nuggets of wisdom we can get out of them.
At UFC 240 in Edmonton, Alberta, on Saturday, Cris Cyborg and Max Holloway demonstrated what they learned from their previous fights: A little bit of patience can go a long way.
The parallels between the two are easy to see. Before their last fights against Dustin Poirier and Amanda Nunes, they were both dominant champions riding record-setting double-digit winning streaks. They were also the betting favorites against Poirier and Nunes -- and comfortably so. Then, of course, they both suffered difficult and potentially career-derailing losses. “Cyborg” engaged in a firefight with Nunes and was on the ground in less than a minute, and while Holloway went the distance with “The Diamond,” Poirier’s power was the key difference on the scorecards. Holloway and Justino at UFC 240 were given opponents who were viewed as favorable matchups but were by no means easy wins. Felicia Spencer and Frankie Edgar were tough, legitimate tests; any slip-ups or misfires from Justino or Holloway would have likely been exploited in ways that would have fundamentally altered the outcomes of the fights. However, they fought perfect fights, with almost identical strategies. This, too, was no coincidence.
“Cyborg” learned from the Nunes loss that she can no longer rely on her power and physicality to win exchanges, which is to say she learned that other women can take her shots and that she can’t always take theirs. This sounds like a fundamental concept in combat sports -- hit without getting hit -- but you can’t blame Justino for needing a refresher. After 13 years and 21 fights of unopposed dominance, it’s hard not to believe in your own invincibility. Yet the lessons learned from Nunes were evident in Justino’s game plan against Spencer. She was more patient, more willing to wait for the right shots to present themselves. When they did, she was still the same vicious tactician she has always been, but she harnessed and unleashed her aggression much more effectively. Seeing how Spencer ate big shots and kept her head in the fight for all 15 minutes, who knows how the pre-Nunes “Cyborg” would have done against the same opponent. Spencer, despite her toughness, was simply outgunned and outsmarted by a “Cyborg” who grew from a devastating loss.
As for Holloway, he was also too willing to engage in the pocket with Poirier. Though he landed 28 more strikes throughout the fight, the power difference was visible on his face. After 13 straight fights in which his opponents inexorably wilted under his pace and volume, it was odd to see Poirier withstand Holloway’s onslaught and continue to land the heavier shots. Lesson learned. Against Edgar, Holloway never overextended himself, and even though “The Answer” doesn’t possess power anywhere near Poirier, Holloway never put himself in a position where he needed his chin to win the exchange. He didn’t fight safe so much as he simply fought smart, playing to his strengths without giving Edgar any openings. Had Holloway fought like that against Poirier, he could very well have become the interim lightweight champion. The next best thing to knowing something yesterday, however, is knowing it today and putting it into action.
Despite the obvious reasons for Justino and Holloway’s more patient approaches, a similar criticism of both arose in the aftermath of their wins, that they were fighting overmatched opponents who posed no one-punch threat, so at some point they should have started pouring it on for the finish. This dismisses the toughness of Spencer and Edgar -- Spencer has never been finished and Edgar has been stopped only once -- but it also completely misses the point of their strategies. In the post-fight press conference, Justino talked about how Spencer’s toughness helped her focus on working a patient game plan. Holloway was even more explicit: “I wanted to prove a point and go five rounds with him.” There was little to be gained by doggedly pursuing the finish against tough opponents and, conversely, a lot to be gained by doing the opposite.
Losses are the best teachers, but their tutelage is not without pressure. Lesser fighters could have taken the wrong lessons from the kinds of losses “Cyborg” and Holloway suffered in their previous bouts. Lesser fighters would have hurried for a dynamic finish and in doing so would have made themselves more vulnerable to additional losses and, perhaps more importantly, ignorant to the wisdom buried in their failures. Not Justino, though, and not Holloway. They proved their intelligence and humility by squeezing their losses for all they were worth and applying them in a way that made tough challenges look easy. They proved that these losses and any other losses they will undoubtedly suffer in the future will neither dictate their legacy nor compromise their character.
Eric is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.