Lessons from The Weekend: Intelligence Beats Entertainment

By: Lev Pisarsky
Sep 20, 2021


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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This past Saturday was a rare treat for MMA fans, as both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA were running shows that day. Neither one excited me on paper, but both ended up being very fun viewing, surpassing my expectations. What I found especially curious is that across the two promotions, we saw the same story play out over and over. Namely, that a smart and professional approach, if not the most crowd-pleasing, was consistently rewarded with victory. Meanwhile, an attempt to be extra exciting, to play to the crowd, habitually backfired, including turning triumph into defeat.

Let's begin with Bellator 266's main event. Many will dismiss Phil Davis' victory by claiming Yoel Romero was old and past his prime. Yet in Romero’s last fight against Israel Adesanya just a year and a half ago, the majority of MMA fans and a good portion of MMA media, myself included, felt the Cuban dynamo deserved the nod. Clearly, he is still a tremendously dangerous, powerful, and fast striker, and watching the Bellator main event, his cardio was noticeably better at light heavyweight, despite being older.

And yet, Davis largely neutralized Romero, defeating him more decisively than anyone since Rafael Cavalcante 10 years ago in Strikeforce, one crazy scorecard from Jerin Valel notwithstanding. He did so with a calm, brilliant gameplan. Early on, Davis was very cautious with his jab, not trying to inflict damage or set up combinations so much as draw Romero out. Then, when Romero would inevitably explode, Davis used his impressive movement to evade and try to score off counters, especially the one-two, keeping Romero at the end of his punches and himself out of range. Romero, however, was perfectly willing to wait and also scored with a number of powerful leg kicks. In fact, I even gave him the first round. However, this was not the full extent of Davis' plan. When Romero started finding a rhythm with his striking and started opening up more, it wasn't long until Davis used his grappling to repeatedly take him down as he came forward, catching the Cuban Olympic wrestling silver medalist completely by surprise, and proving that yes, wrestling ability declines with age, as does every other skill. Davis' intelligent strategy garnered him a fine win and proved that he is still a Top 10 fighter at 205 pounds.

Was the bout a riveting “Fight of the Year” candidate? Of course not. But Davis won decisively, whereas going toe-to-toe with Romero may well have ended with him knocked out cold on the canvas.

Davis wasn't the only fighter using a smart strategy to vanquish an opponent that night. Also at Bellator, Saul Rogers mostly dominated longtime contender Georgi Karakhanyan with superior wrestling and an excellent top game. The fight wasn't without its bumps, as Karakhanyan badly hurt Rogers in Round 2 with a flying knee and almost finished him, but the crafty, tough Rogers overcame adversity and took him right back down to the ground. In the process, he gained a necessary victory after his loss to Mads Burnell at featherweight earlier this year, potentially establishing himself as a serious contender in Bellator's lightweight division.

Nor was such intelligence and practicality confined to Bellator. Ion Cutelaba isn't the first fighter that comes to mind for such descriptors: He starts scuffles with opponents during weigh-ins, goes to their corner before a match to slash his throat with a finger menacingly, and then fights like a wild berserker, trying to smash his foe into smithereens. Yet in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 192 he fought very intelligently against Devin Clark. He was downright cautious for the first half of round 1, throwing few strikes and waiting for the right opening, in stark contrast to previous bouts. And when he did seize the opportunity, badly hurting Clark, he didn't waste all his energy going for the finish, as had been his undoing against Jared Cannonier and Glover Teixeira, where he gassed in Round 2 and ended up losing. Cutelaba's new, smart approach might have cost him a finish and possible fight bonus, but it also guaranteed a lopsided win against a tough opponent, one which he desperately needed after two knockout losses and a draw in his last three outings.

Notice, meanwhile, what happened to fighters at “UFC Vegas 37” who were going for the finish and performance bonus. Antonio Arroyo, despite being a considerable underdog to Joaquin Buckley, found himself up two rounds as he entered the final period. He did so by being patient, punishing Buckley with kicks at range, and either evading with his fine movement when Buckley tried to close the distance or else catching his shorter opponent with knees. Buckley had been unable to land a single big punch for the first 10 minutes. And yet, rather than continue fighting intelligently in the final stanza, knowing that it was Buckley who needed a finish, Arroyo elected to go toe-to-toe with him in risky exchanges. This made even less sense considering that Buckley is a powerful puncher and that Arroyo was 0-2 in the UFC, desperately needing a win. And yet, perhaps spurred on by Dana White's love of “killers” and the potential for $50,000, Arroyo tried to be extra exciting. While he had success with this for a while, hurting Buckley badly with a knee, it ultimately spelled doom, as he was knocked out in highlight reel fashion. For the record, I think Buckley's right hook that began the finishing sequence was illegal, wrapping around and striking the back of the head, but at present, it's still a KO loss and likely means the end of Arroyo's tenure in the organization.

Equally tragic was the fate that befell Tony Gravely against Nathan Maness. At the end of Round 1, he temporarily separated Maness from consciousness with a picture-perfect overhand right. Instead of continuing his successful strategy from the first round, mixing powerful close-range strikes, whether hooks or body kicks, with his wrestling, to keep Maness constantly off-balance and taking away his ability to counter, he fell in love with his standup too much, throwing power punches in the pocket for extended periods of time to try and get the knockout. One such exchange proved fatal, as both men simultaneously landed right hands, but Maness' was much harder, dropping Gravely and leading to a knockout for the wrong man. To add insult to injury for both Arroyo and Gravely, it was their opponents, Buckley and Maness, who ended up receiving a bonus check for their efforts.

And again, this wasn't confined to one promotion. In Bellator, Alejandra Lara was an avatar of confidence for her fight against DeAnna Bennett, literally singing and dancing her way to the cage, including spins and splits. It was certainly tempting fate, as the fight gods have repeatedly shown they hate such pageantry, as the sad demise of Apollo Creed proves. Early on, Lara looked great, battering Bennett with an array of strikes. But she became far too aggressive and wild in getting a fancy finish, with an ill-advised kick causing her to be taken down by Bennett, who proceeded to thoroughly batter her for the rest of the round. This took a lot of steam out of Lara and might have injured her, as she couldn't recover in Rounds 2 and 3, which were competitive but won by Bennett. Had Lara not been so eager to be exciting and instead taken her time while limiting Bennett's ability to take her down, she would very likely have won, even if it would have been by decision.

Both Bellator and the UFC this past weekend leave us with a very clear lesson. In modern high-level MMA, where every opponent is skilled and dangerous, going for a thrilling, exciting finish is a frequent path to ruin. Instead, a fighter who wants to win should prioritize being smart and professional over being entertaining.
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