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

By Eric Stinton Apr 29, 2020

Although it looks like fresh MMA will be back in our lives sooner than later, its ongoing absence continues to be an opportunity to look at this sport in a new way. Just as the fighters we watch are charged to add new wrinkles to their skill sets throughout their careers, we can similarly benefit from adding new wrinkles to our fandom, even if you’re a longtime fan. As game planning, strategy and technical craft continue to evolve with each new generation of fighters, it’s a tough yet enjoyable task to try and keep up.

A few weeks ago, I talked to analyst Ed Gallo to get his take on how to watch fights with an analytical eye (Part 1 | Part 2). Since Gallo’s wheelhouse is grappling, for these next installments, I talked to Phil Mackenzie and Connor Ruebusch, analysts for Bloody Elbow, face-punch aficionados and hosts of the excellent Heavy Hands podcast.

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?

Mackenzie: Go in there pretty open when you’re seeing someone for the first time. Feel free to trust your gut. Get a feel for the real basic things like size, comparative strength, aggression and toughness. Try and get a feel for their personality. Then start filtering it into style archetypes: grappler, striker, pressure fighter, outfighter, etc. For a given fight, the question really involves how the contextual weaknesses and strengths of this fighter play against the strengths and weaknesses of his or her opponent. To figure that out, you can try to find analogues of the opponent in the fighter’s past. How well has this person done against range kickers, pressure grapplers, etc.? If that breaks down, you can attempt to find analogues of both fighters. Sometimes you can come up with analogues that are weird but strangely informative. I realized, for example, that Eddie Alvarez was going to get absolutely smoked by Conor McGregor because he had, in the past, repeatedly struggled to close distance on Katsunori Kikuno.

Ruebusch: Before even getting into the skill set, I try to get a grasp of a fighter’s style and character with broad strokes. Do they like to move forward or backward? How comfortable are they in exchanges? How do they respond to adversity? This leads to a more nuanced understanding of the skill set. For example, based on any random sequence of techniques, we could say that Rose Namajunas is an excellent counterpuncher off the back foot. However, a broader look at her game tells us that this is not her ideal type of fight. The skill set is important, but the context of stylistic/personal tendencies is the real key to getting an accurate picture of a potential matchup. I’ll look at an individual fighter’s technique and assess them for form, balance, efficiency, relaxation, etc., but looking at how those skills show up—or how they don’t—against a variety of opponents is more important.

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

Mackenzie: Fighters are generally relatively well-rounded in modern MMA with respect to their skill sets, particularly in the lighter classes, but there are no fighters who are comfortable doing everything and fighting everywhere. It would be nice to have someone that you could point to as the perfect fighter, but everyone has some fairly major flaws. The question often becomes about how and where someone’s skills work and in what areas they don’t. For example, Donald Cerrone is someone who is going to do very well against blitzes or against opponents who drift around and snipe him on the outside. He’s not going to do nearly as well against men who can box with him at reach parity or who can steadily pressure. Rafael dos Anjos was masterful at hurting people on the cage, yet one of Alvarez’s best skill sets was his ability to fight his way off the cage, and so, he knocked out RDA. There are often really simple factors to think of. Does this person struggle with southpaws? That led me to a ton of easy picks against Nate Marquardt back in the day. Can they initiate exchanges? Identifying the points when approaches come alive and the little voids where they can falter is key.

Ruebusch: I prefer to think of styles as a product of personality, temperament and experience rather than a given collection of skills, though the two frames are connected. Style as an extension of who a fighter is makes for a more universal lens. For example, a brawler is a largely structureless, non-risk-averse fighter and usually one who responds to insecurity with increased aggression. This could describe a slugger who resorts to trading punches on the feet, but it might just as well describe a scrambly grappler who disregards position in favor of constant attacks. Alternatively, a come-forward cage-cutter and a lockdown top position grappler could both be described as pressure fighters. Again, my perspective is that mentality is the key to understanding how a fighter’s game works. Find out where they are comfortable, where they are uncomfortable and how they instinctively respond to stress.

