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Mixed martial arts is a uniquely unforgiving sport. A professional baseball player can play over 1,500 games in a career, a basketball player over 800 and an American football player at least 100. Even in individual sports, a professional tennis player will play more than 600 matches and a golfer compete in at least 300 tournaments. By stark contrast, a long MMA career may consist of just 30 fights. Thus, the importance of every single one is greatly magnified. A baseball or basketball player can have a 20-game slump without irreparably ruining their season, much less their career. A tennis player can look horrible in 10 straight matches and it's hardly remarkable, but a mixed martial artist can lose a single fight and it will affect their career and legacy, and take years to come back from.
Even that doesn't fully capture the gravity of the situation. A basketball player can miss half his shots and still have a great game. A baseball player can look lost being struck out twice in a contest, hit a double in his third at-bat, and that's a fine performance. But one moment of inattention, a single mistake, can spell instant doom in mixed martial arts. Even boxing, which comes closest to being as high-stakes, doesn't feature nearly as many sudden, abrupt reversals in fortune.
Thus, if a martial artist is to be successful, he or she has to treat their career with the utmost care. They can't afford periods of laziness or listlessness that other athletes can. Every aspect of their preparation and decision-making has to be precise and treated with the highest professionalism.
Of course, that doesn't always happen. We received a startling reminder of this recently, as one Ultimate Fighting Championship headliner in each of the past two weeks and one Bellator MMA co-main eventer proved.
Let's start with Aspen Ladd. During the first half of 2019, she was seen as a tremendous prospect, a serious future challenger to Amanda Nunes' throne. Only 24 years old at the time, she was one of the very best grapplers at 135 pounds and had a uniquely vicious and brutal top game, complete with blistering ground-and-pound that is arguably the best in WMMA history. So high was her reputation that she was a solid favorite against Germaine de Randamie, one of the greatest female strikers ever in any combat sport, who had beaten Holly Holm for the women's 145-pound crown and hadn't lost in six years. While Ladd was knocked out quickly, she came back later in 2019 with a fine left-hook knockout of Yana Kunitskaya, herself one of the best grapplers in the division, displaying vastly improved striking.
After that, Ladd suffered a string of injuries and fight cancellations. She was scheduled to battle Macy Chiasson at 135 pounds on Oct. 2, but after missing weight and looking dreadful in the process, the fight was canceled.
If Ladd had treated her career carefully, she might have taken that as an opportunity to seriously consider her future. Should she work to become a featherweight or should she try to slim down her overall frame to make bantamweight comfortably? Instead, she decided to take a fight on about 10 days' notice to face Norma Dumont at 145 pounds on Oct. 16.
It was a horrible decision on multiple levels. Firstly, Ladd had endured a traumatic, depleting weight cut just two weeks before she had to cut weight for Dumont. There is just no way the human body can recover that quickly from the first weight cut, go through a second one, and perform anywhere close to optimally. I previously wrote that this was an awful, irresponsible decision by the UFC, but much of the blame also has to go to Ladd and her team for accepting the fight proposal. Ladd was already at a massive physical disadvantage to Dumont, just from the previous weight cut and quick turnaround.
Furthermore, Dumont is a completely different opponent than Chiasson. Chiasson is a striker who had been taken down repeatedly by Lansberg, an opponent Ladd herself dominated with grappling. Furthermore, Chiasson has a relative weakness on the bottom, often unable to get up and absorbing ground-and-pound, which feeds perfectly into Ladd's strengths.
By contrast, Dumont is herself a physically strong grappler like Ladd, with developing striking of her own. Stylistically, it was an entirely different matchup than what Ladd had prepared for, and a far more difficult one, as it largely neutralized Ladd's game. And needless to say, there was no way to adequately prepare for it in about 10 days.
Lastly, the fight simply offered no tangible reward. Dumont was possibly the smallest name headlining a UFC card in the past 15 years. If Ladd had won, no one would have been especially impressed. Even with the severe doubts about her injury layoff, short-notice appearance, competing at 145 pounds, and second drastic weight cut in two weeks, Ladd was still the favorite against Dumont. However, a loss would hurt Ladd very badly. Not only would it knock her down considerably among potential contenders for Nunes, but it put her in limbo if she should decide to stay at 145 pounds. There are few opponents at that weight in the UFC, and she would be below Dumont, who was herself dispatched in a round by Megan Anderson.
That is indeed what happened, and the culprit was Ladd's careless handling of her career at least as much as her performance inside the cage.
Carelessness of a different kind was displayed a week later by Paulo Costa in the main event of UFC Fight Night 196. Costa was unable to even come close to the originally contracted weight of 185 pounds against Marvin Vettori. Not only was that a lack of professionalism, but it shows that he likely hadn't been seriously training and monitoring his weight well before the fight. Against a foe as excellent as the Italian, that spelled disaster. And not even a large, unfair size advantage at 205 pounds nor a spirited performance by Costa could make up for that. He paid the price for his negligence with defeat.
While it was a very entertaining scrap, it also leaves Costa with an uncertain future. Having lost to Vettori, he is far from attaining a second crack at middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya. And while many had wondered about his possible success at 205 pounds, losing at that weight to an opponent who could have easily made 185 puts a significant damper on his prospects there. He is now multiple good wins away from even thinking of title contention.
Lastly, we turn to Vitaly Minakov, who appeared in the co-main event at Bellator 269 in Moscow. As my esteemed colleague Ben Duffy noted, this was a man who may well have been a Top 5 heavyweight for many years in the 2010's. Back in 2013, Minakov knocked out Alexander Volkov in under three minutes to claim the Bellator heavyweight championship. The undefeated Russian champion was only 28 years old at the time and improving with every appearance. With a rare combination of grappling and striking prowess, and a thunderous right cross, many wondered if Minakov would one day be recognized as the best heavyweight on the planet. Minakov further proved his victory was no fluke by soundly defeating Cheick Kongo over 5 rounds in his first title defense, which was a very significant achievement back in 2014.
Yet, rather than recognizing that these were now the prime years of his career, Minakov wasted them. Instead of continuing to fight in Bellator or jumping ship to the UFC, the two seemingly obvious choices, Minakov chose to have fights in the Russian promotion Fight Nights Global against hopelessly overmatched competition. While it was fun watching him crush Antonio Silva, Josh Copeland, Peter Graham and Tony Johnson Jr., no one was confusing them for high-level opposition. Not only was Minakov growing older, but in the absence of real challenges, he stopped evolving and improving as a martial artist. Even worse, injuries began wearing him down and he had trouble maintaining his shape and cardio. Rematching an older Kongo in 2019, Minakov suffered a shocking defeat, the first of his career. While he came back strong later that year, decimating Timothy Johnson in under two minutes, Minakov wouldn't fight again for two years — until this past weekend. Now 36 years old and barely making the 265 pound limit, in contrast to the lean, muscular 245 pounds he weighed in his prime, Minakov no longer looked like one of the best heavyweights in the world. While I had him winning the first two rounds and edging the third against a solid prospect in Said Sowma prior to a finger injury, Minakov looked slow and lethargic compared to his prime, with diminished cardio, and hadn't evolved his skills at all. He never got the marquee match-ups and recognition he deserved, and he has largely himself to blame.
Ladd, Costa and Minakov are all fine talents and possess the ability to have career resurgences, to varying degrees, but by being careless, they have seriously hurt their careers and put themselves into difficult situations, all of which could have been avoided.