In the past eighteen months, we’ve seen long reigning champions unseated, divisional kings dethroned, and the passing of the proverbial torch in mixed martial arts. This pattern is all too familiar with a nascent combat sport like MMA, where certain fighters seem to usher in new eras of combat mastery, bringing new ideas and knowledge about the sport. The impossible became possible but unlikely, and then likely, and then a foregone conclusion.
Lessons Learned: Rousey, Aldo, and Werdum
To look at the current MMA landscape, particularly in the UFC, and draw general conclusions about how the surge in popularity has attracted high-caliber athletes to MMA who otherwise would have competed in other sports would be reductive, even blasé. While there are myriad reasons why champions like Ronda Rousey, Jose Aldo, and Fabricio Werdum have fallen, one reason became apparent as the defining, salient narrative in modern MMA: the vice of impulsiveness and impatience.
The axiom patience is a virtue doesn’t quite do justice to this concept. Fighters who show up on fight day too relaxed and without a sense of urgency can find themselves on the business end of a brutal knockout. Remember back at UFC 111 when Shane Carwin fought Frank Mir? That was an unforgiving lesson in being too patient. Mir allowed Carwin – someone with, quite arguably, the heaviest hands the sport has ever seen – to tee off on him while he flopped to the canvas like a bag of bones.
Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I can recall far fewer fights where too much patience lost the fight. This is largely because haste is typically a product of fighting emotionally, undermining the arduous preparation and adherence to a game plan.
Holly Holm dethroned Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 via tactical and strategic mastery; the matador to the bull that was Ronda Rousey, and setting up the head-kick KO heard around the world.
The reasons for Holm’s success? Her ability to stay patient and fight without emotion. She stuck to her gameplan, utilized good footwork and lured Rousey straight into a check right hook, then counter-left hand. Holly Holm painted the canvas with pinpoint accuracy and counter-striking. Her ability to keep calm, focused, and relaxed while Rousey blazed forward like a rocket mimics the fable of Icarus, whose hubris propelled him too close to the sun. Once the face of women’s MMA, the rise and fall of Ronda Rousey could not have been more dramatic. The tactics that dismantled a brawler like Bethe Correia made Rousey look like an amateur compared to Holm’s mastery of distance and timing, ending in the carnal, concussive conclusion to her reign atop the 135 pound throne.
Another former champion with all the skills but a fraction of the notoriety, Jose Aldo spent the better part of a year promoting his featherweight title fight with Conor McGregor. The duties of a UFC champion included a strenuous world tour that featured dozens of press conferences, media events, and face-to-face encounters with the brash Irishman. Aldo’s reactions to McGregor varied from stoic and indifferent to bellicosity and bloodlust, then champing at the bit to shut down McGregor’s taunts and provocations.
A dominant champion whose dominion over the featherweight division came to an abrupt end when he charged right into McGregor’s left hook. A man who had not lost in ten years was defeated in thirteen seconds, and by devastating knockout no less.
How could this happen? How could a fight of this scale and magnitude end so abruptly, and in such galvanizing fashion? The reasons are manifold, yet there is little doubt that McGregor won the mental warfare long before they stepped in the cage.
Aldo, the hometown hero of Manaus, Brazil whose signature demeanor rarely deviated from cool, calm, and collected, abandoned everything he knew to blitz the bombastic, boisterous and brash challenger who is Conor McGregor.
Aldo, whose proficiency in Muay Thai had garnered the gaze of virtually every MMA fan worldwide, didn’t last a quarter of a minute into the first round. This begs the question, had the old Aldo showed up, simply feeling out his opponent and staying out of danger in the opening measure, what would have been?
Hindsight bias aside, the importance of staying patient and drawing the opponent into the second round cannot be overstated. An overly aggressive fighter is a reckless fighter, and a fighter of Jose Aldo’s caliber would have fared much better had he properly set up his striking and stayed safe and out of reach.
Aldo, whose leg kicks strike fear into the hearts and minds of featherweights around the world, didn’t land one strike (while conscious) in the biggest title fight of his storied career.
Aldo’s demise conjures a comparison to fellow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and Muay Thai practitioner Fabricio Werdum, who forfeited his heavyweight title to Stipe Miocic last week at UFC 198. Werdum conjures a comparison to Aldo, both of whom demonstrated diametrically opposed performances in consecutive title fights.
The same man who finished Fedor Emelianenko, Cain Velasquez, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira all by submission and who finished the granite-chinned Mark Hunt and Mike Russow, respectively, looked hasty and haphazard in the Miocic fight.
The man who fleeced Travis Browne on the feet showed up out of shape and unpolished, chasing after Miocic with impetuousness and reckless abandon. Werdum, a stellar student under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro, was consequently flattened by a well-placed counter right cross.
Werdum, known as “Vai Cavalho,” gallantly galloped into the gallows, careening into the canvas and crumbling like a cookie.
Numbers tell us the hometown advantage of fighting in Brazil or Ireland is a significant factor in the outcome of a fight. However, the law of diminishing marginal returns mercilessly spares nobody and it’s likely the overwhelming pressure played a part in the outcome. Nonetheless, veterans like Rousey, Aldo, and Werdum are well-trained masters of their craft, who know how to cut off the cage rather than chase down their opponents. The consequences of cavalier, contemptuous tactics – conscious or not – cannot be understated.
There are a litany of examples to choose from to illustrate the consequences of composure in a cage fight, and life in general. For pugilists and their ilk, approaching a problem with punctiliousness and poise is of paramount importance. Circling and biding one’s time keep the mind calm enough to perform under pressure, rather than succumbing to the seductive and immediate allure of the flashing lights.
When we exercise equanimity, our judgment is augmented, inculcating us with the circumspection necessary to calculate our next move.
Those who do not learn from history tend to are doomed to repeat it, and the empirical data is overwhelmingly self-evident: stay patient, and take your opponent into the second round.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 15: (L-R) Ronda Rousey faces Holly Holm in their UFC women’s bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 193 event at Etihad Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)