Part of the job
You'll never hear a more honest fight exchange. #UFCJAX pic.twitter.com/EBJgVJmRcx — UFC (@ufc) May 14, 2020
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s second rapid-fire card from Jacksonville, Florida, UFC Fight Night 171, looked on paper to be the least essential of the three, but as we all know, appearances are often deceiving in that regard. What we got on Wednesday night were some stunning finishes, shocking visuals and displays of toughness—perhaps too much toughness, in some cases.
Once all the results were entered, the teeth retrieved and bagged, and the arena lights shut down for the night, what lessons did we learn? Here are five.
AGE AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A NUMBER
The idea of older fighters experiencing success against their juniors is hardly new to mixed martial arts. Especially in the heavier weight classes, where fast-twitch reflexes are less central to success than simple power, fighters can have incredibly long shelf lives. However, two over-40 fighters who prevailed on Wednesday night are instructive in the specifics of how they pulled it off.
Glover Teixeira does not seem old so much as ageless. I’ve been a fan of this sport for over 15 years and Teixeira has been the exact same guy the whole time. He’s looked 47 since he was 27. He has always had the same basic skillset; if it is possible to underrate every facet of a fighter’s game while acknowledging that he’s one of the 10 best fighters in the world, Teixeira seems to invite it. His striking looks slow and labored, yet his solid footwork and fundamentals let him dictate range and location to quicker fighters, and beat them to the punch. His offensive and defensive wrestling are quietly superior to that of most of the fighters he faces—Jon Jones and Corey Anderson are the only opponents I can remember who made him go where he didn’t want to go—and his crushingly heavy top game is often overlooked in light of his status as The Pit’s second best-known fighter and a longtime training partner of Chuck Liddell.
None of this is to say that Teixeira hasn’t improved over the years; only that the basics of his game have not changed much at all. In the end, Teixeira prevailed against Smith on Wednesday by sticking to what brought him to the dance, and has brought him there for nearly two decades.
In contrast, Andrei Arlovski’s surprisingly easy decision victory over Philipe Lins is a continuation of one of the most impressive and successful self-reinventions in MMA history. Arlovski has now competed in four different decades. That is not unique by itself; there are quite a few fighters who debuted in the 90s, still out there fighting for paychecks. However, Arlovski is now unique in that he is the last fighter on UFC roster to have debuted in the Semaphore Entertainment Group era, which means the “Pitbull” has outlasted two regime changes. He was literally there before Dana White, and not only is Arlovski still fighting, he’s still within shouting distance of the heavyweight Top 10. Even at heavyweight, that is remarkable.
That kind of competitive longevity is incredibly rare, and Arlovski has achieved it in the opposite manner to Teixeira: by completely retooling his game. It isn’t just that he has become more conservative in his approach; combat sports athletes from George Foreman to Alistair Overeem have experienced success after 40 by seeing to their chins and gas tanks first. Arlovski has eliminated the iffy strategies and mental lapses that once characterized his approach. The Arlovski who knocked down Tim Sylvia with a huge punch, pounced on him and instead of punching Sylvia’s face in, slapped on a heel hook like a Pancrase lightweight (even if it worked) is no more, as is the fighter who experienced surprising success boxing with Fedor Emelianenko, then launched a flying knee from four feet away (it didn’t work). Today, a fighter who wants to beat Arlovski will need to beat Arlovski, because his days of defeating himself appear to be over.
WEIGHT AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A NUMBER
Weight is nothing but a number, but it’s one that matters sometimes. I’m usually banging the drum for fighters to stop depleting themselves, to fight closer to their walking weight and to try moving up a weight class, instead of down, if they’re looking to get out of a rut or jump-start their careers. While I still feel that way, UFC Fight Night 171 offered enough counter-examples that I have to acknowledge it as a lesson learned.
I favored Ovince St. Preux going into his UFC heavyweight debut against Ben Rothwell on Wednesday. I wasn’t alone in that, as he was a slight favorite on the sports books. However, the added weight—his own as well as the 50-pound size difference between Rothwell and the kind of opponents “OSP” is accustomed to facing—seemed to affect him in the worst way. Under the best of circumstances, St. Preux is a frustratingly low-output fighter. His offensive skill set is a disjointed collection of dangerous techniques that never quite coalesce into a complete game, but leave him capable of beating anyone at any moment. I figured that fighting at heavyweight would accord St. Preux a speed advantage and a deeper gas tank that would give him plenty of chances to land just one head kick. Or standing elbow. Or, of course, a Von Flue choke.
