If you watch a fight with an open mind, it is easy to learn something from even the most mediocre card. Whether you are picking up on the good or the bad, each fight is unique and provides unique insights. In this brief roundup of 2013, I have chosen pretty much exclusively good fights that illustrate a number of truths about the fight game.
There will be MMA matches, kickboxing matches and boxing matches, and every single one is worth a watch. Some will make you gasp, while others will make you fume, but all of them made 2013 what it was: a great year for fights.
Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez II
Cutting off the Cage is Still Hard
This theme was prevalent in many of the matches this year, but cutting off the cage is becoming the most noticeably absent wrinkle in many fighters' games. At this point, it seems like whoever starts back-pedalling first can ensure the opponent is chasing him. And chasing is a great way to get nailed while you're stepping forward.
Whereas Chandler had done so well coming forward and upsetting Alvarez in their first fight (as Alvarez likes time and space to work), in this fight he found Alvarez was almost running around the cage. In frustration, Chandler chased but ran into punches time and again.
Check out my video breakdown of this fight and then watch the full bout because it was a beauty.
Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva
When Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva met in the main event at UFC Fight Night 33: Brisbane, people expected an incredible finish. Neither man is a decision fighter—hell, neither man has the gas to be a decision fighter.
At least that is what we thought. The two withstood the best shots they could throw at each other, with "Bigfoot" showing rare kicking prowess for a near 300-lb man and Hunt showing some remarkable wrestling for someone known as a stand-and-bang guy.
In 25 minutes of cross counters, brutal elbows and terrifying ground-and-pound, neither man disappointed or gave in. Heavyweights are signed to finish fights and sell tickets, not give back-and-forth wars to the last minute, but that is what these Silva and Hunt did.
If more heavyweights could carry the kind of intensity into a fourth or fifth round that these two did, the world would be a much better place. Still, this was perhaps the least likely match on paper to be exciting if it went the distance.
So for your new year's resolution, when two heavyweights get past the first round, don't sigh and go for a smoke straight away. Give them a chance...maybe they have the cardio for a good second round.
Badr Hari vs. Zabit Samedov III
Mo' Aggression, Mo' Counters
When Badr Hari squared off for the second time this year with Zabit Samedov, most expected a more violent repeat of the first fight. At the 2013 K-1 Grand Prix in their first meeting, a more-sluggish-than-usual Hari worked over Samedov until he scored a knockdown. Then Hari noticeably slowed and avoided engagement. It turned out that Hari had injured himself while picking apart Samedov and had to drop out of the Grand Prix.
A rematch between the two occurred in May, and it epitomized what overaggression can do.
Hari has been a textbook example of losing control throughout his career. Outside of the ring, he has narrowly avoided imprisonment for assault and attempted manslaughter. Inside the ring, he can work over men like Peter Graham and Samedov but get so excited in looking for the knockout that he'll eat a punch that ends his night early.
Swarming on Samedov from the opening bell, Hari was caught numerous times as he came in with his creative combos and wild flurries. It was lunging onto a big uppercut that called curtains for Hari, and once again the consensus most talented kickboxer in the world dropped a match that he had no business in losing.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Jon Jones had an interesting time in 2012 and 2013. He cleared out the top of the light heavyweight division with wins over Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua. Then he had a couple of terrible gift matches against middleweights in Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen.
Coming back from his obvious tune-up against Sonnen, Jones squared off against Alexander Gustafsson. At 15-1, the Swede had defeated Thiago Silva and Mauricio Rua but never looked anything like the world-beater we all thought necessary to halt the champ's momentum. Even the UFC's marketing department struggled to sell this fight. They settled on Gustafsson's height, which was closer to Jones' than previous challengers.
Against Jones, Gustafsson was a different fighter. The style that had not made great use of his reach against shorter men suddenly worked a treat against Jones. Gustafsson got into punching range and boxed up the champion beautifully.
When Jones picked up the decision win, many claimed that the challenger had been robbed. This fight more than anything proved that just because someone has not shown great things doesn't mean he isn't capable of them.
The next entry was a strikingly similar situation...
