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

By Eric Stinton May 6, 2020
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This is fourth installment of the “Watching Fights Like an Analyst” series and the second part of a discussion with Phil Mackenzie and Connor Ruebusch, analysts for Bloody Elbow and hosts of the Heavy Hands podcast, where they discuss the finer points of face-punching.

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

Mackenzie: I think the single element which is the most overplayed in MMA is how informative wins are in handicapping future results. This mostly relates to quick knockouts—Gegard Mousasi-Uriah Hall, for example—but I think it’s considered too much across the board. I once compared mixed martial arts to tennis, which is a sport with way less variance than MMA, yet upsets still happen fairly regularly. Because MMA careers are short in terms of the numbers of fights and rematches are infrequent, we tend to cling to the idea that fights would always have gone the way they did. This is probably wrong. I remember discussing this dynamic before Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov. The match between the two was so binary in nature that whoever won was likely going to do so in a fairly non-competitive way, and it would look like they would win every time in the future. Sure enough, a lot of people have quietly internalized Nurmagomedov as getting an easy win in a rematch. I revised my opinion of a rematch away from McGregor and towards Nurmagomedov because the physical disparity is honestly pretty stark, but I still don’t think this is an uncompetitive fight. In things which are overlooked, I would suggest “early footage.” A lot of the time watching fighters when they are young can feel like you’re watching something under-baked, but flaws rarely fully go away over time. Oftentimes, early footage is a magnifying glass for problems that might only be pried open at a later stage by a particularly determined opponent or poisonous style matchup.

Ruebusch: Well, there’s the kind of middle-of-the-road analysis you get on SportsCenter or wherever. That tends to reduce everything to physical attributes like speed, power, etcetera. On the other hand, a lot of the online analysis in the MMA world is so rich that it tends to overlook these aspects. This makes sense, because there’s not much interest in breaking down how speed works, whereas the proper mechanics of a jab or the proper application of footwork can be explained a dozen times over in a hundred different ways and still be interesting and educational. Nonetheless, when it comes to predicting fights and understanding how certain games work, it is worth remembering that simple, stupid things like speed, power and chin really do matter and oftentimes a lot more than the specific techniques at play. Otherwise, I think analysis overall could use more of an understanding of strategy. I’d like to see more nuance in your standard keys-to-victory sort of analysis. Greg Jackson was all about identifying the “nodes” of his given opponent’s game. What are the key points from which other elements of the game branch off? Which ones are most important to neutralize and how?

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

Mackenzie: That it will make you better at picking fights. I think it does to an extent, but honestly, the sport is so highly variant and weird that a lot of picking fights is just about having a good instinctive feel for it. Analysis can also get you pulled into obsessions with what you consider to be the “correct” technique or approach, which can make you actually worse at picking fights.

Ruebusch: Any form of analysis, at any level of complexity, is prone to criticisms of over-analysis from people who simply don’t want to challenge their preconceived notions about the subject. I’d say it never gets old, except I’m not sure it was ever young.

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?

Mackenzie: Everyone should train at least some martial arts. I have done some boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and one of the main things it brings forward to you is that this stuff is hard. It’s super easy to criticize how someone is doing, but you should have at least some idea of the pyramid of toughness and skill. Most UFC fighters sit at the top of that pyramid. I think it’s also useful to compete—at combat sports or anything else, be it other sports or video games or chess or whatever—because it can help you realize some truisms about your limits. It’s tempting to look at fighters and just say, “Why don’t they just fix XYZ gaps in their game?” However, if you apply that advice to yourself, then things quickly reveal themselves as being a bit harder than that. Some humility goes a long way.

Ruebusch: Hopefully not too important, because I haven’t been very active for a few years now. I do think it’s necessary to have some conception of what fighting feels like in order to understand how it works. Reach and range, for example, are two concepts I doubt most people could fully understand without a little hands-on experience. Until you’ve been punched in the face, it’s very difficult to appreciate just how challenging it can be to judge distance against an opponent with longer arms.

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?

Mackenzie: It’s almost always confidence and initiative. MMA is a sport where analysis paralysis will absolutely kill you. There are so many options available to any given fighter, so many ways of winning rounds or the fight as a whole, that the fighter who simply goes for it will almost always have an advantage.

Ruebusch: An X-factor could be anything. Who has better coaching in the gym? In the corner? Who has better training partners? Who had the easier weight cut? Who is more experienced? All of these things can—and do—have a big effect on the outcome of a fight.

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

Mackenzie: (1) Watch some of the best fighters. Track down some Georges St. Pierre, some Jose Aldo, some Demetrious Johnson. Watch some more modern technicians like Petr Yan, Jimmie Rivera or Calvin Kattar. Try and figure out why they’re great and what about them inspires you. If the answer is “nothing,” then being an analyst is probably not for you. (2) Get a basic hang of the library of terms for watching this sport. Angles, pivots, southpaw, orthodox, guard, half-guard and so on. You don’t need to know everything, but learning the language will help. (3) Have fun. MMA is a relentless sport, often not a popular one for talking around the office watercooler, and is in general a huge time sink. It burns a lot of people out. Make sure you love it before you get stuck into it, and keep finding things to love. It shouldn’t just be technical geniuses either. Find weird fighters, journeymen, freak athletes, whatever. Build a palette.

Ruebusch: (1) Stop expecting fighters to do things they’ve never done before or to rediscover skills they haven’t used in a long time. It happens but not as often as you want it to. (2) Pick a favorite finish—one you never tire of watching—and watch it closely several times. Then work backwards and find where the finish originated. For example: Canelo Alvarez’s knockout of Amir Khan. You can pull the scrub bar back a few minutes and identify the right hand to the body that drew Khan’s attention away from his vulnerable jaw, setting up the right hand to the head. Good fighters are constantly analyzing and exploiting patterns, but if you start from the end of the fight, you can determine exactly what pattern you’re looking for. (3) Another thing I always advise people to do is to watch an entire fight—or, even better, several entire fights—while looking only at the fighters’ feet. Study their attempts to get around one another’s front feet and penetrate the center line of their opponents. Look to see if they keep their feet under them at all times and if the distance between their feet is relatively constant or dramatically different from one movement to the next.
Related Coverage »
The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part I
The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part II
The Big Picture: Watching Fights Like an Analyst, Part III
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