Styles Do Make Fights: An Expert Analysis

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Co-authored with Behavior Analyst Francisco Gomez.

With almost a quarter century of fighting and coaching, I have had the fortune to collaborate and train with many world-class fighters, champions, and UFC vets.  Moreover, I’ve been exposed to the teachings of master coaches of boxing like Angelo Dundee, and pioneers of MMA like Conan Silveira.

During this time, I’ve observed or have been the recipient of a variety of philosophies and approaches to the combat sports. Oddly enough, some approaches have been radically conflicting. From champion boxing trainer Milton Lacroix teaching me to fight off the ball of my back foot, with my lead hand held below my waist, to Angelo Dundee telling me to fight more flat footed and keep my hands up (odd considering he trained Muhammad Ali). From world champion Muay Thai coaches compelling their students to deliberately plod forward, to Olympic boxing coaches urging their students to use lateral movement to create angles off their opponent’s aggression.

“They can’t all be right,” I used to contemplate. But given their success, they couldn’t all be wrong either, could they? Well, the answer, from my perspective, is they were all right…just not all of the time. Clear as mud? How could they be right sometimes? The solution, as you will see, can be found in Fighting Styles! Over the next few articles, I am going to provide a deeper look into styles, from elements of different styles to training regiments specific to styles.

Styles Defined

The old saying goes, styles make fights.  But what are styles, and how is it they “make” fights? What if Mike Tyson had devoted his training towards a style like Muhammad Ali’s?  Or conversely, if Ali attempted to use the “peek-a-boo” style mastered by Tyson? Can you imagine Tyson with his short, stocky build as he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee”?? Or Ali, with his height and long reach attempting to slip inside to explode with massive hooks. The thought, for some, might actually be humorous. Would each fighter have become a reigning champion?  It doesn’t take an expert analyst to figure this one out!

Styles do make fights.  If Ali were to fight his doppelganger, there would likely be lots of dancing, and very little fighting.

As experts in human performance and the science of human behavior, we (Francisco and I) believe it’s easiest to conceptualize styles behaviorally. Elements of styles, as you will see throughout these series of articles, are essentially observable behaviors. For the purpose of this article, styles can be considered a combination of high frequency behaviors fighters apply under specific combat conditions. More specifically: Styles are made up of a complex interplay between genetics, physiological characteristics, historical factors, and contact with environmental factors. It is our contention that those involved in combat sports would benefit by having a deeper understanding of styles. “One style fits all” philosophies limit potential. Consideration of characteristics like height and reach to “fit” fighters with the most effective style will accelerate performance.

Styles Happen

Coaching has a lot to do with core skill-sets that make up styles. However, many styles actually develop in the absence of deliberate coaching, or even contrary to a coach’s specific instruction. The reason: styles often develop inadvertently. When sparring, fighters come in contact with naturally occurring reinforcers (i.e. it’s working) and punishers (i.e. it ain’t working!). For example, something tells us coaches did not tell Ali, “keep your hands down!”  In fact, if you listen closely to Angelo Dundee in Ali’s early fights, you can hear exactly the opposite. “Keep your hands up,” Dundee fervently urges as Ali effortlessly dances around his opponents firing lighting fast jabs.

It is our contention that, early in Ali’s training history, he likely came into contact with reinforcement (i.e. success) very quickly by using his low-hanging, relaxed jab that allowed him to take advantage of his incredible reach. Not only did Ali land more, but he likely received less punishment than his opponents who used a high guard. You see, Ali’s style employed the “hidden defense” of distance and angles to capitalize on his reach.  He didn’t need to keep his hands up. Using this style, his opponents literally couldn’t reach him!

Styles Evolve

Like Darwin’s theory on evolution, only the strongest skills “survive” as they increase the fighter’s ability to compete. In the case of combat sports, the skills attempted by the fighter which prove most effective are the ones naturally selected. These skills will  likely endure and evolve to become part of the fighters lasting repertoire. Like the novice fighter who compromises countering ability as he leans away from a punch, certain techniques aren’t sustainable. However, because these skills might be garnering the fighter an immediate return on investment, they are likely to continue.

The good news is that quality coaching or sparring that provides natural consequences tend to shape performance. In Ali’s case, behaviors that were “naturally selected” were lateral foot movement along with a low-hanging, long-distance jab. These skills proved superior to even the most dangerous opponents, so Ali continued to use them. A shorter fighter, like Joe Frazier for instance, would never have obtained the coveted world heavyweight title using this approach.  Frazier needed head movement and shorter hooking punches to be effective.

Styles Strategically Applied

What we can see from this illustration is that certain things work for some fighters much better than others, when fighting particular opponents. It’s not uncommon to hear fighters say things like “I hate sparring tall guys.”Or “those short compact fighters give me a hard time.”  One could argue these same fighters might learn to love sparring these same opponents.  Specifically, if they were able to successfully develop a competitive strategy that falls within the parameters of the style they’re best suited for. If coaches consider the style of their fighter relative to their opponent, they may be able to more effectively build a strategic plan to capitalize on strengths and accelerate the acquisition of skills that fall within the fighter’s physical propensities.  For example, training Tyson in the “peek-a-boo” style to turn his height and reach “disadvantage” into a competitive edge.

When analyzing styles, we propose a classification system made up of three styles: short-range, mid-range, and long-range styles.

Styles Classified

When analyzing styles, we propose a classification system made up of three styles: short-range, mid-range, and long-range styles. Fighters do not typically fight using a style that fits cleanly into one specific class.  They tend to transition fluidly through elements of each style within a fight as conditions require. However, we suggest fluent practitioners of a specific style as illustrated by the classification system likely follow the 80-20 rule. That is, 80 percent of the time they use their “go to stylistic skills,” and 20 percent of the time they utilize elements that fall within the other two classifications.

This is not to suggest that all fighters use an 80/20 mix, or the same fighters use the same ratio for each fight. For instance, one fighter might be utilizing long range striking 60 percent, mid-range 20 percent, and short-range 10-percent. The same fighter who understands styles and is aware of an opponent’s significant reach advantage might switch adapt their game as follows: 10-percent long-range, 40-percent mid-range, and 60-percent short range. We would suggest that the closer a fighter comes to applying a specific style 100-percent of the time, the closer he or she comes to the purest form of the style classification.

Styles Make Fights

Styles do make fights.  If Ali were to fight his doppelganger, there would likely be lots of dancing, and very little fighting. Fortunately, most of Ali’s opponents moved forward.  The result, “good style match-ups” and exciting fights. A more recent fight where controversy ensued occurred between Rory McDonald and Stephen Thompson.  In this fight, two long-range countering styles were pitted against one another. The result: high output in terms of footwork, and low output in terms of offense. Some are calling it strategic, while others are calling it boring. The point is, the style match up dictated the pace of this fight.  In our next article, we will break styles into specific elements while reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.