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman I
Chris Weidman was just 9-0 and coming off a year layoff. Many said he wasn't ready for Anderson Silva, and even I criticized the decision to give him a title shot so early. Ultimately, he made everyone think twice when he took down the middleweight great in the first round, pounded his skull a little and threatened with a heel hook.
In the second round, Silva was visibly frustrated. Breaking into the usual antics he uses to win rounds and force opponents to open up, he attempted to play off the punches that Weidman was effectively sneaking in without exposing himself. Leaning back at the waist in reaction to a strange double right hand, Silva had nowhere to go as a left hook sailed into his jaw and sent him crashing to the floor.
The lesson here was that when playing a reactionary game, you will always be at the mercy of the man who feints intelligently. The more that a fighter relies on reactions, the worse trouble he will have when his man starts feinting and doubling hands in mid combination.
Andy Ristie vs. Giorgio Petrosyan
Switching Stances Is a Killer
Giorgio Petrosyan is touted by many, including myself, as the finest striker on the planet. He is a defensive genius who systematically shuts down his opponent's offence and works his own minimalist, conservative offence.
Now the key word there is systematically. He likes to get a feel for how his opponents work: their reach and the angles they're striking along. When Andy Ristie starched Petrosyan at Glory 12, his whirlwind of offence confused the great Armenian.
Defensive fighters hate switch hitters. Rather than reacting to a set number of common techniques, they are forced to react to double that number and be conscious of stance changes. A left jab and a southpaw left straight are different punches to deal with, and that is true of the angle of any technique once a fighter switches stance.
In the final sequence of the Petrosyan vs. Ristie bout, Ristie switched stance twice in just a few moments, finally landing a left straight/uppercut hybrid from underneath Petrosyan's guard with what was his jabbing hand just a second earlier.
Unpredictability can never be underestimated.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Saul "Canelo" Alvarez
Boxing Ain't Changing
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez was an impressive prospect. He hits hard with both hands, he can box, he can fight, and he can throw the kind of confusing and stinging combinations that put Julio Cesar Chavez at the top of the heap for so many years.
But prospect development in boxing has always been a dirty, exploitative business. His management spoon-fed him the usual assembly of old men and boxers who were far past their best. Matthew Hatton, Shane Mosley, Carlos Baldomir and Ryan Rhodes were not especially dangerous names when they met Canelo.
Yet proving further that boxing has not changed in years, he drew an incredible crowd in his fight against Floyd Mayweather. Being Mexican, undefeated and a hard hitter, he ticked all the boxes. Of course, it was an easy fight for "Money," but the size of the event and the incredible crowd that turned out even for the weigh-in illustrated wonderfully that boxing fans will still fall for the same tricks they always have.
A foreign (ideally South American) challenger, an American champion, undefeated (if padded) records. Tex Rickard doodled the same stuff on his flim-flam notepad in the 1920s when sizing up opponents for Jack Dempsey. Canelo is a better boxer than Luis Angel Firpo, but they got their big fights for almost identical reasons.
Peter Aerts vs. Rico Verhoeven
Old Doesn't Always Mean Done
Peter Aerts is a legend in the combat sports world. I regret not writing an in-depth piece on him before his semi-retirement match against Glory heavyweight champion Rico Verhoeven. It seems like every time the 43-year-old Dutchman gets into the ring, I find myself worrying that he is going to get starched in the first round, yet he very rarely does.
I was in the front row at Ariake Coliseum when Aerts took on Jamal Ben Saddik at Glory 8 in Tokyo earlier this year, and I almost hid behind my hands at the pasting he looked to be taking. Yet somehow that Aerts magic got him through. He dropped the right hand that has shaken so many chins, followed up with a beautiful left knee and put Saddik down often enough to pick up a TKO.
He is a shadow of his former self, so don't confuse my meaning. But he is still twice the fighter that many kickboxers will ever be. Against the young, dangerous Verhoeven, Aerts had his legs chopped out and his granite chin punched, but he got in his opponent's face and made a fight of it.
Some even thought Aerts had done enough to win, although they thought this more out of love for the old lumberjack than from an objective standpoint.
