Today we talk about the true tragedy of combat sports. That being the majority of fight fans have virtually no awareness of what actually goes into a match up. Audiences are accustom to one fighter winning and will say that it’s because ‘they are on another level’ or that they are ‘too good’ – and have no understanding of why a fighter is dominant or how that dominant fighter can lose.
Take for example Ronda Rousey’s first loss against Holly Holm. I had rather unpleasant comments sent my way when I expressed the opinion online that Holly Holm was most likely going to beat Ronda Rousey. My reasoning was that Ronda habitually ran straight at her opponents and Holly was particularly good at lateral movement. Despite being completely correct (and we all know I was) fight fans frequently said that Rousey was a ‘bad match up for Holm’ for seemingly no reason other than she had name value and was the more popular fighter, who happened to be champion.
The irony was that Holm was actually a bad match up for Rousey, and anyone who actually had a proper understanding of how styles make fights, should have been able to tell this a mile off. Another great example would be the multiple Conor McGregor losses, he is somehow the favourite to win in every fight he has, despite having very little success as a lightweight. He may have held the title, but he was gifted that shot, and went on to be 3 and 3 at lightweight (and that’s if you don’t consider his rematch with Diaz a loss).
The reason for this fight illiteracy comes from one major source. Fans do not know how to break down fights. It’s not even a matter of being trained, as professional fighters frequently make baffling predictions and statements that make you wonder what their training is really for.
Watching a fight is a skill in of itself, and someone who dedicates time to actually watching how two fighters come together will have much greater success at predicting future bouts. So how do you watch and break down a fight?
Step ONE: Watch the Middle
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of watching the fighter you’re most interested in seeing. Doing this means you only really notice what that one fighter is doing, and unless they are on the receiving end of a one sided beating, you will likely assume they’re getting the better of most exchanges.
Instead you should be watching ‘no man’s land’. The space between two fighters. By studying no man’s land you can see every attack and forward step both fighters make. This helps you better identify who is getting the better of exchanges, and also typically who is the aggressor stepping into that space more often.
Step TWO: Look for Patterns and How they are Broken?
So if you see a fighter stepping in for a 1, 2, repeatedly, you should be ready for them to step in, and then change up that pattern. For example, they might throw a 1, 1, 2, catching the opponent off guard.
When you see how the patterns are broken you can better understand the relationship between the two fighters competing. Once that pattern is broken, you should be paying attention to see if the opponent is able to adjust to the new pattern that is being established in time – or if they continue to be tripped up.
Step THREE: Look for Habits
This is the other side of the coin. You should also be looking for habits that fighters have. This can come in the form of particular patterns they always make use of, or it could be a quirk in their technique.
For example, Conor McGregor, though known for his left hand, always leans too far forward on it. This is a habit that’s so firmly rooted in his muscle memory that even training professional boxing couldn’t get him out of it. That forward lean was exploited by every fighter that beat him, from Nate Diaz and Khabib out jabbing him as he over committed, to Poirier outright countering it with heavy shots.
Another example would be Rumble Johnson, who (save for one eye injury) was exclusively beaten via rear naked choke. Because while he was powerful, he had a tendency to give his back – meaning that every time he was beaten it came from the same habitual mistakes.
Habits aren’t necessarily bad things, but they’re always exploitable things. If you know how a fighter likes to attack, even if they have success with it, you will know how to exploit it. So someone watching at home can make an educated guess on how a fighter will exploit another’s habits, based on their own tendencies.
Step FOUR: Look for Feints
I was once talking about McGregor’s statement that timing beats speed, every time. It’s a statement I agree with – and a friend of mine said that I should watch Amir Khan vs Devon Alexander, to see speed beat timing.
His reasoning was that Devon Alexander had great counters but Amir Khan’s hands were simply too fast for him to counter. I replied that I didn’t even need to see the fight to know that wasn’t true, as while Amir Khan is fast, he’s not The Flash.
I said that Amir Khan was almost certainly feinting and catching his opponent off guard. When I actually watched the fight, this was of course, exactly what he did.
Feints are the part of fighting that casual will over-look the most, which is funny because they are the reason the greatest fighters have so much success. A good place to start looking for feints is to simply watch Israel Adesanya, who feints for entire rounds to set up his attacks.
These are just some beginner steps, but the sooner more people start watching and breaking down fights, the sooner we can have better discussions about the sport we love so much. The quest to end fight illiteracy starts now.