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The beginning of the end for Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227 on Saturday came not in failure but success. It was a punch landed on T.J. Dillashaw -- it eventually closed the bantamweight champion’s eye -- that gave Garbrandt the confidence to swarm on his former Team Alpha Male stablemate. Throwing wide looping punches, Garbrandt stood in the pocket and looked to finish the fight in short order. Unfortunately for Garbrandt, Dillashaw fired back. Garbrandt had the courage, the skill and the power. However, he was let down by a factor beyond his control: his chin. Just like in their first fight, both Dillashaw and Garbrandt landed telling blows. Just like in their first fight, Dillashaw withstood them while Garbrandt was unable to continue.
In his compelling memoir, Garbrandt wrote about a childhood where he was constantly in combat: wrestling, boxing, football and fighting from a very young age. That competition gave him a fighter’s mentality, but it also left him more vulnerable to head trauma -- something that has been apparent since he was knocked out in his final amateur fight. He hasn’t taken much damage during the course of his MMA career because he’s so offensively talented himself, but when he does, it becomes a problem in a hurry.
This is not an unfamiliar pattern over the course of MMA history. Wanderlei Silva was one of the most feared offensive competitors in the history of the sport. He would charge in throwing his marauding hooks, and most opponents would go down. However, against fighters with stout chins, things would often go awry. Silva’s loss to Chris Leben had a very similar feel to Dillashaw-Garbrandt 2, with Silva charging in looking to finish, only to be finished instead.
Likewise, Andrei Arlovski is a preternaturally talented offensive striker. The problem for Arlovski has always been what happens when he gets hit. His second fight with Tim Sylvia saw him confidently charge in looking for a finish, just like Garbrandt, only to eat a nasty counter. Arlovski would never be champion again.
No fighter fits that mold more than Alistair Overeem, who has some of the most devastating striking the sport has ever seen. The problem for Overeem is that he cannot hold up to the same level of punishment as most of his opponents. Thus, a familiar refrain throughout his career has been Overeem getting the best of his opponent over the course of a fight, only to eat one fight-changing strike. With small gloves, this is a threat to every MMA fighter, but it looms much larger as an issue for some than others.
There are of course ways for fighters to compensate when they know their brains can be shut off more readily than their opponents. Overeem is one of the most distinctive in the way he has adjusted his style to minimize risk in recent years. The problem for fighters in that position is that MMA is a sport that fundamentally favors offense.
Unlike boxing, where large gloves and a limited number of allowable techniques means that defensive stalwarts often reign supreme, MMA doesn’t tend to lend itself to playing it safe. There are too many ways to win at any moment, and getting a fight over with quickly is the safest defense. This is particularly true for fighters who are offensively inclined in the first place and have to adjust their game like a mobile quarterback trying to develop into a pocket passer. Fighters like Overeem and Arlovski have experienced success playing it safe, but they were most successful when they were fearsome attackers.
The realization that your chin cannot be counted on has to be a maddening proposition for a proud and successful MMA fighter. After all, there’s much less that can be done than when it comes to shoring up other weaknesses. A fighter with a weak ground game can focus on his jiu-jitsu. A fighter with subpar striking can double down on that aspect of his game. A fighter that gasses can put a premium on cardiovascular training and turn that weakness into a strength, like Tito Ortiz did after his fight with Frank Shamrock. Fighters with those problems can comfort themselves by thinking that if they just work hard enough on their vulnerabilities they will get past them.
An inability to take a punch is an entirely different problem. There’s no obvious solution, and there are downsides to any approach. The fighter can spar less in training, knowing that concussions make you more susceptible to additional concussions. However, that also makes you less comfortable with getting hit, a problem once the fight comes. You can focus heavily on defense, trying to minimize risk, but become a less dangerous offensive force in the process. Alternatively, you can try not to let the issue get in your head and get knocked out with your lack of caution. Every option seems flawed.
There’s also no escaping a vulnerable chin. There’s always going to be the concern that it will come back. After being brutally knocked out by Sergei Kharitonov -- his third knockout loss in four fights -- in Strikeforce on Feb. 12, 2011, Arlovski remarkably went almost five years without being knocked out. However, the problem had only gone dormant rather than being cured, as Arlovski would later be knocked out relatively quickly three times in less than 13 months. Getting knocked out is of course a part of the sport, but there’s a wide spectrum as far as what it takes for different fighters. Those on one end of that spectrum face a significant long-term career issue unlike any other in the sport. Garbrandt is going to try to figure out the riddle like many before him, but it has proven exceedingly difficult to solve thus far.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.