The Learning Curve

By Jake Rossen Sep 30, 2009
The author of “The Tipping Point,” self-help guru Malcolm Gladwell, stirred up lots of press last year when he proclaimed that anyone who wants to get good at anything needs to put at least 10,000 hours of effort into it.

“You can’t become a chess grand master unless you spend 10,000 hours on practice,” Gladwell told an assembly in 2008. “The tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17 [like] Boris Becker. The classical musician who starts playing the violin at four is debuting at Carnegie Hall at 15 or so.”

Clearly, Gladwell has never met Brett Rogers.

Rogers has no wrestling credentials and no amateur striking background. Up until recently, he was training part-time while working as a tire technician for a Minnesota-area Sam’s Club. Last June, he knocked out Freddie Roach pupil and 10-year fight veteran Andrei Arlovski. November 7, he fights Fedor Emelianenko, the most reverentially regarded heavyweight in the sport, in what amounts to a world title bout.

His limited background isn’t unusual. In 2008, Amir Sadollah was cast in a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and pitted against experienced athletes of various backgrounds. Despite having not a single professional bout to his record, he defeated five men to capture the series’ title; Brock Lesnar, while possessing a highly credible NCAA resume, needed just five fights to dispute -- and win -- the UFC heavyweight belt; last Saturday, amateur wrestler Daniel Cormier had his first professional fight after only four months of cross-training. In medicine, this would be considered quackery.

The broken faces and bodies so artfully photographed are evidence that mixed martial arts is the most physically punishing and demanding sport in the world. Each fight is, to repeat an unoriginal thought, like a minor car accident. But with several successful participants putting in only a few years’ -- or months’ -- worth of effort into preparation, it may not be the most technically strenuous activity out there.

Few in professional boxing have ever strolled into a title bout after only sporadic flirting with training. Floyd Mayweather, arguably the most talented stand-up fighter of his era, had 90 amateur bouts before turning pro. His display against Juan Manuel Marquez on Sept. 19 was the culmination of two decades in the gym, and it showed. The idea that those skills could come from hobby training is fiction.

If a Wal-Mart cashier with a pair of heavy hands trained for three years and elected to fight Mayweather, it’s possible he would die. And yet some give Rogers a “puncher’s chance” against Emelianenko, who -- if his reputation is deserved -- should eject Rogers’ molars through his nose.

This isn’t necessarily a reflection on men like Lesnar and Cormier, who may be amateurs in throwing punches but have spent years building a foundation in wrestling. It’s Sadollah and Rogers, with no storied athletic backgrounds, who can enter and exit a ring without being brutalized. (Or, in Rogers’ case, without ever having been beaten.)

As a fan and observer, that kind of hospitality is a little embarrassing. MMA might be the only sport where a kindergarten teacher -- Tim Hague -- can get a call up to the major leagues. If that happens to any other civilian in any other sport, they make a movie out of it. Here, it’s routine.

What allows MMA to make the inexperienced competitive? Much of it has to do with the upper platform of the sport: the striking. At the regional/amateur level, stand-up exchanges can be pitiful. At the elite level, you can get by with a rudimentary skill set because most of your opponents will be just as limited as you are. Combine the defensive postures to ward off grapplers and the hours of the day spent in other elements, and the price of admission can often be as reasonable as some power. Chuck Liddell spent years launching his Big Right Handâ„¢ until the game evolved enough to make it predictable; having “heavy hands” is listed on breakdowns as though it were a skill.

Assisting inexperience is the glove size: Flimsy padding means that heavy punchers don’t need to worry about being diffused, and smaller equipment allows cleaner blows to land. (Easier to parry and deflect when you have two enormous cushions in front of your face.)

Striking is the great equalizer of the sport: Virtually no one can spend a few years training jiu-jitsu or wrestling and be as proficient as a Lesnar or Demian Maia, but some Thai sparring and an opponent willing to engage on the feet could mean a CBS spot.

It’s yet another parallel to boxing’s earlier days: John L. Sullivan and his peers were frequently hard-chinned toughs who subsided on a diet of beer and bacon. There was no “amateur” decade to toil in before slamming someone’s face into cobblestone. But as the sport grew and spread, it became necessary to educate younger athletes and offer a platform to sharpen developing skills.

The same will hold true for this sport. Ten or 15 years from now, the idea that someone could slide into a pro career at 25 or 30 will seem absurd. Younger men (and women) raised on network broadcasts and YouTube videos will take up the sport sooner, experience a developmental period and have a substantial martial arts education in place by the time they start rolling around on a Bud Light logo.

As a teenager, Georges St. Pierre watched UFC 1 in 1993 and began studying Kyokushin karate. (And later, jiu-jitsu.) Like most superb athletes, he found a direction early on and followed it. And he is currently the most impressive physical specimen in the sport.

For St. Pierre, 10,000 hours might be a conservative estimate. For most everyone else, it should probably become mandatory.

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