Instead, St. Preux’s output slowed from sporadic to almost nonexistent. While he was probably quicker of foot than Rothwell—who is inevitably described as “plodding” by MMA writers in spite of being pretty nimble for his size—it made no difference, as his poor footwork allowed the bigger man to walk him into the fence over and over again. It made for a miserable fight to watch, and leaves wide open the question of which weight class St. Preux should compete in next.
Adding to the examples of fighters benefiting by dropping in weight would be that of Drew Dober, who continues to look like a new man at lightweight. He does fit the mold of a fighter for whom that move would work, as he is short even for 155 pounds, but the fact remains that “The Doberman” is now on the cusp of the Top 10 at lightweight, which would have been incredibly difficult for him to manage at 170. Finally, Ray Borg is stuck in no-man’s-land. With his history of bad weight misses at flyweight probably having closed that door for him, and finding himself outwrestled by a bigger, stronger Ricky Simon, Borg is a talented and dangerous fighter who may never get to show it quite like he should.
AND JUST LIKE THAT—POOF—IT’S GONE
It’s hardly news that MMA is full of fights that are all one-way traffic until one fighter snatches victory from the jaws of defeat in an instant. However, some examples are more shocking and heartbreaking than others.
The first round of the Thiago Moises-Michael Johnson fight was a bit of a revelation. Johnson, whose incredibly inconsistent career has been the subject of many discussions over the years, likely had his back against the wall going into the fight, having lost two straight and seven of his last 10. Somewhat surprisingly, though, he fought as if he knew it, and for the first round looked extremely sharp. Aware that Moises’ best path to victory lay in a submission, “The Menace” stuck, moved, and stuck some more, soundly outboxing the Brazilian, reddening his face and rocking him several times in the first five minutes.
Then, just moments into the second round, Moises shot a takedown, which Johnson defended. Moises pulled guard, went for a leg, and in the split-second it took for Johnson to realize what was happening, it was too late. Moises went belly-down and Johnson was tapping instantly. If that ends up being the last we see in the Octagon of Johnson, it’s both a bummer and a perfect encapsulation of what made him so promising and frustrating at once.
‘IT’S QUIET IN HERE. TOO QUIET,’ PART II
I commented after UFC 249 on Saturday about what a strange experience it is, taking in these cards with so little ambient noise. It isn’t bad or good; just very, very different. There’s an almost voyeuristic thrill at overhearing not only the fighters’ chatter at each other and their coaches, but their breathing, and the sound of fabric and leather and chain link. It’s an experience.
I wonder how much of the uproar about the non-corner-stoppage in the main event on Wednesday was influenced by that. First, there’s no question that Teixeira’s thrashing of Anthony Smith was one of the most brutal of its kind in the UFC in years. I would put it at least on a level with Amanda Nunes-Raquel Pennington—which also drew criticism to the losing fighter’s corner for not throwing in the towel—as well as Stipe Miocic’s nearly five-round beating of Mark Hunt.
I’m not completely ready to weigh in on whether I think Smith’s corner should have called the fight after the fourth round—or even the third, as I saw quite a few people on Twitter advocating for. I will say that one difference between the three fights I’ve mentioned here is that Pennington was fighting for a belt. It seems more understandable to me to let a fighter go back into such a lopsided fight when they might leave it as a champion. In comparison, Teixeira-Smith wasn’t a title fight, or even a likely title eliminator; there was little or no expectation that the winner would even be next in line for another crack at Jon Jones. Were the stakes worth it?
But I do think that the level of sound detail available to us on Wednesday elevated everything. It made the last three rounds sound absolutely hellish in a way that we are usually spared. Smith’s complaint that he’d lost teeth might have been audible even at a normal event, but it was deafening in a silent room. Most notably of all, the conversation in the tweet at the top of this article is something we would never have heard, and it's incredibly poignant. It leaves me thinking of what a different emotional, visceral reaction I might have had to some of MMA’s other all-time beatdowns if they had been carried out in empty arenas.
BETTER, BUT STILL NOT THERE
Here’s the obligatory one lesson about COVID-19 precautions. Just four days from their previous event in the same venue, the UFC clearly tightened some things up. All of the support staff appeared to be wearing protective masks. Whether this is due to practice or the organization responding to public scrutiny, it’s a good thing.
However some things still seem all over the place, even in comparison with the UFC’s own published guidelines. Daniel Cormier’s in-cage interviews have given up all pretense of distancing; he’s literally putting his arm around people while sharing a single mic. If he’s going to do that, fine, I guess—though the UFC’s published plan was for post-fight interviews to be done remotely—but if that’s the case, then why bother putting the commentary team at separate tables? To quote or paraphrase several public health experts, inconsistent enforcement of these protocols is like trying to have a peeing section in a swimming pool.
Here’s hoping that the UFC’s observance of their own procedures continues to improve, and that everyone involved with these events comes out of them healthy and safe.