For the combatants in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), evolution of one’s style is constant. Bigger pay-days, more fans and a better looking record are powerful motivations to alter a fighters strategy. Sometimes evolution is imposed on a fighter through one common occurrence—a knockout loss. No fighter wants to take the concussive damage a knockout can bring. But sometimes these moments can make a fighter take stock and adjust a style once considered successful. In fact, these deviations can sometimes be better for a fighter’s long-term health and record.
While the heavyweight division may not have the depth of well-rounded fighters common to other weight-classes, it remains inherently dangerous because almost every man has knockout power. It is a place where loses via KO or TKO occur often. That isn’t to say that success can’t be had in spite of having crushing setbacks.
Two of the more successful stalwart heavyweights of the last decade are Andre Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. Each has had triumphant runs in the sport that started (just a few months apart) in 1999. They have fought all over the world in a 92 professional bouts combined. So they are as battle tested as any fighters in the sport.
Each man has been taken to the brink of unconsciousness, and beyond, on nine different occasions.
However, they have both succumbed to losses by KO/TKO. Each man has been taken to the brink of unconsciousness, and beyond, on nine different occasions. They also each endured key losing streaks with multiple KO/TKO losses, leading many to question their relevancy. As such, they might be considered good examples of fighters that would have reason to alter their styles to avoid this brain rattling trend.
A good source to get a detailed accounting of if adjustments were made, is by analyzing the striking stats for each fighter. To do this we went to the UFC’s official statistician site—Fight Metric and analyzed a number of fights before the losing streaks, during the streaks, and then the next group of bouts after. Unfortunately, Fight Metric has a black out of several fights following Arlovski’s four-fight losing streak (presumably because of their partnership with the UFC). As a result, the analysis picks up at the start of his second tenure with the company.
Andre “The Pitbull” Arlovski
From 2009 to 2011 the “Pitbull” lost four consecutive fights, three by KO/TKO. After this streak of losses he went 10-1-1 between the years 2011-2015. In the five fights before his losses to Fedor Emelianenko, Brett Rogers, Antonio Silva and Sergei Kharitonov, Arlovski was a fighter who preferred to strike from a distance. In all of those fights, 50 percent of his significant strikes landed were considered long range. Also he focused his strikes mostly on the head and legs. Body shots never accounted for more than 8 percent of his significant strikes.
During his run of defeats those statistics did not deviate much—other than the odd anomaly of being six-for-six on body shots against Emelianenko. And why should they? He had a successful career fighting this way, having captured the UFC Heavyweight Championship at one point. Once his career was rejuvenated he returned to the UFC, he continued the tactic of fighting from a distance and focusing on strikes to the head. Though, in his bouts against Brendan Schaub, Antonio Silva, Travis Browne and Frank Mir, he added in a new wrinkle. His shots to the body were as much as, if not more, than his previous secondary focus on leg kicks.
The difference could simply be attributed to a change in coaches, which he did make at that time. But before his two recent TKO losses (to Stipe Miocic and Overeem, respectively), Arlovski fought 12 times over four years, losing once by decision. While not overtly obvious, changes were made to his strategy following a career low point in his four-fight losing streak.
Alistair “The Reem” Overeem
Alistair Overeem’s alterations seem a bit clearer. Over a two year period, Overeem lost three of four bouts. All the losses were by KO/TKO. His defeats were against Antonio Silva, Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell. Before this major bump in the road, the “The Reem” had dominant wins against Todd Duffee, Fabricio Werdum and Brock Lesnar. In those wins Overeem mixed his assault from distance and in the clinch. He also showed a strong balance by landing significant strikes primarily to the head and body.
In his subsequent back-to-back KO losses those trends, more or less, held steady. But in the follow up to his brushes with forced sleep, alterations were made immediately. He faced Frank Mir at UFC 169 in a classic striker versus grappler match-up. However, when Mir attempted several takedowns in the bout, instead of defending them and getting back to his feet where he had superiority, he chose to stay on the ground with a better grappler. Of the 62 significant strikes Overeem landed, 42 came on the ground, accounting for 67 percent of his significant strikes. He won by decision.
Of the 62 significant strikes Overeem landed, 42 came on the ground, accounting for 67 percent of his significant strikes. He won by decision.
He lost his next match-up against Rothwell despite a varied attack of 20 significant strikes on his opponent’s head (25 percent), body (35 percent) and legs (40 percent). Despite the diversity of strikes, he couldn’t avoid the perils of scrapping with a heavy handed individual. This fight was not without merit, because it showcased the return of something Overeem hadn’t used in several years.
In two out of his next three bouts against the likes of Stefan Struve, Roy Nelson and Junior Dos Santos, kicks to the legs were strikes he landed the second most. He hadn’t done that since a 2009 fight against Kazuyuki Fujita. And he only landed six strikes in the bout total. In the fight where leg kicks were not a focus—against Struve—he took the fight to the ground once again where he landed 14 of his 17 significant strikes. Without a doubt, being brutally knocked out had an effect on Overeem. It forced him to use aspects of his MMA abilities that he had neglected for many fights previously.
Statistics are not the final determinant in any hypothesis. And they can’t explain the thoughts going through a fighters mind in the heat of battle. But they do give some hard evidence of trends and how they can change. When it comes to these two fighters, it behooved them to evolve their styles after knockout losses. And from the numbers, to varying degrees, they made the necessary adjustments.