Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night card was an untold success. While not heavily hyped, it delivered a night of good finishes, exciting fights, and an overall fun feel. However, the media buzz surrounding the victories of Paige Van Zant, Anthony Pettis and Damien Maia may be overshadowing a much stranger story-line that unfolded this weekend. The night before at Bellator 160, Benson Henderson was awarded a victory everyone thought before the fight would be his by default. But nobody out there would have expected the fight to play out the way it did. While this may have been the expected result, the story of a fight is not told in simple wins and losses.
Nobody out there would have expected the main event of Bellator 160 to play out the way it did.
The Story of The Fight:
In a previous article of mine, we looked at the strengths of Henderson and Patricio Freire. In fact, the only thing that did not come in to play was Henderson’s habit of running in behind his face when committing to punches. While this may sound like a good thing, Henderson has never been much of an effective out-fighter. He does his damage either on his way in to the clinch or on his way out. Without his mad dashes to instigate the clinch, Henderson was left to play on the outside with the smaller but much more technical Freire.
Freire demonstrated perfectly one of the most effective ways to deal with a reach disadvantage. By staying light on his feet and circling the cage to prevent Henderson cornering him, Freire kept his right hand loaded and every time Henderson stepped in to kick, he swung back at him.
By waiting on Henderson to engage, Freire removed the issue of closing the distance. Henderson lead almost exclusively with kicks, and every time he stepped in, Freire would brace, take the kick, then fire back as Henderson was standing on one leg.
This played perfectly in to the strategy Henderson was employing. Without his blitz’s, Henderson’s size, excellent clinch work and smothering wrestling game were largely nullified. This also left him with a limited game on the feet, namely his kicks. But each time he threw one and was countered, it left him further behind on the score cards. He had to try and pick up the pace, and the more he kicked, the more he was countered.
Ring Positioning and The Absurdity of ‘Aggression’:
As a brief aside, the absurdity of judging a fight based on aggression has never been more clear than in this fight. Henderson moved forward the entire time. He held the center of the cage for the vast majority of the fight, and if you asked a judge who was controlling the fight, it would be Henderson. But all Henderson was really doing was dictating the rate at which he took damage. He could step in whenever he wanted, but every time he would he would eat a hard punch and end up right back where he started.
Freire may have been in the less advantageous position, but he was the one controlling the exchanges. He wanted Henderson to move forward, and when he did he would punish him for it.
Freire made Henderson play his game, and he did a damn good job of it. That should be what a fight is judged on, not simply who is moving forward. Effective aggression is only effective if it is effective ring generalship. Ring generalship has nothing to do with who is moving forward. It is to do with who is controlling the fight. The word aggression is nothing more than a buzz word incompetent judges can latch on to when they don’t understand what is going on in front of them. It has no place in judging criteria.
The End Of The Fight
Freire punctuated Henderson’s periods of inactivity with kicks of his own, and it was one of these which ended the fight. Striking at the inside of Henderson’s lead leg, Freire caught Henderson’s knee as Henderson checked. Apparently his shin was fractured by the blow.
By the midway point of the second round Freire was forced to give up and Henderson was given the win the odds-makers thought he would easily secure, but seemed to be well on his way to losing.
So we have our winner in this fight, and the next challenger to Michael Chandler, but what can we take away from this? Well if they payed attention, both fighters should be able to learn the same lesson.
The Importance Of The Set Up:
Henderson and Freire were undone by the same flaw in this fight. The problems that they both faced stemmed from the fact that neither of them had any thought for setting up their shots.
In striking, a set up is a strike that by itself is not meant to be a hurting blow. Rather it is intended to draw the the opponents attention to one area so that another can be targeted. A fantastic example of this is current strawweight champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Jedrzejczyk has biting leg kicks, but she will often set them up with a hand combination first.
By throwing her hands first, she gets her opponents defending their face, and in doing so creates an opening to land her leg kicks. When her opponents begin to bite, she will lift her leg to kick, then come in with a right hand as her opponent checks the kick. She varies her tempo, her targets, and her tools.
When your opponent knows what you are going to do, countering becomes easy. All Henderson had to do was show some hands from time to time. Then Freire would not have been as willing to commit to the right hand counter every time Henderson stepped in. If Freire had gotten Henderson moving backwards by throwing a hand combination first, Henderson would have been in no position to check the leg kick that ultimately ended the fight.
What is frustrating is that we have seen both of these guys do this before. I even praised both of them for incorporating this exact tactic into their strategies in my pre-fight breakdown. It was some of Henderson’s best offence against Pettis in their first bout. For Freire meanwhile it is one of his most effective forms of fighting on the lead.
Some are saying that Henderson’s thrashing at the hands of welterweight champion Andrei Koreshkov has rendered him gun shy. It is not my place to talk about Henderson’s frame of mind. That being said, he definitely seemed unwilling to commit to exchanges like he normally would. Freire meanwhile clearly did not feel comfortable leading with his hands against an opponent with such a large range advantage. This lead to both guys forgoing the idea of a set up. Instead they chose to focus on landing one shot at at time. This led to problems for both.
Kicking with no set up is a dangerous game. Henderson learned getting caught on one leg is a great way to get hurt if your opponent times you kicking. Naked kicks are also easier to check, as Freire found out to his detriment.
The main event of Bellator 160 did not wow the world the same way UFC Fight Night Vancouver did. However, there is more to be learned in this fight than any other this weekend. The importance of subtleties on the feet were found all over this fight. Freire may have been the smaller man, but through discipline and positioning he won the exchanges in this fight. What is more he did it from pillar to post. He learned it doesn’t matter how well you perform, at the end of the day, a loss is a loss. One critical error in an otherwise flawless performance cost him a victory in this fight. In the world of mixed martial arts, one mistake is all it takes. That is something all fighters and fans can learn from.