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

By Eric Stinton Apr 8, 2020

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 249 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

In the absence of new fights happening, now is as good a time as ever to not only watch old fights but watch them with a focus on understanding what is really going on and why. A deeper understanding provides new layers of the sport to enjoy, so I called on Ed Gallo, a sharp and thoughtful analyst for Bloody Elbow and The Fight Site, to help explain ways to improve our analytical eye.

In our first installment, we talked about what is important to look for in fight analysis and what doesn’t matter, how to spot stylistic nuances and the role of a fighter’s mindset when it comes to analyzing their game. We now finish our discussion by going over common misconceptions, whether or not you have to train in martial arts in order to analyze them and more.

Stinton: What aspects of fighting do you think are commonly overstated in analysis, and what are some things that deserve more attention?

Gallo: I’ll qualify this answer first by saying that there are a dozen good analysts who I trust and respect, and they’re pretty much exclusively writers, not commentators or anchors. Most of the analytical misinformation in MMA comes from the UFC’s personalities. Joe Rogan still holds the most influence in that sphere I’d say, with Daniel Cormier and Dominick Cruz catching up.

In terms of analytical commentary, both “DC” and Cruz really shine when they get to break down the mechanical intricacies of wrestling positions. Otherwise, they seem to project their own unique philosophies about fighting and striking, and these ideas really don’t apply to most fighters very often. Both are functionalists; it’s that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” idea from before. Just because they’re both successful fighters does not mean that their breakdowns of individual situations or domains hold water. Case-by-case, more often than not, they don’t.

That’s live, so I cut them a ton of slack for things they say on commentary. It’s a really tough job, but then we see the “Detail” series by Cormier. It’s really frustrating. The analysis in the series is really just describing what happens in a very literal sense, so it’s largely lacking insight or the context of why. I don’t know if this is on purpose or not. Truthfully, it takes more time and additional education in terms and concepts to get those real ideas across, and that kind of analysis might not fit into their vision for this product. In short, the “what” is overstated, while the “why” and “how” should be the true stars.

Stinton: What are some of the most common and/or most annoying misconceptions about fight analysis that you’ve encountered?

Gallo: MMA is crawling with horrible, pervasive takes about pretty much everything. Bad reads on specific fighters, bad reads on entire martial arts, bad reads on past fights, you name it. The biggest problem is that they all feed into each other in a sense.

Take Chad Mendes as an example. At his height (UFC 179), his combination of skill and athleticism made him one of the best fighters to ever exist. Both his defense and offense were layered, and he could minimize and counter Jose Aldo’s best attacks while finding spots of his own against likely the greatest defensive fighter in MMA history. Right there in that sentence I’m sure I’d draw a lot of disagreement. “How is Aldo the greatest defensive fighter in MMA history? He gets hit more than X.” It’s that kind of reductive reasoning that makes it really hard to nudge people out of their collective camps. It’s stats without context again. Mendes loses, therefore he’s not that good. Then Aldo loses, so he’s not that great. Never mind what actually took place in those fights and what we saw from those fighters. It’s the green and red on their record that counts.

Jon Jones is the easy choice for most as the greatest fighter of all-time. You look at his record. It’s largely spotless, and the names all have “former champion” and such attached to them. Seems like a bulletproof argument, as long as you’re moving forward on the premise that all divisions are created equally and that being the light heavyweight champion on its face means you’re a better fighter than Mendes, who did not hold a belt. If you can’t convince someone to start from the ground up in terms of how they evaluate fighters, it’s a pointless argument to have.

There’s definitely a trend where as you get closer to the 145- to 155-pound territory, overall fighter quality increases. That’s a dangerous trap, especially because smaller fighters moving faster and doing more can instantly look better than larger fighters. You have to be able to isolate specific things that can translate across divisions if you want to be fair in your evaluation. If you want to factor in athleticism, which you should, it’s athleticism relative to their size. Skill, however, does not have to be scaled. There is nothing stopping a heavyweight from jabbing the body or pivoting or fine-tuning mechanics. It’s really a symptom of population distribution. There are simply more people available at those middle-lower weights, so the competition is inherently steeper and there is a need for them to be better. Add in that the better athletes at heavier weights have higher access to other professional sports, and the talent pool is understandably thin.

I think a lot of people would accept these notions, but it’s how we interpret them that bugs me. Many people will accept that skill disparity, then turn around and say, “Yes, but X heavy fighter would be better if they were a bantamweight, so you can just assume that and give them the benefit of the doubt.” What kind of insane logic is that? It’s presuming that being large is an unbreakable handicap that prevents large fighters from being good. It’s so easy to bust this myth. We have other combat sports with heavy weight classes to choose from where the athletes are very obviously on a similar level.

Ask the top analysts in amateur wrestling or boxing, and they’ll tell you that skill gap is nowhere close to what it is in MMA. The sports have been around longer, the meta is more developed, the training is more developed and the pipeline of talent is more established. There are still less people and the gaps are still there, but it’s much less stark. That is just one of many topics I find myself frustrated by on a daily basis. Most fans engage in circular logic that supports opinions that were programmed by the UFC public relations department. It’s largely not based in reality.

Stinton: How important is it to be an active practitioner—of either MMA or one of its component parts—in order to be a good analyst?

Gallo: If you want to be a good analyst, being an active practitioner is a huge head start. At the very least, you’re going to have an easier time explaining things because you’re familiar with terminology and overall concepts. Beyond that, maybe you have a mechanical understanding of how things work. What’s rarer is that you get the meta and can get to those “why” and “how” questions. I’d say it’s important to have that experience, but it’s not mandatory. Either way, you’re going to have to engage in a lot of in-depth study of the material you plan on analyzing. I’ve been on my current martial arts journey for about 10 years and had exposure from a young age besides that, but I still consistently ask for help and consult other breakdowns to be a better analyst.

Stinton: Hypothetically speaking, if two fighters are essentially the same in terms of their well-roundedness, technical competence and athletic abilities, what would you say is the X-factor that sets one apart from the other?

Gallo: I’m imagining two “create-a-character” fighters with all of their stats maxed out and with the same exact moves.

There are two ways you could think about it. (1) Does the operator understand how to apply and set up those tools? Does technical competence mean they can throw or execute any maneuver, or does it mean they also get how to swarm, pressure, feint, evade, lay traps, counter and exploit? If it’s the former definition, then I would say those latter concepts would set them apart. (2) Let’s say technical competence means they get all of that. Then, it’s all about game. What is your big-picture idea on how you’re going to use your weapons and take away your opponent’s weapons?

Stinton: If someone wants to become a better casual analyst, what are the first three things you’d recommend they do?

Gallo: I hope everyone wants to become a better analyst, even if just casually. It’s made the sport much more enjoyable for me, and I’ve had so much fun engaging the niche community within our niche community.

If I had to boil it down to three things … (1) Watch critically. If something worked, ask yourself why, look at it again and put it in context with the other events of the fight. If something didn’t work, ask those same questions. I can honestly say that just putting myself in a critical mindset was the first and most important step, and the journey toward analysis started quickly thereafter. (2) Connect with others who are doing the same. Compare notes, have larger discussions about concepts and specifics and test your ideas. (3) Write, create and practice. While thinking critically was what helped me become an analyst, pure repetition has been the key to becoming a “good” analyst, if I am one. Just put in the reps, share your work, receive feedback and repeat—over and over. In my time at MMASucka, I wrote over 100 articles in under two years, most of them analysis. I improved quickly. You will, too.

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