Diego Sanchez vs. Takanori Gomi
Judges Are Awful
Judges have always been into intensity and theatre over effectiveness. Sitting in the press section has ruined how I imagined MMA judges to be. I had always pictured them as slow-witted and easily distracted by someone's watch glinting on the other side of the arena. But having sat behind them, I can attest that their eyes never leave the monitors that the UFC have provided them in hopes of avoiding some of the horrible robberies that are commonplace in this sport.
This makes it somewhat worse when looking back at fights like Diego Sanchez vs. Takanori Gomi. Gomi has been washed up for some time, relying on his power and chin—neither of which has been getting the job done. He is certainly not the man who cleared out the entire lightweight top 10 in 2005 and 2006.
Yet against a Sanchez—who looked like he didn't want to be there—Gomi channeled "The Fireball Kid" of old and lit Sanchez up with jabs, hooks and low kicks between his trademark stance switches.
With enough grimacing, swinging wild and theatrical pouting, however, Sanchez somehow came away with another in his list of undeserved decisions. As a result, we were all left wondering what exactly the criteria to become a judge are.
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman II
Checking Kicks Is Not a Waste of Time
This just happened on Saturday, so I don't want to milk it too much. I've already written an article about checking kicks and how these injuries just happen if you kick, with power and without setup, into an opponent's knee.
Basically, Silva's only effective offence in the first fight was his low kicking, again without setup but with decent power. In the rematch, Weidman showed his improvement in that area and denied Silva his biting point-scorers.
Not only that, but Weidman drew kicks just to check them. By kicking Silva first, he immediately received a kick in return. Though Silva has been the master of baiting and psychology through his UFC run, he was vulnerable to the same sort of simple drawing that he has used so effectively on others.
A few good coaches hold the view that checking kicks is unnecessary if you learn to take them. This normally stems from a counterpunching school of thought. Men like Bas Rutten liked to take low kicks because after the kick connected they would still be in good position to follow with counterpunches.
I wouldn't want to say any of these guys are wrong, as Rutten's method worked well for him and his fighters. But talk of fluke injury aside, checking a kick is intended not just to stop a fighter from eating a kick but to deter the kicker from kicking again. The result of this fight was unusual in its severity, but ultimately the check served its purpose.
The more you put into an effectively checked kick, the more you can hurt yourself.
Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland
Spinning Sh*t Still Works
The first few minutes of this fight saw Eddie Wineland outboxing Renan Barao at points and generally doing much better than anticipated. Wineland has a graceful in-and-out style and is lovely to watch. After a round of looking underwhelming, Barao attempted a spinning back kick, because why not?
Wineland reacted to the kick by ducking, which in fact took his head right into the line of the kick that was intended for his body. It was an unusual result but indicative of how spinning techniques are hard to differentiate and can often draw less practised reactions and flinches from opponents.
If you're losing a fight and you've practised it a little, it's always worth trying some of what Nick Diaz called "spinning sh*t."
George St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks & Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler
Georges St-Pierre's path has been one toward ultimate simplicity. His striking game had tapered off to an amazing jab in recent fights, but against a good southpaw, that just won't cut it. In an orthodox vs. southpaw (open guard) engagement, "crossed swords" result, in that the lead hands get in the way of each other.
As Johny Hendricks was able to check St-Pierre's lead hand with his own, he was able to throw his rear hand freely. St-Pierre doesn't seem to have any sort of rear hand to deter his opponent from walking in on him anymore. Essentially, they were in a gunfight, but only Hendricks could use his gun.
An almost identical scenario unfolded just an hour or so earlier in the evening as Rory MacDonald was stifled at every turn by the wily power puncher, Robbie Lawler. If anything, but having power in both hands and kicks to boot, Lawler was even more impressive than Hendricks.
While so much can be learned about the proper use of the jab—boxing's greatest weapon—from St- Pierre, on some occasions, even the best jab is not a good tool to use.
2013 was a hell of a year for MMA. Wherever you spend your New Year's Eve, have a good one. With a UFC card coming up this weekend, MMA's 2014 is set to be even more jam-packed than 2013.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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