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

Mackenzie: I would say that layoffs are generally not a huge factor, although the opposite end of the spectrum can be true. Fighters can raise their skill level and comfort in the cage if they fight a lot. Age is important because all fighters go into a terminal decline sooner or later, but when to pick it is tricky. Every fighter is constantly at a risk of a career-ending injury or just reaching a tipping point in the damage they have picked up. I think one X-factor that we’ve seen affecting a lot of fights lately is missing weight. The old narrative used to be that the fighter who missed weight was going to be somehow drained, but this is clearly not true anymore. Fighters have learned when they are going to miss and have started to stop cutting early, taking the competitive advantage of being bigger, stronger and more rehydrated on fight night in exchange for an inevitable loss of pay.

Ruebusch: Athleticism is huge—it’s cheating, you know. Natural athletes with lots of fast-twitch muscle and keen proprioception seem to pick up skills much more easily than their less gifted counterparts while also having far more leeway when it comes to eschewing textbook technique. Confidence is probably the single-most important factor to any fighter’s success. For example, there is likely some accumulation of physical damage responsible whenever a durable fighter’s chin finally cracks for good; however, the realization that a knockout is possible seems to be at least as important. Fighters with faith in their own durability do not flinch, so they manage to see the shots coming. Fighters who flinch, on the other hand, get knocked out. Confidence can be innate, but the really great trainers are also capable of building confidence in some fighters. Emanuel Steward did more than correct Wladimir Klitschko’s technique. Colin Oyama has done an excellent job pruning the insecurities that were once baked into Marlon Vera’s style, turning him into a fighter who relies less on losing rounds to an opponent in order to wake himself up.

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

Mackenzie: This is something which can be informative but which pretty damn hard to correctly pull off. In part, this is because fighters react to stressors in incredibly different ways. A Georges St. Pierre or a Nick Diaz may be able to effectively weaponize their anxiety, so that being nervous or scared actually makes them better fighters. Conversely, someone like Vitor Belfort or Frank Mir can look confident in the run-up to a fight but then fold in the moment. Ideally, you want to ask yourself: Is the way this fighter is acting uncharacteristic for them? What’s generally more important than mind state is the more fundamental question of who they are as people. Are they naturally a competitor at heart, a fighter, an innovator, someone who fights because they’re good at it? This can tell you something about how they’re going to perform and what they value. For example, if they’re a natural fighter, you can rely on them to persist in tough bouts, but they might not be able to make strategic adjustments. A smarter fighter might be more adaptive but less able to doggedly plough through adversity.

Ruebusch: It’s important. Broad stylistic tendencies give you a blurry picture of a fighter’s personality. Do they come forward or retreat? Lead or counter? Shell up or exchange? When they’re ahead on the cards, how do they proceed to fight? How about when they’re behind? Otherwise, keeping an eye out for body language can tell you when a fighter is or isn’t comfortable, which has everything to do with what kinds of decisions they will make. Career context can be a helpful indicator, as well. For example, is the fighter on a win streak or a skid? However, in my experience, this is less predictive on its own. A fighter’s mental trajectory can be altered by changes in diet, training regimen, coaching staff or life circumstances. It’s hard to know all of the factors from the outside, and even if we could, using those factors to determine what kind of result the next bout might produce would still be very difficult.

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

Mackenzie: They’re a useful tool but definitely not one you can rely on, partly because the data-gathering process itself is prone to bias—the definition of “significant strike” is heavily open to interpretation—and also because MMA is just not a very quantifiable sport. It is messy, qualitative and organic. The thing stats are the best at is quickly exposing gaps in your memory or internal bias. It’s easy to misremember fights, and if you find yourself convinced that Wrestler X never shot against Striker B, it can be handy to look back and realize that he actually shot about eight times.

Ruebusch: A friend of mine told me that people use statistics “like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.” I tend to agree with that. Stats are never going to tell you something you couldn’t have gleaned simply by watching the actual fight/fighter, but they can certainly be useful for bolstering observed conclusions.

In the next part of the series, Mackenzie and Ruebusch will discuss analysis misconceptions, X-factors to look for and steps to take to become a better casual analyst.

Related Coverage »
The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part I
The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part II
<h2>Fight Finder</h2>