To most of us that have been entrenched in MMA for a number of years the sport no longer feels new or niche and there’s a good argument to say that MMA could now be considered a completely mainstream sport. However you’ll get few people arguing the fact that MMA is still evolving. So what exactly is the evolution in MMA right now and what is the latest changing of the guard going to look like?
If we cast our minds back just a few short years we will see that until relatively recently it was still very possible to dominate the sport with either just one really strong skill or with quite a few big holes in your game. Think Cro Cops ability to terrorise the heavyweight division in Pride with his striking game (which in itself was limited), think Chuck Liddell with his fantastic counter strikes and take down defence, think Matt Hughes with his strength and wrestling. Most people put the lack of success in the later stages of these careers down to factors other than technical ones. When you see Cro Cop getting taken apart by Junior Dos Santos in a standing battle the natural reaction is to say ‘Cro Cop isn’t what he used to be’ blaming age, ring rust or a lack of desire for his loss. While there certainly may be some truth in this it’s far from the whole picture, there is a big possibility that a large part of the reason for the demise of previously formidable foes is that they just haven’t kept up with the pace of change in the game while the new breed have been honing their skills in an environment which has evolved significantly.
So maybe we can all agree that the age of the one dominant skill fighters is pretty much over, (I say pretty much because guys like Lesnar and Aoki had still been seen as very dominant forces until late into 2010) so what about the recent losses of guys like BJ Penn and Kenny Florian? They are far from one dimensional fighters, so how come it’s not working out for those guys? I think this is because we are starting to see the difference between guys that are great all rounders and guys that have no weaknesses. These sound like one and the same but they are quite different, BJ Penn is great in multiple facets of the game and may be considered an all rounder but he does have weaknesses in his game. His conditioning has always be subject to question but also his ability to control and dominate the clinch and change pace and ranges frequently are also sometimes lacking. his nemesis ended up being someone who seems like an absolutely stereo typical all rounder, Frankie Edgar, but actually is a guy who has very few weaknesses (except maybe his lack of power).
Georges St.Pierre is the absolute epitome of someone who has no weaknesses and that includes his ability to put a game plan together and execute the right tactics. I have huge admiration for someone who can use an incredible work ethic and a large dose of intelligence to dismantle his opponent’s. So are guys like George St.Pierre and Frankie Edgar the final step in the evolution of MMA? I don’t believe so, far from it in fact. I believe that the next evolutionary step is already very much upon us with guys like Jon Jones leading the way. OK it’s a little too early to say that Jon Jones has no weaknesses but I suspect that with time this will be the case. What Jon Jones does have is what someone like Simon Cowell would call ‘the X factor’. Jon Jones is someone who understands the importance of doing something different, right now Jon Jones is innovating, almost every fight we see him do something that feels unique. Mostly this won’t involve new techniques it will just involve putting existing techniques together in unique ways like a single leg pick up into a spinning back elbow. The success of this innovative thinking and application doesn’t rely on these techniques or combinations being better than any that have come before, the fact that they are unique is in itself a huge part of the success. If you are training at the right level and are committed to excelling in MMA then you will have practised all the core MMA techniques thousands of times already, not only will you practised doing them but you will have practised defending against them. The more conscious we are of the probability of a technique the more we learn to defend against it and are watching for it. So when something new or something different comes along its ability to catch us out is vast, if you’ve never seen it before then of course you’ve never practised defending it either. It may be that it’s actually a relatively simple technique to defend and that after having it done to you a couple of times you’ve already worked out how to stop it but of course that doesn’t help you if you’re seeing it for the first time in the middle of a fight.
what this innovation also brings that is even more important than the success of the techniques or combinations themselves is a huge psychological advantage. If you are standing across the cage from someone who is unpredictable, innovative and not afraid to take chances then you’ll most likely be feeling an extra level of anxiety that you won’t feel when you are facing someone who may be a fantastic all rounder but where you at least know what to expect. Think about it – who would you rather be standing across the cage from? GSP or Jon ‘Bones’ Jones? For me I’d rather it was GSP as I’m fairly sure he won’t be throwing any suplex/flying knee combinations my way during the fight and that’s why Jon Jones is holding an ace right now.
Of course innovation is not a new phenomena, it’s been going on for a long time and it’s got us where we are right now. The current UFC middleweight champion has a achieved his success largely down to his innovative and unpredictable nature but you can have to go much further back if you want to see who really pioneered innovation and entertainment in MMA. Cast your mind way back to the previous century and you’ll see one Kazushi Sakuraba cartwheeling and Mongolian chopping his way into MMA legendary status. It’s not being innovative by itself that’s the next evolutionary step, it’s having a fantastic all round base with no weaknesses AND being innovative that will be the calling card of the new evolution of MMA fighters.