The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part I

By Eric Stinton Mar 31, 2020

I imagine most of us are filling the current MMA void in the same ways: watching fights you missed or can’t remember or revisiting old favorites, possibly with someone who has never seen them before. The more hardcore fans among us—either in their degree of fandom or boredom—are re-watching entire events and reveling in the forgotten moments of commentary and between-fight banter.

Although I have greatly enjoyed going through the careers of Nick Diaz and Mirko Filipovic one fight at a time with my wife, many of my longtime favorite performances have struck me for different reasons than they initially did. When I was a younger, greener fan, I was still learning why I was so drawn to fighting and had a very limited grasp of what was even happening in the cage or ring. Now, after 18 years as a fan of MMA and nearly six years of covering it, I have a much greater appreciation for what I’m watching.

Still, I wouldn’t call myself an analyst. I’m not completely ignorant. I know enough to know my limitations, which is also enough to know who knows what they’re talking about, so I reached out to one of those people: Ed Gallo, analyst for Bloody Elbow and The Fight Site. His knowledge and ability to articulate technical nuances, especially when it comes to wrestling, is illuminating.

Watching fights attentively and critically and not simply for entertainment is its own fun, and now is as good a time as ever to become more fluent in fight analysis. Here is the first part of a conversation I had with Gallo about how to watch fights like an analyst.

Stinton: What are the first things you look at when you’re breaking down an individual fighter’s skill set? How, if at all, does that change when you’re breaking down a fight?

Gallo: It definitely varies depending on what my goals are, but in general, I break things into “big picture” and more specific questions. The big picture is usually, “How does this person win fights? What are they good at? What are they trying to do?” It’s simple, but you’ll be surprised how often you realize a fighter doesn’t actually provide solid answers. At the same time, I’m making observations about “technique” and physical factors. What kind of athlete are they? What are their physical strengths and limitations from what I see? In terms of technique, that’s pretty broad. Often, it means I’m nitpicking their mechanics and understanding of a specific maneuver or understanding of an art or concept. There’s a ton to unpack, and in MMA, I’d say more often than not I’m searching for things they do well rather than trying to find holes. The whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, but that really depends on whether they have a game and if their tools and attributes are lined up in some cohesive sense to make that game work.

Once I have this data—which you can never really be rock-solid on until you’ve seen most of a fighter’s career to that point—I can start to make a read on a matchup, assuming I have a comparable amount of data on the other fighter. Basically, I’m looking at the success or obstacles each might find in pursuing their typical goals, as well as which of their goals they might prioritize with consideration for their opponent. That’s the tough part. You never really know how someone is going to approach a fight. In the leadup to Israel Adesanya-Yoel Romero, for example, I laid out a couple of different game plans we’ve seen from Romero in the past and how they might work with Izzy’s fairly consistent game, and somewhere in that breakdown, there’s a relatively accurate depiction of the fight.

Stinton: “Styles make fights” is a truism in combat sports, but a lot of the time, that notion becomes a simple binary: grappler vs. striker, pressure fighter vs. counter striker, etc. What are the next, more nuanced steps when analyzing a fight with two very different fight styles?

That binary you’re referring to is definitely reductive and frustrating, especially because you still hear it from the most visible professionals in our industry. There are so many factors worth considering going into a matchup. However, that’s when we can assume overall skill competency is at a good place for both fighters. That’s not always the case. Some fighters have such obvious gaps that the following becomes a safe bet: “Oh, they’re fighting a durable wrestler whose striking isn’t atrocious. This guy is doomed.” Even then, I still added a couple of qualifiers; it wasn’t just “a wrestler.”

Stinton: Putting aside technique and athleticism, what other factors—layoff, age, etc.—matter, and what factors tend to not matter as much?

I definitely pay attention to those sorts of things but generally avoid making any confident predictions in fights with looming “X factors” of that sort.

A good example is Jose Aldo’s drop to bantamweight. His physical decline from Chad Mendes to Jeremy Stephens, Renato Carneiro and Alexander Volkanovski was noticeable, but I wouldn’t say it was dramatic or career-ending by any means. While clearly he’s not physically the man he once was, he was still a great fighter capable of dealing with the majority of the division. Knowing his cuts to featherweight had always been tough, dropping to bantamweight near the end of his career seemed to be a horribly disastrous move. Most of the people I discuss fights with were just hoping he wouldn’t make weight. We didn’t want to see what was left of him after the cut.

On one hand, his bantamweight debut was a relief. He definitely looked worse than he ever had as a fighter, but his gas tank wasn’t the worst we’d seen it, and his chin was holding up. His reaction time had slowed and his legs seemed to betray him here and there. Those are the signs that a fighter may be approaching “shot.”

More than layoffs, injuries, weight cuts or anything like that, myself and the analysts I trust look out for whether or not a fighter is shot. In MMA, it’s been extremely consistent: Once a fighter crosses that threshold, they look worse every time out thereafter. This isn’t to say that anyone has a clear read on when exactly becoming shot happens. We’ve been wrong plenty of times. It’s become a meme at this point that every time someone we like takes an unexpected loss, they’re shot. It’s not something we can perceive with a high degree of accuracy, but it’s something I always keep an eye out for. If there’s sufficient evidence, I more or less give up on believing that they’re going to win any more fights at a high level.

Stinton: How important is it to look at a fighter’s mind state, and how do you do that in an informed way?

Personally, I don’t really listen to interviews or seek out that kind of information. I was a pretty hardcore MMA fan for over eight years before I started getting serious about analysis, and my attempts at reading fights and narratives through non-fighting content never did me any good. It’s just noise, more often than not. Sure, I bet you could go back before any given performance and find clues, but I doubt there’s anyone who can consistently and accurately isolate those things beforehand. I do make exceptions, though. I heard an interview with Calvin Kattar a few months after his fight with Carneiro where he seemed dismissive of the Brazilian’s low kick-heavy strategy against him. It didn’t give me confidence that he was taking accountability for what went wrong, and in the future, in similar matchups, I wouldn’t hedge on him having made improvements in that regard.

My absolute favorite pre-fight “mindset” read happened on “The Ultimate Fighter” between T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt. They played balance beam tetherball suspended over water. Garbrandt got out to a big lead early, while T.J. was a mess and kept falling over. When asked about his strategy, Garbrandt said, “Don’t chase the ball.” It exactly mirrored his winning game plan against Dominick Cruz. Right away, you could see how mindsets and styles transfer across competitive spheres. Over time, T.J. adjusted and began to make a comeback. To describe his progress, T.J. said, “It’s all about the distance.” He wasn’t reaching for the ball and was more patient about taking his swings when he was in good position. As T.J. caught up, Garbrandt began to lose focus, and after falling off the platform and getting his hair wet, he completely fell apart. He made more and more mistakes, and T.J. completed a massive comeback to win the challenge and $10,000 for his team. Right in that moment, my confidence in T.J. shot through the roof. Garbrandt broke mentally in a game of tetherball. After the fight, I realized that the strategic elements of the fight were mirrored in this game, as well. I think this has to be the greatest example of all-time of how pre-fight intel can provide useful reads. Like I said, though, it’s not something I seek out.

How useful are stats when it comes to analyzing fights or fighters?

I honestly never look at stats and don’t find them useful at all. My bias has only become stronger over time. When I find myself in arguments or disagreements about a fighter or matchup, I usually see bad takes backed up by statistics. Until every fighter in every division fights the others, I don’t think we’ll ever have a reliable data pool. They just lack context and reliability.

Part 2 of our conversation will discuss common misconceptions in fight analysis, why skill levels vary across weight classes and more.
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